Primary colors in late summer hues

PHOTO: Bill Smith, Flickr CC-BY

This Tuesday, Aug. 9, voters head to the polls for Minnesota’s primary election. The results will winnow down several races so that we have an easier time picking the least objectionable candidates come Nov. 8.

Though there are a few interesting partisan races I’ll talk about in a moment, I’d first like to acknowledge what you’ve probably already noticed. Not all of the excitement is wrapped up in the Democratic vs. Republican partisan rivalry. 

In fact, if you were a space alien investigating the strange human ritual of elections in northern Minnesota, you might reasonably conclude that the most important official in all the land is our local county sheriff. How else could you explain the fact that sheriff candidates have posted more signs than candidates all other races combined?

This is certainly true in St. Louis County, the largest county by land mass in the state, but also in Itasca County where I live. Driving down into Cass and Hubbard counties reveals a similar phenomenon. Everybody’s got an opinion about the sheriff campaign; some people have two. Why is that?

Near as I can figure, people get excited about the sheriff’s race because there’s nothing more personal than law enforcement. Law enforcement sees society at its best and worst. These officers wield enormous power over our lives at key moments. So, why not buddy up with the winner on the front end?

And then there’s the connections game. Wouldn’t it be nice to say to a deputy, “Hey, you know Jimmy, right? The sheriff’s buddy? Jimmy gave me the sheriff’s yard sign last election and I mowed around it for six months.” Even if you don’t say that during a traffic stop, I think we enjoy the fantasy that we could. Who wouldn’t want to be a friend of a friend of the sheriff? I’ve heard that line dropped in many conversations over the years.

It might not even be that specific. Maybe we just like thinking that people we like are hovering in the background, enforcing our point of view.

I’d also note that this phenomenon mostly seems to apply to open sheriff races. St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman and Itasca County Sheriff Vic Williams are both retiring. When incumbents face challenges for sheriff they seem to enjoy huge advantages. But open races? Those are melees.

In St. Louis County, candidates for sheriff include current undersheriff Jason Lukovsky, former Duluth police chief Gordon Ramsay, and part time Moose Lake police officer and businessman Chad Walsh. Each of them appears to have robust supplies of yard signs and enough friends to spread them around. Tuesday’s vote will advance two of them to the general election.

In Itasca County, much the same story, only there are four candidates. Among them, Grand Rapids police officer Jeff Carlson, Nashwauk police chief Joe Dasovich, former county deputy and trucking company owner Bryan Johnson, and department chaplain Dale H. Kaiser. Tuesday’s primary will cut this field in half.

Other nonpartisan races will be on Tuesday’s ballot.

In Itasca County, Doug Carpenter, Debra R. Davis, Renata Regalla and Austin M. Rohling will vie for two spots in the open county auditor race. Incumbent county attorney Matti Adam will face two challengers in former county attorney John Dimich and attorney Ellen Tholen. Two of them will advance to the general as well.

There are fewer competitive partisan primaries than usual. Statewide, we see only nominal opposition to party endorsed candidates. One exception might be the state attorney general’s race, where 2018 GOP nominee Doug Wardlow challenges 2022 endorsed candidate Jim Schultz. In most other statewide races, there’s an incumbent or party-endorsed candidate strongly favored to win.

We have a couple interesting primary elections on the Iron Range, where our politics have grown considerably more complex in the past 10 years.

In the new Senate District 7, incumbent Sen. David Tomassoni (I-Chisholm) is retiring. Tomassoni declared himself an independent and joined the Republican caucus two years ago. Statewide Republicans have done much better here than in the past. This will be one of the seats that could tip control of the State Senate, and the DFL has a contested primary.

Itasca County commissioner and business owner Ben DeNucci of Nashwauk is the DFL-endorsed candidate in District 7. Accountant Kim Kotonias McLaughlin of Hibbing is also running. DeNucci and McLaughlin staked out similar policy positions, so this is more a battle of personality, style, and campaign philosophy. DeNucci won the support of unions and local DFL officials through a more traditional path to office. McLaughlin runs as an outsider who jumped into the primary at the filing deadline with an eye to change the system.  

The winner of Tuesday’s primary will face Republican Rob Farnsworth in November.

Meantime, Republicans have their own primary in Senate District 3 where Tom Bakk — another DFLer-turned GOP-aligned independent — is also retiring. Here, former Iron Mining Association executive director and lobbyist Kelsey Johnson faces Babbitt mayor Andrea Zupancich. For the GOP, this feels like its own version of a style contest. Johnson has connections with her mining industry lobbying. Meanwhile, Zupancich is part of the pro-Trump caucus of local elected officials who made the rounds in 2016 and 2020.

