Tony Sertich and the seachange on the Iron Range

As previously reported, Rep. Tony Sertich (DFL-Chisholm) will resign Thursday to take his new position as commissioner of the unique state agency Iron Range Resources. This agency overseas the tax revenue paid by mining companies in lieu of local property taxes. Though much maligned by foes, both of the informed and uninformed variety, IRR remains vital to the local government and economic development of the Iron Range.

Sertich’s move does several things, which I’ll tackle in order: 1) Provides a once-in-a-generation chance for reform at the agency, 2) creates a huge political void in House District 5B that will be filled in a madcap one-month special election, with primary on Feb. 1 and general on Feb. 15, and 3) perhaps obviously, takes Sertich off the list of potential DFL challengers to U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8).

Sertich becomes the first commissioner in a long time to hail from the heart of the Mesabi Range, the grandson of an underground miner. His predecessor Sandy Layman (Pawlenty’s pick) was an economic development professional from Grand Rapids. Before that John Swift (Ventura) and Jim Gustafson (Carlson) were from outside the area. Sertich is most assuredly the first commissioner who grew up on the Range after the taconite collapse of the early 1980s.

Iron Range Resources is in a unique position to work with all the towns, school districts and counties of the Iron Range region. So often these entities compete or undercut one another, despite a shared demographic makeup, economic challenge and fate. Iron Range Resources has always been involved in public works projects and property tax relief for the region; perhaps it can do more — or, better put, less, by empowering communities to use funding in prescribed areas of regional need. It could reward educational innovation at all levels, or government efficiencies, or other things that would be of common good. Rather than treating the place like one massive chamber of commerce it could be used for its true purpose: providing economic hope for innovative businesses and regular people, too.

That’s not to say there isn’t further room for big picture ideas at the agency. I always advocate for high speed internet and even more economically responsive higher education, two areas the agency has the power to accelerate.

These are my ideas, not necessarily Tony’s, nor are they particularly fleshed out at this point. But Sertich provides an opportunity to pursue new ideas in the context of the agency’s true purpose, diversifying and expanding the Range economy while improving fiscal and quality of life conditions in its communities. No small task, but Tony is up for it. He provides enough distance from some of the mistakes of the past while still being able to work with the central cast of characters around here, which has remained largely unchanged in 20 years. The commissioner has the most important job on the Range for the next four years.


Tony’s departure leaves an open seat in House District 5B, which includes Hibbing, Chisholm, the Cherry-Clinton-Zim-Sax metropolitan corridor, Floodwood, Cotton and most of the townships just north of Duluth.

Hibbing is the big town; about 40-45 percent of the voters are there. There is an old political rivalry between Hibbing and its smaller neighbor Chisholm. The DFL party organization has generally emerged from Chisholm in the post-Perpich era. Hibbing, which also happens to be a couple tics more conservative than Chisholm, has been hungering to have its own representative for a while.

One wonders if the DFL primary will end up like the 2000 open seat race that Sertich won (and, full disclosure, I served on the Citizens for Sertich committee that year and in a couple subsequent elections until I moved out here to 3A). In that race the Chisholmite Sertich won a tough primary against a conservative female DFLer from Buhl and several other lesser-known but enthusiastic candidates from Hibbing. Sertich then faced a wild general with a well-known local country DJ, singer and union manufacturing worker running as an independent and a former Hibbing mayor running as a Republican. Sertich won, of course, but by the lowest margins he’s ever had.

Here in 2011 I’ve heard several names on the DFL side so far, but none from the potential candidates themselves (ie: These are all speculative or based on hearsay). One obvious candidate might be IRR citizen board member Shelley Morton Robinson, CEO of a local group home for the developmentally disabled and former chair of the Hibbing-Chisholm chamber of commerce board. There’s Chisholm Mayor Mike Jugovich, St. Louis County Commissioner Steve Raukar, recently defeated former Hibbing Mayor Rick Wolff, DFL activist and businessperson Cathy Baudeck, or her son Aaron the Rotary Club president. I’ve heard the names of Dan Kearney, recently retired Hibbing H.S. maintenance chief or Hibbing legal clerk Carly Melin, the youngest contender I’ve heard of, and an intriguing option. That’s also not to mention all the friends and former students I know who have privately mulled moving back to the Range and getting into politics. And there will be three or four other people who will file in the primary anyway, just for giggles or on a bar bet. A lot of good people on this list, but I don’t know how many will actually run.

