Range prepares to replace veteran lawmaker Rukavina

Janatopoulos with voters
DFL Legislative District 6B candidate Lorrie Janatopoulos, center, speaks with voters at Mary's Morsels cafe in Eveleth, Minn., on Aug. 9, 2012. Janatopoulos squares off in a primary election Tuesday against Jason Metsa and Dave Meyer for the DFL nomination to replace retiring legislator Tom Rukavina.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

The battle among three DFLers for the party's nomination to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack has received most of the attention in northeast Minnesota.

But there's another hotly contested DFL primary under way in the region. The battle to be the DFL's nominee to replace state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, has divided loyalties on the Iron Range.

Bar owner Pat Ryan has an informal rule inside his Giant's Pub in downtown Biwabik, Minn.

"Bars are for football and other things," Ryan says. "Religion or politics don't belong in bars."

But he's making an exception for Lorrie Janatopoulos, one of three Democrats vying to win the seat Rukavina held since 1987. Ryan tells her he's frustrated with politicians who he says are just in it to get re-elected.

"I do believe in public service," Janatopoulos says, "and for me this isn't a career politician move."

Jason Metsa
DFL Legislative District 6B candidate Jason Metsa calls voters on Aug. 9, 2012, in advance of Tuesday's primary election. Metsa faces Lorrie Janatopoulos and Dave Meyer in the race for the DFL nomination to replace retiring Rep. Tom Rukavina.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

Janatopoulos says the constant refrain she hears from people like Ryan is the need for jobs. And one of the biggest potential employers is just up the road from Biwabik.

Mining has a central role in this race, as it does with so much of the Iron Range's politics and history.

The proposed Polymet copper-nickel mine in Hoyt Lakes holds the promise of hundreds of high-paying jobs in a struggling region. And a lot of people on the Range are frustrated with the long environmental permitting process that has slowed the project.

Janatopoulos is one of three Democrats vying to replace Rukavina. She supports the Polymet project and believes the mine can address concerns environmental groups have raised that mine runoff could poison lakes and streams.

"I believe we can do it safely with the technology we have, and we need to move forward on that," she says.

On paper, everyone in the race supports copper-nickel mining. But Aaron Brown, a well-known news and culture blogger on the Range, says for some people, that's not good enough. He says they want to hear a candidate say: "I will do whatever possible to ensure that this mining does happen as soon as I can, no matter what the conditions."

Yard signs
Yard signs for Lorrie Janatopoulos and Jason Metsa compete for drivers' attention along a neighborhood street in Biwabik, Minn.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

Another DFLer in the race, Jason Metsa, has essentially taken that pledge.

Metsa has lined up the support of most of the unions on the Iron Range through his work as a field organizer for the AFL-CIO. Wearing a Twins cap low on his brow, Metsa says he's tired of watching friends leave the Range for jobs elsewhere.

"We need to get the mining projects on the Range up and running," Metsa says, "and it's time to go down to St. Paul and push a little harder on that front and make sure the jobs get up here."

In many ways, Metsa and Janatopoulos are a study in contrasts. She's 55 and touts her experience working in social services on the Range for nearly three decades. He's 32 and argues he'll bring fresh ideas to St. Paul.

Both are well connected to the DFL establishment. Janatopoulos worked on one of Rukavina's first campaigns back in the 1980s. Metsa has worked on most major DFL campaigns on the Iron Range over the past six years. Both sought the party's endorsement, but none came out of the 6th District convention. The third DFLer in the race, Dave Meyer, is a longtime construction worker and union member.

"I refer to this primary as an Iron Range family disagreement."

Brown, who also teaches communications at Hibbing Community College, says this is a tough vote for a lot of Range DFLers.

"I refer to this primary as an Iron Range family disagreement," he says, "because they're two people who you'd find in other years working on the same campaign."

For Rukavina, it literally is a family disagreement. His daughter, a labor organizer herself, has endorsed Janatopoulos. But the retiring lawmaker backs Metsa. Rukavina argues that Metsa's youth is an advantage, because he has more time to build seniority at the state Capitol.

"I think that the longer a person can stay there, the more good they're going to do for this area," Rukavina says, "because often times we're at loggerheads with everybody down there."

Legislative District 6B is dominated by the DFL. But for the first time in recent memory there's also a Republican primary in the area, pitting Dan Darbo against Jesse Colangelo.

Colangelo has been endorsed by the Republican Party. He is a registered nurse and a union member, as he stressed at a recent debate in Virginia.

"I have no intention to ever make Minnesota a 'right-to-work' state," Colangelo says. "I know that people are afraid of Republicans for that reason, and that's not me. I will advocate to protect those rights that our forefathers gave us."

The fight for Rukavina's seat takes place against the backdrop of Cravaack's upset of longtime incumbent Jim Oberstar. While no one expects a repeat in this legislative race, the vote counts in the primary may provide another clue about the direction of northeastern Minnesota politics.

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