Carly Melin wins House 5B special election

Carly Melin, the progressive 25-year-old attorney who stunned a deep DFL primary field, won the District 5B special election Tuesday for the State House of Representatives in the heart of the Iron Range.

Melin defeated Republican Paul Jacobson, a Hibbing juvenile counselor and minister, with 60 percent of the vote. Jacobson carried more than 35 percent. Independence Party candidate Cynthia Kafut-Hagen, a former DFLer with a fairly progressive platform, carried about 4 percent.

Melin replaces former Rep. Tony Sertich (DFL-Chisholm), who resigned last month to become commissioner of Iron Range Resources. Sertich had been House Majority Leader until the DFL lost the House last November. Melin had interned for Sertich before passing the bar last year. She becomes just the second woman elected from the taconite-producing Iron Range since the first, Rep. Lona Minne in the 1980s. She joins Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick (R-Deer River) as the second woman in the legally-defined Iron Range delegation.

Rep.-elect Melin (DFL-Hibbing) will be sworn in at the legislature this week, joining a contentious session after Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget proposal this morning. She’ll likely take Sertich’s former office next to Reps. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) and Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township), two full blooded Iron Rangers of the Perpich era.

District 5B, a traditional DFL bastion including Hibbing, Chisholm and the bog townships between there and Duluth, normally doesn’t draw this much attention. For the first time in the modern era, however, the state GOP spent a yet undetermined amount of money on a barrage of district-wide mailers attacking a DFL candidate on the Range. I would venture that, between this outside Republican money and what Melin raised in response, this campaign will end up costing $60,000 or more, a huge figure for Range elections.

So what are the lessons? In no particular order:

  • Melin is a good great candidate. She was accused of residency problems, that she was a puppet of old DFL powers, that she wasn’t well known enough to beat known candidates. My knowledge of her prior to this campaign came from the fact that I used to work with her dad. I wasn’t sure what to think either. But over the course of this short but very intense campaign I saw Carly not only call the shots on her campaign, but process the vast amount of “free advice” that gets dumped into campaigns like this into a working strategy and consistent message. She worked hard. She demonstrated knowledge and poise. She’ll have to demonstrate that she can work independently of other Range legislators as well as she works with them, but I suspect she will.
  • Campaign organization remains key. The Melin campaign, led by Iron Range political fireballer Jason Metsa, had a great plan, focused on direct mail and voter ID. It was this approach that probably allowed them to keep DFLers and D-leaning independents from jumping ship or staying home amid the negative ad blitz.
  • The Iron Range is becoming less of a DFL fortress. The days of 80 percent wins for Range lawmakers are probably gone. High 50s and mid 60s are now more likely.
  • Nevertheless, the Range remains a strong DFL area. Republicans will be able to play here in some local elections and choice legislative races but the DFL, especially when they run good candidates, will continue to have advantages here for some time.
  • Retirements and new lines in 2012 could bring enormous changes to local leadership. Melin will be well positioned to become the next generation leader of the Range delegation. She’s now modeled a winning strategy for other young progressives in the region and she’ll be an integral part of this region’s political structure into the near future.

On that note, Jacobson and Kafut-Hagen deserve acknowledgment for the races they ran, too. Jacobson, who was a better candidate than even his own party might have given him credit, was a gentleman during the campaign even if he didn’t renounce the worst of the GOP mailers. He was caught in a tough spot. Jacobson had improved both his message and his presentation style from his November campaign against Sertich and might have done better under different circumstances. Kafut-Hagen jumped out of the DFL race and into the IP early on, but is a tireless advocate for important issues in Hibbing. 

Chris Saunders produced another map of the district showing the blue/red splits. That’s Hibbing in the top left. Downtown Floodwood in the bottom left went for Melin while the areas around Floodwood were Jacobson’s only wins of the night.

Congratulations to Carly, her family and her campaign. The best response to a negative campaign is to win and do a good job. The Iron Range needs nothing less.


  1. Melin was not a “great” candidate. A little fact checking of some statements she made in the forums: “It’s cheaper to get a 4 year degree in South Dakota than a 2 year degree in Minnesota” and “unemployment in the construction trades is over 50%” proved that she either intentionally mislead voters or is incompetent. I prefer to believe that she did not lie and is simply not up to the job.

  2. I’ve heard a similar question about the 4-year to 2-year comparison with South Dakota. I can say with first hand knowledge that our two-year public college tuition in Minnesota is among the nation’s most expensive. I can’t speak to the number comparison, though. It would depend on how you consider the expenses.

    On the building trades question, I believe that in January with seasonal layoffs that claim would have been accurate. It’s probably a bit lower than that now. Like many running for office, on both sides, she was using a generous interpretation of statistics to make a larger point based on valid problems. The Republicans are doing a similar thing with the interpretation of the state budget deficit. I’m not saying facts don’t matter; just that facts can be interpreted many different ways when it comes to the budget and the economy.

    I don’ think she lied or that she’s not up for the job. She’s got some work ahead, and it’s entirely possible that you won’t agree with her. It’s entirely possible I won’t agree with everything she does either. Let’s find out.

  3. Tuition at Dakota State University in Madison, SD, for MN residents is $132.35 per credit hour plus fees. Tuition at Mesabi Range College in Virginia, MN, for MN residents is $142.68 per credit hour plus fees. It’s been awhile since I took a math class, but I think those numbers would serve to back up Rep-elect Melin.

  4. I hope she’s up to the job and will learn from not only her mistakes but mistakes made by other states. New Jersey is lowering taxes on businesses and successful business men to attract jobs and wealth after they taxed the very same people out of the state for the past 20 years. Dayton is proposing the very same thing that chased money out of every state that has tried it, make wealthy folks pay for govt mistakes. Ms Melin please cut spending, we are all taxed too much as is. Don’t chase jobs out of our state.

  5. To Jacob Littler:
    Her claim was that it’s cheaper to get a 4 year degree in S.D. than a two year degree in MN, not that S.D. was cheaper in general. Even with your limited math skills, we can conclude that a $10 per credit increase will not make it more expensive to do 2 year degree in Hibbing. According to my calculations at HCC with fees included, it is actually cheaper to go to Hibbing. If we talk straight tuition, S.D. is cheaper, but with fees included it is more expensive. $2583.84 at HCC vs. $3440 in S.D.

    According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate is around 22%. Factoring in seasonal unemployment (heck, it’s winter here) she grossly overestimated… unless I am reading the numbers for the wrong state.

    I have never supported Sertich, Tomasoni, or any of the other DFLers, but I have also never witnessed them give such blatantly false information. This is more than massaging numbers to fit your agenda. Like I said, I don’t think she intentionally lied. I think some labor union gave her the unemployment numbers and a friend that goes to S.D. bragged about the cost of school and she didn’t bother to check the accuracy. Not up to the job.

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