Getting to Know the Mayor (Better): An Interview with Mayor Mary Rossing

Mary Rossing weighs in on her first few days as mayor, life in Northfield, and the secret of her energy

by Amy Sack, Northfield.org intern

When I asked Mary Rossing what her first few days as mayor have been like, she said with a laugh: “I’ve just been talking to a lot of people and answering that same question: what does it feel like to be the mayor?” Rossing, who was sworn in at the city council meeting Monday night, is a hot item this week in Northfield, so I was fortunate to get the chance to interview her. Although I was off to a poor start, I wanted to ask Mary some questions she hadn’t already heard five times. The following is my attempt to help Northfield learn more about Mary and her role as mayor.

The first few days

“It feels very comfortable…but my days are very busy,” Rossing said about her first week as Northfield’s mayor. “What I’ve been trying to do is make myself very available to the media.” By the time I met with Rossing Thursday morning at the Hideaway Café downtown, she had already completed three interviews: one with Representative Journalist Bonnie Obremski Tuesday morning, another with KYMN radio Tuesday morning, and one with Locally Grown on their Wednesday evening radio show.

Other than a jump in media attention, however, little has changed for Rossing, who has been preparing for her term since the November 4 election. “Nothing changed except it’s real,” Rossing said about the past few days as the sworn-in mayor. Rossing guesses her job as mayor requires 15 to 20 hours a week, time she has already spent meeting with constituents, researching city issues, and attending meetings. 

Rossing thought her first council meeting as mayor Monday night went well but, she admitted, “you always have a little voice in the back of your head saying I could have handled that better, [I] should have said that.” Overall, however, Rossing thought the council meeting  (which included two public hearings) was “positive” and the mood was “light” on Monday evening.

Responsibilities as mayor

At the risk of sounding naïve, I asked Rossing what the most important job responsibilities are for a mayor. Providing leadership for the city council, which includes not only leading council meetings but also helping council members find their roles and supporting them, is most critical. Rossing also stressed the importance of helping the council establish and attain clear goals and objectives.

Next, Rossing must ensure that the city staff receives clear direction with how to move forward on polices set by the council. “I’m the in-between person between the policy making level of the council and the staff,” Rossing said. As mayor, she works closely with the city administrator to ensure that goals are met. When I asked how the mayor’s job differs from the city administrator’s job, Rossing replied, “he’s a hired professional and I’m an elected official,” referring to Interim City Administrator Joel Walinski.

Northfield’s first female mayor

“Women have always been hugely involved in Northfield in all aspects of leadership,” Rossing told me when I asked her why she thought it took so long to for a woman to be elected as mayor in Northfield. “I don’t think it has anything to do with prejudice,” she said, adding that there have already been many other leadership positions in Northfield filled by women. She attributes the lack of a female mayor until now to chance. “[It’s about] someone at the right time in their lives being ready to take on that leadership position and being willing to devote that much time to leadership in Northfield,” she said.

For Rossing, this year happened to be the right time. “Many people say, ‘I’ve never thought of you as a woman candidate,” Rossing said. “And I appreciate that because it wasn’t part of my platform. It wasn’t why I was running, it was just that I had held many leadership positions in this town and then I thought this [running for mayor] was the next step for me…[I could] pull all the things I’d been working on together and bring some larger initiatives forward.”

Influential jobs

The various jobs and leadership positions Rossing has held in Northfield make her well prepared to take on her role as mayor. Both her work as a teacher at the Northfield Day Care, where she worked from 1984-97, and later her work as the as the owner of her own business, Present Perfect, were formative experiences for Rossing. She attributes much of her communication skills to these two jobs. “I know that I have very good people management skills and I am able to read people very well, [I am able] to figure out what their needs are and help them achieve their goals,” she said.

Rossing specifically attributed her ability to look at all sides of an issue to her work at the daycare. “[I learned] the ability to be objective and not be engaged in the base emotions of the moment…even in conflict situations,” Rossing said. She also learned the importance of creative play. “It has to do with creative thinking and problem solving, helping people step back,” she explained.

College years

Along with her roles working at the daycare and as a business owner, Rossing said her experiences at St. Olaf College taught her important skills. Rossing graduated from St. Olaf in 1984 as a double major in art and religion and a member of the prestigious St. Olaf College choir. She described her experience in the choir as “a lifestyle,” because of the huge time commitment and workload it required. Rossing said some of her fondest memories at St. Olaf were touring with the choir. Learning how to present herself in front of an audience was an important skill she gained from her experience, one comes in handy today in her role as a public servant. “I got a much more global idea of what it means to be an ambassador…[there is] a real responsibility about who you are and how you present yourself,” she said.

