Rukavina, Hujanen face off in marquee local race

I was out of town when last week’s Primary Election results came rolling in. I’m back and it’s time to analyze some of the more interesting races. I’ll start with the race for St. Louis County District 6 Commissioner, where longtime Iron Range State Rep. Tom Rukavina of Pike Township seeks a return to elected office. Rukavina faced Christina Hujanen of Tower and Kirsten Reichel of Greenwood Township in Tuesday’s primary for this seat left open by the retirement of Commissioner Mike Forsman.

These were the results:

St. Louis County, District 6 Commissioner:
TOM RUKAVINA: 2,832 (52.91 percent)
CHRISTINA HUJANEN: 1,315 (24.57 percent)

KIRSTEN REICHEL: 1,205 (22.51 percent)

Here’s what that looks like visually, courtesy of a graphic from the talented Chris Saunders:

2014 St Louis County Primary

GRAPHIC: Chris Saunders for

When I wrote about Rukavina’s return to the fray after retiring from the State House and taking a job with Congressmen Nolan, I said he would be the presumptive favorite in this race. The primary results bear this out. Rukavina carried a clear majority in the last Tuesday’s election, with Hujanen and Reichel duking it out for a nearly equal amount of the rest of the votes. Hujanen, making her second run for this office after losing to Mike Forsmen four years ago, prevailed and now faces the task of catching up to the experienced campaign veteran Rukavina.

What can we discern from the map? Mostly that Rukavina has a clear advantage in all the towns in the district, including huge blowouts in Ely, Hoyt Lakes and his home precinct of Pike Township. Reichel had clear geographic support in the sparsely populated northern townships, but we can infer that Hujanen triangulated more votes by outpacing Reichel in areas that Rukavina carried.

When the first-place vote getter exceeds 50 percent, it’s rare to see a different outcome in the general. That being said, Hujanen is an interesting change-of-pace challenger to Rukavina. She’s active in the community and is taking on a busy campaign schedule.

This election is Rukavina’s to win, but also Rukavina’s to lose. The famously unfiltered Rukavina could stick his foot in his mouth or lose his temper in a way that causes voters to question whether he’s got the temperament for a return to politics. After nearly three decades of service and a high-profile “retirement,” there could simply be a “Rukavina fatigue” factor in this race.

Nevertheless, these factors are unlikely to occur in forces significant enough to propel Hujanen to victory. She has a tough task.

This district encompasses the communities most directly tied to proposed nonferrous mining projects in the region. Rukavina, just as when he was in the legislature, is an outspoken supporter of this new mining. If at all possible, he’ll make this race a referendum on mining, which has been very popular among the local electorate.

The reality is that being a St. Louis County Commissioner has very little to do with mining politics. Sure, there may come a resolution of support or a perfunctory approval of land deals, but nothing that would seriously sway the outcome of the projects one way or another — except through symbolism. What county officials talk about is the budget, social services and roads. Rukavina is certainly capable of leading on these topics, but does he have the patience?

This is certainly the question Hujanen will push in this election. The outcome, however, has less to do with this and more to do with whether county voters still like Rukavina the way they did when he was a State Representative. The primary results indicate they probably do.

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