On the Anzelc-Layman race in MN-5B

Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is the heart of House District 5B, which includes several communities along the early stages of the Mississippi River. PHOTO: J. Stephen Conn, Flickr CC

Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is the heart of House District 5B, which includes communities along early stages of the Mississippi River. PHOTO: J. Stephen Conn, Flickr CC

This week Republican Sandy Layman of Grand Rapids announced her candidacy for Minnesota House District 5B in Itasca and Cass counties. She will challenge incumbent State Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township), who last week announced his plans to seek a sixth term.

Sandy Layman

Sandy Layman

Layman is the former commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board under former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. (She had changed the name to “Iron Range Resources” before her successor Tony Sertich renamed it the IRRRB). She’s also an economic development consultant in the Grand Rapids area involved in a number of community activities.

Those are some basic facts about this burgeoning race. Here’s where it gets harder for me. Tom Anzelc is one of my best friends. We both live in Balsam Township. I’ve helped him both formally and informally with his campaigns and district work ever since he was elected to the old 3A district in 2006.

So everything I say about this race should be understood in that context. Nevertheless, I am going to offer some thoughts because, regardless, this will be one of the more interesting legislative races in Northern Minnesota.

First, here is my best attempt at objective analysis.

District 5B was created in the 2012 redistricting. At the time it drew together two incumbents — Anzelc and former State Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick (R-Deer River). Anzelc won that race with 53 percent to McElfatrick’s 46 percent (approx.). In 2014, Anzelc defeated Justin Eichorn 56 percent to 43 percent (approx.) in what was otherwise a Republican-leaning year. For perspective, in 2014 Republican Stewart Mills carried District 5B with 49 percent to U.S. Rep Rick Nolan’s 47 percent in the MN-08 Congressional race.

As such, this district would be classified a DFL-leaning swing district. It has a slight DFL index but has seen Republican representation within the last five years and sometimes votes GOP on statewide races.

Anzelc is the current chair of the IRRRB (the “advise and consent” board comprised of legislators from the Taconite Tax Relief Area). He took over that job for the late Rep. David Dill and will hold it until the end of his current term. That’s not to be confused with Layman’s former title as commissioner, which is a gubernatorial appointment that oversees the agency staff and budget. Anzelc is also the chair of the Iron Range delegation, a largely ceremonial role that involves organizing delegation meetings.

That would make this sound like an Iron Range race, but only a portion of the district is located on the Iron Range. Taconite, Bovey and Coleraine are the most obvious Range towns. Grand Rapids is the largest city and heart of the district, but not everyone in Grand Rapids considers themselves Rangers due to an ancient inexplicable cultural blood feud that predates the mortal existence of all living souls.

Layman arguably becomes the highest profile Republican to ever run in this area. McElfatrick was an incumbent but had only served one term after her shock upset of former Rep. Loren Solberg (DFL-Grand Rapids) in 2010. Layman had eight years at the IRRRB, and is a fixture at Grand Rapids chamber and area business functions. She’ll have the ability to raise money and will carry more name recognition than a typical challenger.

So now I’ll go a level deeper, but be warned I am not an objective voice in what follows.

I’ve talked to Sandy a number of times and despite our occasional, though not universal political differences, I can certainly say she’s been friendly and professional to me. She’s a smart, driven person. Any criticism I have for her is solely limited to politics and policy.

Tom Anzelc

Tom Anzelc

Tom, on the other hand, is probably the person I talk to more than anyone except my wife. So I know him much better. Anyone who’s met Tom would probably describe him as a “character,” a tall, rooster-haired figure still sporting thin vestiges of a second generation Iron Range/Slovene accent. In his 60s, he’s among the older members of the Range delegation. Nevertheless, he’s also built a reputation for being an outsider within the delegation. Further, I think he talks about economic diversification more than most Range politicos, despite the fact that when he was first elected he used me as a “Phone-a-Google Search” service and responded to e-mails in letter form.

This year, we worked together on the Paul Bunyan Central Itasca Fiber project, rural internet for several rural places out in Balsam, Lawrence and Iron Range Townships. I can honestly say without embellishment that I’m not sure this project would have happened, or at least gone as well as it did, without Tom’s work. Yes, many others had a role, too, but when the political fight was on, Tom was a pivotal figure behind the scenes.

The reason Tom and I became such friends and allies after we both moved out to Balsam more than a decade ago was our agreement on this one principle: that too much political power on the Range was consolidated in the consultants, lobbyists and big shots, not enough in the working people who have to survive in our economy.

Go back and read the stories from Tom’s election in 2006 on and see how he called out cronyism over the Mesaba Energy Project, a product of the Layman administration at the IRRRB. That entire project resulted from the dangers of letting influential lobbyists sell an idea purely through rubbing elbows with the well-connected. Further, the Mesaba Project went on to become the biggest financial failure in the history of Iron Range economic development, costing Iron Rangers $9.5 million in local revenue and tens of millions more in federal funding. Even though he was often the only vote against it, Tom was right.

Listen, there’s plenty of squabbling in a campaign, and I’m biased as heck on this issue. This 5B race could be a doozy, or maybe it fizzles into a straight index outcome because of the Presidential cycle. By all means, vote however you want.

But Tom has a sense of decency in a political realm sometimes dominated by scoundrels. Sandy Layman is a formidable candidate but I’m glad I’ve got a friend in Tom Anzelc. And I’m glad he’s running again this year to be my state representative.

Thus ends my less-than-objective analysis. Normal programming will resume shortly.


  1. Greg Campbell says

    I like to be a non low information vote unlike most people who vote party only or emotion. This write up did give me some information about the two candidates. I thank the author for that.
    Going to make it a point to get to know more about both. My two important issues are economic prosperity and less government (more freedom). As citizens we have lost a lot of our freedoms; especially in my lifetime. The economics in the area has also become stagnate. Without these, we are lost as Minnesotans and Americans. Especially for the younger generation starting out in life, now in their twenties. My question is how is Tom or Sandy going to address these?

  2. We must have a representative that will back the union. I do not believe Layman will do that. We must defy republicans of making MN a right to work state. And if you don’t know what that means I will tell you. It means union people are stripped of their power to bargain with big money corporation and businesses. It means the union loses their way of getting all members to contribute to the greater good of all members. Would you want to pay into your way of life thinking your health insurance and pension will be there for you only to find out due to right to work the people are only obligated to pay in if they want to all the time still enjoying the benefits. WITHOUT PAYING into the greater good of all members. If this is what you want vote for Layman.

  3. Mark Stodghill says

    I just ran across this older blog while searching for the results of the Anzelc-Layman race. I love “tell it like it is” journalism and, Aaron, I think you’ve done that here in being transparent in your relationship with Tom Anzelc while also giving an honest look at the man that I knew fairly well 40 years ago and considered a friend, but haven’t seen in nearly 40 years. Nice work on your part. I knew “The Big A” when he was a Hibbing High School assistant basketball coach during the McHale era. I was the sports editor of the Hibbing Daily Tribune at that time. I knew Ms. Layman would be a formidable opponent in this race. If you see Tom, say hello. Tell him I said that if he lets his hair down he can still get a job as a Steve Perry lookalike in the band Journey.

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