Anoka County Board actions bolster her case to GOP activists
Rhonda Sivarajah isn’t typically regarded as the conservative lightning rod in the GOP race to succeed U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District. That reputation is owned by her main competitor for the endorsement, Tom Emmer, the 2010 gubernatorial nominee and former radio talk show host known for his Tea Party bombast.
But Sivarajah, of Lino Lakes, who entered the race in June, has used her role as chair of the Anoka County Board of Commissioners to push through a series of measures that could burnish her image among activists in the state’s most conservative congressional district.
This past spring, the board irked labor unions by doing away with the prevailing wage requirement for county-funded projects. Then, last month, the board rebuffed the DFL-controlled state Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton by refusing to levy a local-option $10 wheelage tax that the DFL had placed at its disposal. It was hardly the only county to do so, but the board garnered headlines when it went so far as to revoke the $5 wheelage tax Anoka County had already been already assessing.
And most recently, the county’s Human Services Committee, of which Sivarajah is also chair, drew the outspoken ire of DFL legislators in Anoka County by making itself the only county in Minnesota not to pursue a State Health Improvement Program (SHIP) grant that would have meant $1 million for health programs in schools. Four DFL legislators signed a letter protesting the board’s vote on the SHIP funds. One of the signatories, Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, told Capitol Report the vote was tied up with Sivarajah’s political ambitions and overlooked the health needs of Anoka County schools.
“They can be creative with those SHIP funds and put them where they think they are the most important,” Goodwin said. “But to just to say, ‘No, we’re not going to even take it,’ I don’t know what kind of sacrifice they think it is, quite frankly. I think it is a political move because Rhonda is wanting to run for higher office. She’s going to be able to go for the endorsement in her party and say how conservative she was.”
Answering her critics
Sivarajah, however, defends the move, arguing that the board shouldn’t apply for money just because it’s available. She said the increased staffing head count in schools that the money would underwrite isn’t necessary.
“They are going into school districts helping their staff set up wellness policies, assisting their staff in rewriting their assistance policies,” Sivarajah said. “And the way I look at it is, you have nutritionists in schools. You have school nurses and health educators who are all pretty smart people. If they can’t write their own wellness policy, there is something seriously wrong. It’s about growing the bureaucracy.”
She said fiscal restraint was also a central reason for revoking the wheelage tax.
“It certainly would have been easy to just let it go on auto-pilot and let it go up to $10,” she said. “There was no vote required to do that. But we couldn’t in good conscience say, let’s have a 100-percent increase in the wheelage tax. It just didn’t make sense to us at the County Board, so we chose to go back to zero.”
And on the subject of whether the positions she pushes on the county board are politically motivated, she answers firmly in the negative.
“There are some people that want to say she’s running for Congress and that’s why she’s doing this. That’s not how I operate,” Sivarajah said.
While Sivarajah’s views are true to her philosophy on governing, they also play a role in distinguishing her from a 6th CD field in which Emmer is pressing his conservative bona fides, along with other competitors. At the district’s northern edge in St. Cloud, state Sen. John Pederson jumped in the race in July. In the southern part of the district in Anoka County, Sivarajah’s long-time political ally and Taxpayers League of Minnesota President Phil Krinkie also got in the race last month. When Krinkie ran for the 6th CD GOP endorsement the last time it was open in 2006, Sivarajah managed his campaign. Neither Pederson nor Sivarajah are up for re-election next year in their current offices.
In pursuing the endorsement, all of these candidates face the challenge of overcoming Emmer’s name recognition as a former statewide candidate and his strength in Wright County, which boasts the largest concentration of GOP delegates of any area in the state. State Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, stood with Sivarajah when she announced her candidacy on June 12 and supports her bid for Congress. Benson, who is also a friend of Emmer’s and hasn’t officially endorsed Sivarajah, said catching up with Emmer’s position in the campaign is a central challenge for Sivarajah.
“She has to make that extra effort so that people know her, trust her, support her,” Benson said. “People already know Tom, so he’s way ahead on that. A lot of delegates have supported him in the past, so it’s just overcoming that momentum.”
Benson said that as Sivarajah meets with GOP activists, she can tout her record on the County Board as “strong evidence that she doesn’t just talk a good game.”
Might opt for primary run
Though Sivarajah is seeking the 6th CD GOP endorsement, she has said she’s undecided about whether she will run in a primary if she loses. “I certainly plan to seek the endorsement and be successful in that process, but beyond that I have not made a decision,” Sivarajah said.
Sivarajah grew up near Cambridge, north of the Twin Cities. Her father worked far from home in the merchant marine on the Great Lakes. She graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in international relations. Her husband, Ran, who is a retired Roseville police officer, now provides security at the federal building in St. Paul. They have two children, one in high school and one in college. Her older child is deaf, and Sivarajah serves on the board of the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans.
She spent 12 years working on the human services staff for Anoka County before running for the Anoka County Board in 2002. She beat eight other candidates in that race, joining the seven-member board as its lone conservative. The balance of power has since changed, and Sivarajah became chair in 2011.
Sivarajah counts among her accomplishments the 2011 budget year, in which Anoka County was one of few Minnesota counties to lower its property tax levy – paring it by more than 7 percent.
“As every other county was pointing a finger [at the Legislature] and saying, ‘Goodness, you’re raising property taxes because of the changes in the market value homestead credit,’ we basically said, we have a problem,” she recalls. “We have thousands who are really on the edge. Thousands of people who are in foreclosure and struggling to make ends meet. How can I justify going to them and saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to raise your property taxes’?”
This is not the first time Sivarajah has campaigned against Emmer. In the 2010 battle for the GOP gubernatorial endorsement between Emmer and former Rep. Marty Seifert, Sivarajah was Seifert’s running mate. At the time, Seifert was painted as the preferred candidate of establishment Republicans, while Emmer was cast as the Tea Party firebrand. Sivarajah doesn’t think that characterization is apt anymore now that that Emmer has served as the party’s nominee for governor.
“At some point in time, the new group becomes the establishment,” Sivarajah said. “And really, at this point in time, that’s really what Tom Emmer is. He is the establishment. He was the candidate that was endorsed in 2010. Those are the same people that were still there in 2012 and will be in 2014, [and they] are pretty much controlling a lot of the structure. So I’m not sure how I could be labeled as the establishment.”
Sivarajah has enjoyed strong support in her County Board seat. She said her re-election in 2008 by 65 percent is evidence that she can secure the GOP base along with independents and conservative Democrats.
University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs agreed with the consensus that Emmer has the advantage in the GOP field. But he said Emmer’s style could work against as well as for him in courting 6th CD Republicans.
“I don’t think all of Emmer’s name recognition is positive,” Jacobs said. “And I think that for some voters in the district, other than the Democrats, there is a little bit of fatigue of the brazen conservative. So there could be an opening for her.”