With the short campaign and what is essentially a jump ball, the DFL primary could go a lot of different ways unless the party unifies rather quickly, which is possible. If you’re running, you might want to get that together within the next 24 hours.

The general election is another matter. For perspective, Jim Oberstar carried District 5B 56 percent to 40, a comfortable win except when you consider that he normally gets 80 percent. I’d say that 56 DFL/40 GOP number is our rough index for this race as well.

GOPer Paul Jacobson, who works with troubled youth at a local juvenile detention center, closed the gap on Sertich somewhat last November, though he underperformed Chip Cravaack by seven points. Jacobson struggled a bit at the debate, but with the practice under his belt and his signs and materials ready to go he’d be a logical candidate. One state conservative blog is bullish on Jacobson. Republicans would have to work hard on recruitment if they wanted a bigger name. Maybe of the best known Hibbing-area Republicans have made a career out of keeping that fact on the down low.

Finally, and quickly, Tony Sertich was the most obvious potential candidate to challenge freshman Congressman Chip Cravaack in 2012. Now that’s not going to happen. That candidate needs to start work within a few months and Sertich has other, bigger fish to fry now. The other obvious candidate is Duluth Mayor Don Ness, who is also unlikely to run for preference of his current job. After those two, you have to sort through a list of legislators, most past their prime, and activists. One name that is getting attention is Daniel Fanning, an extremely handsome Iraq war veteran from Duluth who now works for Senator Franken and has been focusing on pension issues lately. A “Draft Daniel” Facebook page is getting some attention in CD8 circles.

DISCLAIMER: As someone who’s been involved in local DFL politics for several years now, including Tony Sertich and Tom Anzelc’s respective campaigns, I am laden with conflicts of interest here. I was consulted by the transition team on the matter of the IRR appointment. So this is just my own opinion, with the aforementioned caveats.


  1. Who sits on the IRRRB board and what are their political affiliations?

  2. There are 13 members on the board, including 5 state senators, 5 state representatives and 3 citizens. A senate or House district that is more than 50 percent within the Taconite Tax Relief Area is an automatic seat on the board. Other positions are appointed by the Speaker and Senate Majority Leader. Citizen board members are appointed by the Governor, Speaker and Senate Majority Leader, respectively.

    Because of the DFL domination of the Range, the board tends to be more DFL leaning, though there may be changes to that this year. It should still be a DFL majority, though.

  3. Reinert vs. Cravaack in 2012, mark it down.

    Also, doesn’t Dayton get to appoint a citizen member to the IRRRB? Has this post been advertised? Is he seeking applicants or will it just go to someone else in “the circle?”

  4. I will mark it down. It’s plausible, if Reinert runs.

    Yes, Gov. Dayton gets a citizen pick. I believe it’s been advertised. It would be at the Sec. of State open appointments page. There are a lot of factors in these decisions, not unlike with commissioner picks. Often insiders are picked, except once in a while when they aren’t. It works the same way on the GOP side, for the most part.

  5. 1) Rumor has it Begich is going to be the citizen member again…AGAIN…time to get that board younger.
    2) Carly Melin is the leader in the clubhouse to get support from “the DFL circle”, unless there is an political last name that is going to jump in.
    3) With Loren Solberg gone, two citizen members appointed by the house and senate (under GOP control) the board will be much more diverse and should make for good TV.
    4) My vote is that we need to get younger.

  6. Perhaps the analogous special election was when Perpich was elected governor and appointed several Range pols to State jobs. The County Commissioner’s seat in Hibbing became vacant, and Chisholmite Jerry Janezich upset anointed candidate John Ongaro from Hibbing in the DFL primary, which in those days was tantamount to a general election. By this reckoning, Mayor Jugovich would a favorite today, being from Chisholm, having a name ending in “ich”, and being anointed by the remanents of the Perpich dynasty besides!

  7. Great pick by Governor Dayton. Tony will continue to serve us well. I like the idea of Jugovich (or Rauker) running for Tony’s seat. I could also support Fanning for Congress. Reinert is alright, but he would be seen as a political opportunist. Has Ness ruled it out completely?