One of them will go on to face DFLer Grand Hauschild this fall. District 3 will also play an important role in determining control of the State Senate. 

There’s also a GOP primary in District 3A, where Ely mayor Roger Skraba faces Blain Johnson of Bigfork.

August primaries are easy to miss with the crush of late-summer family activities and vacations. But here we see several important races on the ballot for you to consider. Vote this Tuesday and then hunker down for the onslaught of Campaign 2022 that follows.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Duluth had its primary battle in the new 8B district.

    The Duluth strange-bedfellows coalition of the Chamber of Commerce and the unions had decided to mount an organized challenge against State Senator Jen McEwen, a one-term incumbent who won against union-supported Senator Erik Simonson in SD7 in 2020, and an opponent of Polymet, support for which is the litmus-test issue for Duluth unions. Tragically, their chosen candidate, City Councilor and Red Lake Tribe Member Renee Van Nett, died, but not before McEwen’s progressive coalition supporters had dominated the caucuses and seized control of the endorsing convention for the new SD8.

    The surprise retirement of 7A representative Jen Schultz, now running for congress in CD8, motivated Aric Forsman, the dominate figure in the Duluth city council since being appointed in 2018, to run for the vacant seat. Forsman, a founder of the “Better in Our Backyard” organization and long-time pro-Polymet activist as well as an executive working on regional development for Minnesota Power, has close ties with the business community and gained the support of every significant union.

    Forsman was opposed by Duluth City Community Relations Officer Alicia Kozlowski, a half-Mexican/half Anishinaabe person with strong support from environmental and most other progressive organizations as well being the DFL endorsee.

    Forsman’s campaign was funded mostly by unions, PACS, and contributions from business executives and their families, while Kosloski depended mostly on individual contributions from local people, but both campaigns had deep pockets and used them on a barrage of direct mail, internet, and media ads, undoubtedly passing the previous spending record for a Duluth legislative district, the $125,000 spent by the Becky Hall and Jen Schultz campaigns in 2014. Foot soldiers door knocking, yard signs, and large commitments of shoe leather by both candidates themselves were also used aggressively.

    Forsman did his best to stay away from issues in general and Polymet in particular, given the overwhelming opposition in Duluth to turning the city water supply over to a giant international corporation with a long record of sociopathic behavior both in the US and internationally, and to focus on personality and his “Leave It To Beaver” image, his experience on the Council, where he has led efforts to “compromise” by pushing right on most issues, and his support by unions. Kozlowski focused on her own experience as a legislative spearhead for the Mayor and other city offices and on her commitment to environmental and other issues. Both candidates are whip-smart, well-informed, articulate, personable, and clearly qualified, a situation unusual in Northeastern Minnesota.

    If twenty years ago someone had said that a candidate with aggressive backing from every labor organization in town would lose a Duluth election by 12 points, most people would have said that was crazy, but defections of rank and file to MAGA and union opposition to environmental issues has made labor much less relevant to politics in Duluth. Based on personal conversations, it is also clear that members of some more progressive unions that had closed ranks with their brothers on Forsman defected to Kozlowski in large numbers. Male versus female politics also played a role. But in the end, once again Polymet was a kiss of death for elective office in Duluth.

    Koxlowski’s victory sets her up to run against — wait for it — Becky Hall, as more or less every progressive politician in East Duluth must sooner or later. Although on the surface, given the vehemence of unions in this election, it might seem that Hall could put together a coalition of Republicans and conservative union and corporate Democrats and finally win. However, personal attraction to Forsman, respect for Renee Van Nett so soon after her death — her endorsement of Foesman was front and center in his campaign — and middle-of-the-road preferences drove a lot of Forsman voters, very few of whom will be attracted to the far-right Hall. Hall may gain some support from business types and pro-sulfide mining fanatics, but in the end I think Kozlowski will become one more progressive to jump over Becky Hall on her way to office, and will help solidify the power of the left wing in Duluth.

    One last note. Representative Liz Olson (8A, formerly 7B,) who has often tried hard to stay out of the battle over non-ferrous mining and protect her standing with the unions, was an early, prominent, and active endorser of Kozlowski, one more sign that labor power is approaching the end of days.

  2. It’s nice to move away from the one party system we used to have. Competition is good.

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