Majoring in art was also formative in Rossing's life. Among other things, the art major taught her the ability to “view the world a little differently” and gave her the opportunity to delve into projects.

Northfield: “An amazing community”

“I love traveling, but every time I come back I feel so pleased to be back in Northfield,” Rossing said when I asked her what has kept her in the town for so long. Rossing was born in Northfield but moved with her family to DeKalb, Illinois, in 1971, where she attended school from 4th grade through high school. She moved back to Northfield to attend St. Olaf and has been here since.

Rossing has high praise for the Northfield community. “The depth of talent here is overwhelming,” Rossing said. “It’s a very social community, a very active community, dedicated to doing good, engaged… I don’t know that you’re going to find a community quite like this anywhere.”

Rossing especially values the social aspect of living in Northfield. “Particularly being single in this town, I can go out almost any evening and run into someone and have a great time,” she said. “It’s in a way more like being in college. You can just run into people.” Appropriately, an acquaintance of Rossing stopped by to say hello a couple minutes later during our chat.

The secret to Mary’s energy

I asked Rossing if there was anything about her that might surprise readers. After her mayoral campaign and many interviews, however, she was doubtful. I moved on to my next question, hoping to figure out where her favorite place for coffee was—after all, we met at the Hideaway Café—and she told me one thing that most people might not know about her: she gave up coffee seven years ago. Not only that, but she attributes the energy she has today to giving up coffee.

“It absolutely changed my life because I don’t have the highs and lows in energy that I used to have,” she said. I told her that was hard to fathom as a college student often relying on caffeine for energy (or just to stay awake), but she insisted it worked. “3:00 in the afternoon roles around and I have the same energy I had at 8:00 or 10:00 in the morning. I can get up in the morning and start doing whatever,” she said, adding that it gave her more hours in a day.

Rossing advised me to carry ibuprofen on hand the first couple of weeks should I try quitting, adding that the best way to give up coffee was on a vacation, when it’s often hard to find a good cup of coffee anyways. Rossing herself succeeded in breaking her coffee habit on one of her annual winter trips to Mexico.

Looking ahead

Rossing seems to try to strive for new and innovative ideas in her role as mayor. The morning of our interview while she went swimming, she told me, she speculated about the possibility of creating programs to encourage citizens to be active. “Something like Mayor’s Appreciation of Physical Fitness award,” she mused. Rossing wants to recognize organizations and people working to make Northfield a healthier community, but she’s not exactly sure how to achieve this. “[Maybe] a mayor’s initiative of healthy eating and weight loss...you wonder—is that appropriate?”

As mayor, Rossing wants citizen input at all levels of city planning. “I was thinking in the last couple days of some kind of program that gives citizens opportunities to weigh in with ideas, from macro and micro, for how the city can save money,” she said. “Maybe there’s a sidewalk the city always plows that nobody uses…could we stop doing that? Little things like that…I’d love to hear some ideas if people see  some cost cutting measures.” As for how to gain more citizen input, Rossing isn’t sure. “Maybe a contest with a prize?” she wondered.

Rossing’s new ideas for ways to save money will be necessary in the upcoming year as Northfield faces a large budget cut in local government assistance from the state. The cut will force Rossing and the rest of the city council and staff to make difficult decisions in the upcoming months as they try to balance a smaller budget. “[We are going to face] hard decisions between what we can afford and what we need, balancing the needs and wants and how to pay for those things, [and] how much of an increased tax levy citizens can afford,” Rossing said.

Issues that Rossing and the council will face in the upcoming weeks include how to proceed with the Safety Center, what to do about the liquor store (deciding whether to remodel or find a new facility), and determining what the schedule will be for deciding on a city administrator. (Currently, the city has contracted Joel Walinski as Interim City Administrator, but the length of his term is undecided. Basically, Rossing and the council need to determine whether to extend his contract or start a new search.)

When I asked Rossing what she was most excited about in her new role as Northfield’s mayor, she said without hesitation, “Being an agent of positive change.” Despite facing budget shortfalls, Rossing’s energy, innovative ideas, and commitment to the Northfield community make her give her potential to achieve her goals.

Learn more about Mayor Mary Rossing and follow her thoughts on her website at: http://www.maryrossing.com/

This is the first in a series of stories developed and written by Amy Sack, Northfield.org's January intern.  For more about Amy and her internship, see this story previously published on Northfield.org.

 


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Great interview!

Thanks for this excellent profile of the new mayor, Amy! I've known Mary for many years, but I learned new things about her in this interview. Your internship is off to a great start!

Kudos!

Amy, As you know, Mary has had a lot of press lately, but your article filled in all the gaps. I really look forward to your upcoming stories . . . 

 

Well done

Nice interview, Amy. And great photo!

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