  8. My understanding is jugovich has other ambitions and other personal priorities and has ruled it out. As for Rauker…seriously we need to get younger.

  9. Same old, same old… I know Tony S & he’ll be about helping the Range but he needs solid business people on the board. I don’t want to see a penny put into anything but getting jobs up here.

  10. This is the first job Sertich will have had to demonstrate whether or not he’s capable of making decisions to create true wealth for the area….verses what he’s done in the past which has been creating roadblocks to wealth.

    I look forward to him having a conversation with the CEO’s of Target, Best Buy, 3M, Medtronic, Hormel, Ecolab, Toro, etc and saying “come to the Range and build a plant because we…..”

  11. I agree Anon…Today at 10:30 at the day long “One Minnesota 2011” conference, the legislature will be hearing the results of the Itasca Project. It says in part –

    “There is a strong perception—both internally and externally—that the region (Minnesota) is a challenging place to do business.

    According to a site selector who helps companies identify locations for company expansions, “The region needs to address its image of being hostile to business.”

    This negative image of the region is increasingly highlighted by other regions, particularly other Midwestern states, who are working to recruit businesses to their own area.”

    Let’s see if Tony takes this to heart in his new job. He led the creation of this job killing atmosphere in his past role as Majority Leader. I really doubt if he’ll change his stripes. He comes from four generations of socialism.

  12. I’m always surprised when I get blowback from fellow Rangers when I tell them we are not looked at as a business friendly area. Like a person with a problem, you must admit you a problem before you can go about fixing it. Folks, we have an image problem, now lets fix it. K Edward

  13. I fully understand the issue of the PERCEPTION of the Range as a problem. Obviously, some of you are touching on this very thing. The perception might be from our labor politics history, or some specific transgression that occurred in the semi-recent past. And if you’ve got some incidences of business being turned away for some reason, or a practice that hurts us, by all means let’s take a look at it.

    I would argue, though, that we do have tools for business here that you won’t find elsewhere, much of it in the form of the heavily capitalized and highly independent Iron Range Resources agency. The Dakota prairies and Appalachian mine towns don’t have anything like it, and it’s a great and powerful responsibility to use our resources in smart, bold ways.

    Tony was on the news last night saying that if 50 businesses are encouraged to hire 5 more people through agency action, that’s as big as a home run project. I think that’s the right approach, and small businesses both on and off the Range need to know that there is a place for them here.

    The new generation of Iron Range leaders is going to be more light years more receptive to new ideas than their parents or grandparents were. We lived through economic and cultural collapse and are not interested in allowing that to continue. I think it would help if we could identify some specific ideas or problems so we can put them on a prioritized to-do list.

  14. Businesses will hire new employees when the market demands it, not when called for by politicians or board members. I wouldn’t hire one new person unless it made financial sense not for a month but for years. I’ll just work 60 hours a week if it’s a short time uptick in my business. Long term, I hire new employees. That is why the new healthcare bill, with all the uncertainties and hidden costs for small business, makes hiring difficult. I also don’t want a one time tax credit to hire a person I don’t really need. That will not help employment at all, just another government give away, that is a money loser over time.

  15. That’s precisely why I always stress high speed internet, livable communities and population attraction here. You’re exactly right. I want a business to hire because they need a person to do a job. We need work, not “jobs.” This means we need some combination of new people and new demand for our services outside the area.

  16. Earlier anonymous said “Businesses will hire new employees when the market demands it”

    You are absolutely correct. Then you go on to imply something else.

    Think about it, if you have new orders coming in, do you take them (and expand your business) or do you sit around and say “well, the uncertainty in the future tax situation may not warrant the addition of new business, so we’re not going to do anything”?

    Put another way: Are you really going to look at a tax credit and say “oh boy, I get a tax credit for hiring someone, let’s do that.” if you don’t have any work for them? No, of course not. Would reducing your tax liability when you do have to hire someone improve the success of your business? I would think so.

