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6B House primary may turn on mining, jobs

Briana Bierschbach//July 25, 2012//

6B House primary may turn on mining, jobs

Briana Bierschbach//July 25, 2012//

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Union organizer and campaigner Jason Metsa has taken the apparent lead in the race, boasting a prominent family name and support from more than a dozen unions and a handful of Iron Range heavy-hitters. (Submitted photo)

Front-runner Metsa has backing of labor groups, Rukavina

Voters are faced with a familiar dilemma in the heart of the Minnesota Iron Range.

The unexpected retirement of 26-year DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina at the end of session has left a big hole in DFL-friendly House District 6B, which stretches across cities like Virginia and Eveleth and includes some of the state’s most mining-dependent towns. Rukavina retired after the precinct caucus meeting that would have normally anointed his successor, and an endorsement contest in May deadlocked after five ballots, so three DFLers have signed on for an August primary election to win the endorsement to take Rukavina’s place.

Union organizer and campaigner Jason Metsa has taken the apparent lead in the race, boasting a prominent family name and support from more than a dozen unions and a handful of Iron Range heavy-hitters like Rukavina himself and former lawmakers Joe Begich and Jerry Janezich. But Metsa was blocked from earning the DFL endorsement back in May by Lorrie Janatopoulos, a longtime community organizer and volunteer who is pulling in strong support from progressives and women’s groups.

By most accounts, the race has boiled down to the classic Iron Range political standoff between union-backed Democrats and the more progressive wing of the DFL Party. Rounding out the trio of candidates is Dave Meyer, a construction worker and longtime union member who is admittedly running a low-budget, underdog campaign.

“Lorrie is more in tune with the progressives and Metsa is more of a labor guy. Usually it’s labor and the big shots that line up to beat the progressives up here,” DFL Iron Range blogger Aaron Brown said. “It’s kind of like watching the Yankees play when you watch Metsa play politics; he’s very good at it. Can the Yankees be beat? Yes. But will they be beat?”

Metsa leads the pack

Metsa is only 32 years old, but his family name boasts a long history on the Range. A fifth-generation Iron Ranger, Metsa is the grandson of a former mayor in the district, and his father has been a principal at several schools around the area. After college Metsa ran a painting company that took him all over the United States (and even to Europe) before the economy collapsed. In 2007, he began organizing a number of Range political campaigns: He worked as the 8th Congressional District political director for both U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton, and he was the field director for Rukavina’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

Since the 2010 election, Metsa helped a handful of female candidates running in special elections, including Rep. Susan Allen and Sen. Kari Dziedzic of Minneapolis, and DFL Rep. Carly Melin, who won a special election to replace former House Majority Leader Tony Sertich. Metsa was hired to coordinate political operations for the North East Area Labor Council last September.

“If it wasn’t for Jason Metsa, Al Franken wouldn’t be a U.S. senator,” Rukavina said.  “The votes were so close in that race, and I know all that Jason did up here on the Range. The same goes for Mark Dayton and Amy Klobuchar.”

“I figure a lot of us owe Jason, and I trust him and I know where he comes from and where he is going to go for us,” Rukavina added, noting that, like Metsa, he ran his first campaign for the House when he was 32. “I want someone who is going to stick around there for ten terms and get us some clout in St. Paul.”

Alongside Rukavina, Metsa has racked up many other endorsements: 14 different unions or union officials are backing him, including local units of the AFL-CIO and MAPE and teachers union Education Minnesota, as well as 11 current and past local officials.

Janatopoulos has been a DFLer since her junior year in high school, when she volunteered at a State Fair booth for former DFL U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar. Since then she has been involved with her local DFL caucus on the Iron Range. She was a volunteer on Rukavina’s first campaign for the House. She worked for a decade doing constituent services in St. Louis County, and for the last 16 years she has worked with Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency (AEOA), serving most of that time as planning director at the agency.

“I have over 30 years of volunteer experience, from sexual assault board to coaching little league softball. I was taught that it was important to give back to the community,” she said. “I don’t shy away from controversial issues. I also have experience working with people who don’t agree with me.”

Janatopoulos has the support of progressive female advocacy group Women Winning, the Hibbing-Virginia Typographical Union Local 727, OutFront and Project 515. She also has the support of Rukavina’s daughter, Ida Rukavina.

Dave Meyer didn’t seek the DFL endorsement back in May, but he did register to run in a primary for the seat before the early-June filing deadline. Meyer is a construction worker active in Laborer’s Union Local 1097. He ran unsuccessfully for Aurora city council two years ago, and spent 16 years as a firefighter for the Department of Natural Resources.

“I’ve gotten up in my years and I’m just not happy with the way things are going with the system that we have,” Meyer said, adding that he is running a modest campaign out of his home in Aurora. “I put it in layman’s terms. I don’t come out with words people don’t understand. I’m running as honest as I can.”

Progressive versus labor

DFL Rep. Carly Melin is opting to stay out of the race until after the primary election, but as someone who ran a vigorous primary election in the district last February, she knows what DFL voters in the area want to hear from candidates.

“Tom’s district and my district are the core Iron Range districts, so mining is a very important issue, as well as the general economy, and education,” she said. “We also have an aging demographic, so senior services are always a really important topic.”

All three candidates hit those topics when asked about their legislative priorities, but the touchiest issue of the three – mining – is where some DFLers are hoping to make a distinction between Metsa and Janatopoulos. Metsa says he is unwavering in his support for any and all pending mining projects on the Iron Range. “[They] would bring well over $2 billion in private industry money up here to create jobs,” Metsa said. “The majority of the people want to see those go through.”

Janatopoulos voices just as strong support for mining projects, but Brown says Metsa supporters have tried to portray her as somewhat hesitant on moving forward with mining projects. “This is a high-octane mining debate,” Brown said. “It’s a litmus test within a litmus test. You can’t just be for mining; you have to be willing to shut off any doubts. Anything that would delay mining would be just as bad as stopping mining.”

Jake Littler, who ran Rukavina’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, is supporting Metsa in the race, and thinks he has the drive and campaign savvy to pull off a win, but he is also aware of Janatopoulos’ far reach in the community after decades of community service.

“Jason understands targeting and he understands the issues and the people in the area. If he can keep up the pace, I think he will win,” Littler said. In 2010 Janatopoulos ran for St. Louis County Commissioner against Keith Nelson, losing by more than 10 percentage points. “That does give her some name recognition,” Littler added. “Not to mention her work with AEOA. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been helped by someone in that program.”

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