Wayne Johnson

In a rematch of 2018, Jeff Gontarek and incumbent Wayne Johnson squared off for the second time in Otter Tail County District 2. 

Johnson narrowly returned to his seat, serving West Otter Tail County and the Pelican Rapids lakes area for a third term.

The margin of victory was barely 1 percent, as Johnson tallied 2,612 votes to Gontarek’s 2,546.

With an aggressive social media, advertising and outdoor signage campaign, Gontarek closed the gap in his second run against Johnson

Both candidates were on pins and needles as two northern precincts were the last to be tallied: the City of Vergas and Dora Township. 

The two precincts were the last to come in, with Dora Township swinging to Gontarek by 216-174.  But Vergas city for Johnson, at 87-51. 

The narrow margin leaves the possibility of a recount in the air.  According to Wayne Stein, Otter Tail County auditor, a publicly funded recount would require a vote margin of one-quarter of one percent. In the case of the Johnson-Gontarek vote spread, the difference is more than 1 percent. 

Jeff Gontarek

Gontarek could request a recount, but it would be at his cost—and auditor Johnson could not speculate that cost at this time.  Gontarek had no comment on a recount; however, he said that there are supporters of his campaign who are willing to cover the cost of a recount.  

“Clearly a statement was made,” said Gontarek of the tight vote margin. “We’re very closely divided.  I would have rather won, or lost, by several hundred votes. I knew I had a good chance to win…67 votes would have changed history.”  

 Johnson campaigned on his record. In office for 12 years, Johnson has had a role in some of the most transformational changes and advances in Otter Tail County government. 

But, with those changes came discontent in some count constituencies—evident by the narrow victory, suggesting that many voters wanted a change.  

“I am humbled and honored to be re-elected Otter Tail County Commissioner for District 2,” said Johnson in a prepared statement. “I will continue to work hard for the people of District 2 and all of Otter Tail County. My door is always open, and my phone is always on.  Thank you to Mr. Gontarek for running a very competitive campaign, it is awesome to have people interested in serving this great county!”

Johnson acknowledged that the close vote was indicative of local politics.  “The life expectancy of a county commissioner is limited,” said Johnson.  Over time, there will be a certain number of voters who remember what a commissioner did to anger them—but forget the positive aspects, said Johnson.  And ultimately, that translates to votes at the ballot box.  

Every vote counted, and in the case of the Gontarek-Johnson campaign—the incumbent held enough, swayed a few, and the result was a 66-vote margin of victory—out of 5,158 votes cast. 

G0ntarek contended that another four years was too long for any one candidate.  He questioned the county board’s ambitious housing initiatives and called for a more open county government.

It’s difficult to analyze the county board votes at a “neighborhood” level.  Johnson took Dunn Township by a 306-179 margin. Johnson is a native of that area.  However, at the precinct right next door, Johnson lost in Scambler township, 137-128.

Meanwhile, Gontarek won in Elizabeth, Lida Township, and Star Lake. 

Trondhjem Township, southwest of Pelican Rapids,  it was a dead heat—tied 43-43.

At the Pelican Rapids city precinct, Johnson won narrowly, by a 276-255 margin. 

In Pelican Township, which neighbors Pelican city, Johnson took the precinct by a single vote: 155-154. 

 Norwegian Grove voters swung to Gontarek, 81-69; as did Maplewood Township, 74-51.