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August 22, 2014

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Awed by town’s political wilds

Neither bear encounters nor a long career in public service prepared him for Boulder City election

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Sam Morris

John Schleppegrell, 83, is dismayed that, despite his lengthy resume, he was able to fetch only 168 votes two weeks ago in Boulder City’s primary for City Council.

John Schleppegrell figured he could hold his own against just about anything. After all, on three occasions in Alaska he had confronted bears that could have ripped him to shreds.

But — hah! — he had never encountered Boulder City politics.

The 83-year-old Schleppegrell moved to Boulder City with civic spirit in his heart and years of public service under his belt, both in his native Minnesota and then in Alaska, before and after it won statehood.

Now retired and with plenty of time on his hands, he decided to run for City Council. There were nine candidates for two seats. He was serving on the city’s Planning Commission.

Among 10,034 registered voters, Schleppegrell got only 168 votes, counting his own, in the primary election two weeks ago.

“Unbelievable,” he says. As in, bad.

His resume seemed as good as anyone’s.

He grew up in Minnesota, and spent many a winter day dangling 8-pound-test fishing line through the ice to catch bass and northern pike.

In World War II, he was an Army engineer building bridges when his unit, in France, was ordered aboard a troop ship destined for Manila for the invasion of Japan. (Before his ship reached the Panama Canal, the Japanese surrendered and the ship was redirected to New York City.)

After the war, he moved to Alaska, took a job in construction, delivered pastries for a couple of bakeries and started a grocery business near Fairbanks. He was elected to the equivalent of a county commission chairmanship, helped oversee school construction, promoted rural development in Eskimo communities, landed federal funds and, all the while, drummed up support for the Republican Party. At one point he returned to Minnesota and became a city manager, and in time he ended up as a developer in Hawaii.

Twenty years ago he landed in Las Vegas, discovered Texas hold ’em and still had time for service to fellow man.

Serving on the City Council seemed the altruistic thing to do. “I campaigned pretty hard and met all the movers and shakers in town,” he says. “I talked about my government experience. I had more than the others, combined.”

But Boulder City politics are intense. There’s one point of view, and the opposite point of view, and there’s just no point in trying to position yourself in the middle. That’s what Schleppegrell tried to do. He sold himself as an independent, a peacemaker. Voters had no use for peacemakers and compromises. They want all or nothing.

The experience prompts him, postelection, to talk about the bears: The Kodiak brownie that followed him along a shoreline when he was in hip waders, fishing in a lake. (The pilot of the float plane shot over the bear’s head, scaring it off.) The one that greeted him when he grounded his canoe into a river bank, close to her sleeping cubs. (This time, he used his own rifle to shoot over the bear’s head, scaring her off long enough for him to paddle away.) And the time a bear met him alongside a creek.

“His lip curled and he started snarling at me,” Schleppegrell says. “I didn’t know what to do, so I snarled back.” The bear ran off.

“I just stood there, and the more I thought of what just happened, the more scared I got. But you know, politics is scarier.”

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