Primary drama, cold winds, hot Iron Range politics flood House 5B special

Open legislative seats on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range always attract drama, and not the sort of snappy, well-timed dialogue like you see in “The West Wing.” No, this drama is sometimes brutal, awkward, but extraordinarily rich, unflinchingly real, spanning generations like a great bridge. Today it begins anew.

Seven candidates have filed for the special election to replace Rep. Tony Sertich (DFL-Chisholm) who resigned Jan. 13 to become Commissioner of the IRRRB. I’ve been informed that all the R’s are back in the agency’s name and I welcome them. House 5B is one of the legendary Iron Range seats, firmly held by Democratic-Farmer-Laborites since the 1950s. And though political winds swirl madly these days, with northern Minnesota leaning more Republican in recent years, this remains a very likely DFL hold. Nevertheless, this year’s race has the ring of great literature so I rule out nothing, nothing in my analysis.

Five DFLers have filed for the Feb. 1 primary election: Floodwood mayor Jeff Kletscher, Hibbing attorney Carly Melin, Hibbing laborer and country music personality Ray Pierce Jr., Hibbing nonprofit executive Shelley Robinson, and former State Rep. and frequent candidate John Spanish, also of Hibbing. The winning Democrat will face Republican Paul Jacobson, a juvenile justice worker with divinity training, and Hibbing housing advocate Cynthia Kafut Hagen, who filed with the Independence Party after initially announcing a DFL run. We’ll talk about Jacobson and Kafut Hagen another day, as they have the luxury of two extra weeks before their names hit the ballots in the Feb. 15 general election.

For the next two weeks, however, bundled DFL candidates and only the most loyal of volunteers will brave the cold streets of Hibbing and Chisholm, attack the long icy highways like St. Louis County 7 and 33, perhaps choked with snow from the narrowly averted plow strike. These candidates range in age from 25 to 88, with ideology from what might be considered somewhat conservative to what the kids these days call progressive. Some of them will use sophisticated voter persuasion techniques and technology while others may only be reached on a phone that almost certainly requires a spiral cord. Some votes will be won and lost over events that occurred before television broadcasts reached this place. Other votes will be decided on the way to the polls. This is Iron Range politics.

I promised all the candidates as close to equal access as I can offer on this, a sole proprietorship blog run by a flawed, mortal vessel. If you’re wondering my qualifications in this endeavor I offer these meager credentials. By 21st century standards, it’s enough. After this tome is finished you will begin seeing shorter posts highlighting activities and events for individual candidates as information is provided to me in coming weeks. If you don’t like politics, I’m sorry. I’ll try to throw some other material in there, too.

Shelley Robinson
Robinson held a “union members” event at her home yesterday. Her campaign released this description:

… As the executive director of the Range Center in Chisholm, Shelley employs over 140 union steelworkers in service of our community’s developmentally disabled. She was formerly a classroom teacher in Hibbing and Chisholm. Currently, she is an adjunct instructor for Bemidji State University where she belongs to the IFO (Inter Faculty Organization) union.

Shelley has also served as the chair of the area’s United Way and currently sits on its board. In 2008, during the economic recession, Shelley and the United Way partnered to create a fund with over $60,000 to help unemployed miners.

Today, at the Robinson household, union workers in all different professions came to express their support for Shelley’s candidacy. Nurses, teachers, firefighters, steelworkers, and miners came to meet with Shelley, share their work experiences, and give advice about how Shelley can best serve them in the State House of Representatives. The Robinson campaign is honored and excited to be backed by such hardworking, knowledgeable people.

Naturally, this does not constitute a union endorsement, but rather a show of support by several different union members. The Iron Range Labor Assembly (AFL-CIO) is going to be screening candidates on Wednesday and it remains to be seen who will get their nod, if anyone. Robinson’s chamber of commerce connections may hurt her there. Robinson will also face criticism from pro-choice voters for her pro-life views, which is more damaging in the primary than in the general. To her great advantage, however, are her years of community service and local civic board membership.

Today, Robinson’s campaign announced two major endorsements, Chisholm Mayor Mike Jugovich and Buhl Mayor Craig Pulford. The two of them will appear with Robinson on the steps of Chisholm City Hall Wednesday, Feb. 19 at noon. Jugovich was at one time considered a potential candidate for this seat and is well known in DFL circles. His support is important as for the first time in a generation there are no Chisholm candidates for this seat. But he’s not the only Chisholm voice in the mix, as you’ll see in a minute.

Carly Melin
Minnesota Public Radio describes Melin as running the most visible campaign so far, and her quick acceptance by many experienced members of the Range political structure is notable. Her campaign co-chairs are former Sen. Jerry Janezich and his wife Patty, a well-known Chisholm family and longtime political activists. They’ve brought along others, and Friday the Melin campaign announced the endorsement of longtime Iron Range lawmaker Joe Begich, who currently serves on the IRRRB as a citizen board member. Her campaign release:

Begich said “This area has a rich history of strong union and labor roots. The Labor Movement and Unions were born here and over the years I have fought hard for those blue collar working families that created America’s middle class.”

Begich went on to say “Many of my friends and colleagues have and will continue to protect our union brothers and sisters in the Minnesota legislature. Working people are the backbone of a stable economy and I have spent my entire career as a public servant fighting for them. With Tony Sertich’s move to the IRRRB we have some big shoes to fill in House District 5B and the Minnesota legislature. I believe that Carly Melin is the one to fill those shoes. It is time to pass the torch to a new generation and she will carry it well. Carly Melin represents the future of the Iron Range and the ideals and values I cherish. I am glad that she decided to run.”

