Tuesday, January 11, 2011 By Aaron Brown
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.
MN HOUSE 5B
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.