  17. We have to understand the one thing we have that makes us unique, our natural resources. We can only count on our good looks so long. Ha Ha. There are other places to fish and enjoy nature in North America. Many other regions have more desirable hard woods for logging. Where we stand out is minerals. I saw where the nickel, copper deposit up here is projected to be huge. We need to get mining on that deposit ASAP. That’ll open up service jobs and many off-shoot businesses. We have to play the hand we were dealt and it’s mining. Lets hope the IRRRB realizes this and Tony Sertich backs off his job killing policies that have made our area “job unfriendly”. South Dakota is, as a State, enticing companies of all sorts to come and grow there. With Dayton as governor, I don’t expect the State to help, but I do expect the IRRRB to. K Edwards

  18. Bottom line is businesses big and small hire employees when it improves their BOTTOM LINE.

  19. We digress…however, Tony is the least of business owners concerns now that he’s in a less harmful job.

    It’s reps like Tommy who’s proud that he wears only “union made” underwear who will continue to shine the anti-business image of the Range.

    Even as you’ve said Aaron -“Rukavina has a touch for connecting with people from every bar & union hall in the district”.

    Not exactly the words corporations, investors…even internet investors, get excited about.

  20. It is official – Shelley Robinson intends to file for the MN House seat Tony Sertich vacanted. My passion is advocating for better healthcare, education and workforce development in MN. Job creation and retention on the Iron Range is a TOP priority for my candidacy. I look forward to the campaign where I will meet lots of people with good ideas. I’m creating a Facebook page where you can get more information.

    Also, I encourage those of you who are interested in participating on IRRRB to apply for a citizen’s appointment. Four years ago, I applied out of interest (without “insider” connections) and was appointed. Applications are found on the Secretary of State’s Website under “Open Appointments”. Many other vacancies are there listed, too.

  21. @Anon #19– yeah, yeah, but if I wrote that Rukavina has a touch for connecting with investors and corporations that wouldn’t sit all that pretty with the folks in bars or union halls. You know, this little argument goes both ways. I’m an independent at heart but I organize with the DFL for the sole reason that if you’re going to err one way or the other err on the side of people who can’t afford to hire lobbyists and gardeners.
    @Shelley, I’m sending you a message, but congrats on being first in and good luck! I’ll be working on a post soon. Thanks for reminding everyone that the citizen appointment is open and worth applying for.

  22. The DFL lobbies more than GOP by far. Unions are the biggest lobbyists in state. By that standard you should be a GOP’er

  23. It might not sit pretty with the folks in union halls (we don’t know that though) if Tommy made contact with corporations and investors, but…we’d have a greater chance of attracting the jobs corporations and investors bring. Instead, we get the jobs union halls bring…non-wealth creating government jobs.

  24. If I were to bet a paycheck on who gets what they want out of the political system I’ll bet on the energy or telecomm industries over any union in the country. And I say that as a union member. The unions’ army of lobbyists (and I concede that unions, etc., employ their fair share) often manage to stem a tide, but we haven’t had a “victory” for the labor movement in any real way for decades.

    If we are to believe that support of business is not hostile to workers, and I don’t think it is, you need to understand that support of workers is not inherently hostile to business. We keep having this same conversation here, but this is my opinion.

  25. @ the other anons: The important thing is that Tommy wears “Made in the USA” underwear (Mexico’s Maquiladoras have unions as well).

  26. I agree Aaron, there are good business owners and bad business owners..just as there might be good unions and bad unions.

    However, when businesses are looking at places to invest (create jobs), and they always have options…they NEVER put “must be strong union area” on the list of critera. They do put “good, qualified workforce” on the list.

    What pro-business critera do unions use when looking to invest?

  27. I agree I think Reinert is the most compelling candidate to run, while the opportunist will be there for a brief time he has the best fundraising capabilities and is incredibly well liked, however if he choses not to what about Duluth city council president Jeff Anderson? He has military background and also has lived in the 8th his whole life. Thoughts?

  28. Just what we need, 2 carpet baggers running against each other to represent northeastern minnesota. Cravaack and Fanning lived in the district for about 15 minutes, so why not. Fanning lives in Minneapolis. give me a frickin break.

    It would be fun to have to choose between 2 guys that know nothing about the district.

  29. Jeff Anderson is the most likely for Congress. Reinert is a fast riser, but he’s got to be in office long enough for people to see what he can do. Jeff is a veteran who was born on the Range, and now is council president in Duluth. He understands the values of Rangers because he is one, and he can also relate to Duluthians and others, because unlike Fanning, he’s a Minnesotan.

    Jeff would make a great congressman. I just hope he decided to run.

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