Melin stated “I am honored and humbled to have Representative Begich’s support. He has done so much over his career in public service for working people and families and the Iron Range. I come from one of those families and I won’t ever forget where I came from.”

Hibbing City Clerk Pat Garrity, a respected and long-serving city official, also offered his endorsement and services to the campaign, according to Melin.

Melin is also the youngest candidate in this mix. At 25, she’s well below the Iron Range’s silver-gray median age. She is, however, a year older than Sertich was when he was first elected. She’ll be battling to win over those who might not know her well yet, particularly the older voters likely to sway this election. Efforts to win liberal and labor votes will be key to her success.

Jeff Kletscher, the mayor of Floodwood, has been relatively quiet since his filing and announcement last Friday. One imagines that his strength will be outside the cities of Hibbing and Chisholm, though his ability to talk about local property taxes and how city services are affected by local government aid cuts will give him a message to carry to the towns.

I spoke with Ray Pierce Jr. tonight and he’ll be putting out a statement and campaign materials soon. Pierce ran in 2000 as a member of the Independence Party and, were in not for an unfortunate incident in which he was falsely attached to a bar brawl, he might have done considerably better than the low 20s percentage he received then. He’s a union laborer and a well regarded local citizen. He’ll be an interesting wild card in this primary, one to watch.

And we conclude with John Spanish. Either you know who John Spanish is or you don’t, but if you don’t you are missing the totality of what it means to be in Iron Range politics.

One time when I was in Rotary I was ringing bells for the Salvation Army Christmas kettle drive and had the opportunity to spend about half an hour chatting with Mr. Spanish. He told me of his time in the legislature, his long hours walking to and from the capitol because he did not drive when in St. Paul, being stopped by security people who would not believe he was a legislator. Indeed he was. He served four non-consecutive terms and is the only political figure I know of who’s run for office in seven different decades. He lost to Lona Minne in the 1978 DFL primary, in part because of ridicule he received for introducing a bill creating a hunting season for the blind. He claimed to me that this was a planned set-up, and still regrets agreeing to carry the bill. He’s failed to garner more than 5 percent in recent primaries but has not given up on his efforts to return to St. Paul.

Fittingly, in an election where it is a reasonable belief that the Range could elect only its second female legislator in history, the DFL primary will include an octogenarian who lost to the first female legislator in the late 1970s before one of the current female candidates was even born.

Full circle. I love the Iron Range.

More to come. Much more. To support this coverage, please consider buying “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.” If you are a candidate or campaign, e-mail me any press releases or news using the “contact” tab above. I will share future material without comment.


  1. Nice work Aaron – as always I love the honesty and wit.

  2. Patty in Pengilly says

    Great, insightful overview, Aaron..and of course, I can’t wait for the day that you my voting disctrict…

  3. I smell a Cravaack coming in this election. When I first got interested in politics, 60’s and 70’s it was all about challenging the status quo. I was a young long haired liberal, DFL’er. Thank goodness I got a hair cut. It’s again about challenging the norms except this time is the norm is DFL and all the cronies (Sertich, Janezich,Jugovich) you mentioned in your article. Nobody thought Cravaack could get Oberstar out of office, but the throw the bums out, challenge what hasn’t worked mentality won the day. I see it happening again, I may grow my hair out in celebration.

  4. These “Cronies” that are always talked about will provide valuable insight into the interworkings of legislature(although this should not downplay Melin’s first-hand experience). Like many other jobs, it is advantageous to have help in making the transition smoother…and for those who think Melin would be a puppet for the party, you clearly have yet to meet her.

  5. Valuable insight into how to chase jobs out of our region I fear. Small thinking, union first, we can’t manufacture up here is what I hear from that group all too often. Everybody has grown tired of that.

  6. Your fears are valid. How do they chase jobs away?

  7. Anon…If you’re ever worked in a non-union atmosphere, then a union atmosphere, you’d understand. It’s like porn, you know it when you see it…only worse.

  8. Our state has high state and property tax, the DFL has joined with EPA to make permitting close to impossible for PolyMet and other companies to mine, high corporate taxes and union good/company bad mentality chase jobs away from our area. Only 7% of jobs that aren’t government are union. Union days are gone. I almost passed out today when Pres Obama said america had to manufacture products not just purchase them to turn economy around. Welcome to what everybody who has ever ran a business understands, you have to make things people need or want. So much for the Liberal thinking that giving the unemployed money stimulates the economy. That DFL thinking has stymied the Range for years. There is no free lunch people, hard work plus incentives for businesses to succeed will revive the Range.

  9. Right on Anon #8. Why is it so hard to see that there can be a partnership with Government and private business as long as Gov is there to help. I don’t mean subsidize a bad product (curly light bulbs), I mean help a business get started and if they can’t make it, so be it close your doors, someone else will do it better. After 2 years of spending our money on “shovel ready” jobs with no success, Obama has decided to help business manufacture and employ people. As the beer ad says BRILLIANT. He’s a Republican now that he needs to be re-elected. Bill Clinton did the same thing after Hillary Care almost killed him in his 1st term. Don’t care if they have a R or D after their name, just do right by the folks that voted you in. K Edwards

  10. Interesting all the talk about creating jobs on the Range. Under DFL legislative leadership, we’ve seen lots of money spent but no jobs resulting. Where does all the money IRR gets go? To consultants who create jobs? Or to the “good old boy” network that spends the money? Perhaps it’s time for a change!

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