Downballot Parade: The Iron Greek vs. the Confederate Ranger

This is part of a rolling series of analysis on off-the-map political races from the Iron Range region.

St. Louis County Commissioner – Dist. 6

I’ve written recently about the unique universe of St. Louis County politics. Today we look at one board of commissioners district, #6, that runs from the area just north of Duluth up to Virginia, Eveleth, Gilbert and Mt. Iron. It’s a big area, dominated by Iron Range precincts. It’s home to most of the region’s taconite mines and one of the nation’s largest peat bogs.

The incumbent in this commissioner race is Keith Nelson, who cruised in his last re-election race and again in this year’s primary, but who’s drawn some fire this time. His opponent is Lorrie Janatopoulus.

The Duluth News Tribune endorsed Janatopoulos last week. The editorial board’s opening salvo:

Even if incumbent Commissioner Keith Nelson hadn’t brought global embarrassment to St. Louis County by stating, for all the world’s YouTube viewers to hear, that he’d support slavery if his constituents did, he wouldn’t be the candidate of choice this fall in the 6th District.

Even if Nelson hadn’t voted to raise his mileage reimbursement at more than 50 percent above the federal rate, voters would be left to think twice about his worthiness for re-election.

And even if Nelson hadn’t been so reluctant to hold accountable fellow commissioners who sexually harassed employees, he’d be facing, on Nov. 2, the very real and very deserved prospect of replacement.

Impressively qualified and well-prepared — and far and away the better option for Iron Range voters — is Lorrie Janatopoulos…

The editorial goes on to extol Lorrie’s virtues, including a long career of public service and advocacy for issues facing low income Iron Rangers, battered women and people who are not well connected in any way. Lorrie had personal connections to the women and men who fought the hallmark class action sexual harassment lawsuit at the Eveleth Mines. She has found herself fighting for the disadvantaged against long odds time and again as project manager for the Arrowhead Economic Development Agency. She’s a liberal, but not the kind who whines about problems. She’s the kind who works on problems, even when losing is a genuine risk, alongside anyone willing to work on the same problems.

And that’s all fine and good, very biased of me of course, because Lorrie is a friend. I met Lorrie in 1998 in the political run-up to that year’s DFL governor’s race. (This was the year Jesse Ventura won his single term as Minnesota’s governor, so, you know, crazy year). Lorrie sat across from me at the DFL convention in St. Cloud as a fellow delegate from the SD-05 “Iron Range” delegation, where we were both pledged to then state Sen. Doug Johnson’s gubernatorial candidacy. Knowing Lorrie’s politics and mine, this may now be considered ironic. But we were both there for the cause of Iron Range nationalism, connected by varied threads to Tom Rukavina, the mining industry and the fine city of Eveleth. I’ll never forget how Lorrie supported the 18-year-old version of me as I received my first lesson in Range political brow-beating and intimidation. I’ll also remember the way she convinced a kid that didn’t know any better that her relationship with her partner Sharon was as loving and socially relevant as anyone else’s. Lorrie is tough, but nurturing. Kind, but unbending in the face of pressure. I can’t think of a single reason she shouldn’t be recognized by the voters for her past work on community issues and her future potential as a regional leader.

I can, however, see how she might be denied for the wrong reasons. This race, like most local races on the Range, will be determined by the number of people who go into the ballot booths and do the predictable, safe thing. Keith Nelson — who I honestly don’t have a strong opinion about — is a living, breathing default. He’s the kind of official that, if no one did anything or cared about much, would be elected 1,000 times over in township, city, school board and county offices across the Greater Mesabi. And … about that. Starting 20 years ago that’s exactly what’s been going on around here.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Nelson is a helluva guy. He’s a DFLer, just like Janatopoulos, so there’s no party label dispute. I have many friends and family members who like Nelson. But there we go again. While a plodding county board attends meeting after meeting, poking at issues and protecting one another, a network of unrecognized leaders like Lorrie Janatopoulos have carved out small victories for real people, pushing for needed changes. The Iron Range of recent years has turned away such change. We can no longer afford to do so any more.

So, even though Lorrie faces long odds, I will be pulling for her on election night because this is, to some degree, a symbolic race in the heart of the Range. The reason I hope Lorrie wins is because even if she loses I know she’ll get up the next day and keep fighting for people anyway. That’s the spirit we need on the Iron Range: in small towns and struggling places all over the country, too.


  1. I’ll summarize the debate for you Aaron…

    Oberstar was clearly annoyed. He didn’t like it when Cravaack supporters expressed their disagreement with him. He didn’t like it when Cravaack took him to task on PolyMet, Obamacare and Cap and Trade.

    Oberstar was evasive. When asked what he’d done “to fast track the opening of the PolyMet Mine.” He essentially said – “I’ve done nothing”.

    When asked about the effect Cap and Tax will have on mining, he said mining is exempted. However, he mentioned nothing about electricity jumping 40-50 percent, a totally intellectually dishonest answer.

    Cravaack jumped on the fact that “Congress left Washington without dealing with the $2.9 trillion tax increase” heading our direction. Oberstar replied that evil Republicans had filibustered the bill. Utter nonsense. There wasn’t a bill to be filibustered.

    Oberstar had an uphill fight on the stimulus bill. He clearly tried portraying it as creating construction jobs. Cravaack replied – “The stimulus was supposed to create jobs. It didn’t. We’ve lost 3,000,000 since it was signed into law. For every government job the stimulus creates, a private sector won’t be created”.

    Oberstar had a scowl and dismissive attitude. He scolded those in the audience who disagreed with him, pointing his finger at them repeatedly.

    Cravaack was sharp and to the point, poised and unflappable. He had better command of the issues than Oberstar. He looked the part of a congressman.

  2. Wrong thread, anonymous. This is the county commissioner dist. 6 post.

    That said, your enthusiasm and pointed post-debate advocacy for your candidate is admirable. I couldn’t hear the whole debate because of connection/audio problems. I would argue that a number of people in the audience came there for the purpose of disruption and catcalling the opposition. Jim Oberstar was booed before he could finish his first sentence. That’s not intellectually honest either.

    So many other points to argue, but no time. I’m going to watch the debate Friday.

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