Anzelc faces Layman, Barsness for House 5B seat

On a map, Minnesota House District 5B looks like an accordion squeezed from all sides -- a few leftover cities and townships after the 2011 effort to redraw legislative lines to account for population shifts.


On a map, Minnesota House District 5B looks like an accordion squeezed from all sides - a few leftover cities and townships after the 2011 effort to redraw legislative lines to account for population shifts.

It’s west of the core Iron Range but includes Grand Rapids and Coleraine, dives into the heart of the lake country of north-central Minnesota to grab Remer, Backus and Pine River and includes big swathes of rural Cass and Itasca counties.

Incumbent DFLer Tom Anzelc says it’s still Democratic territory. But there’s a history of Republican voting in the region and it’s clearly the most competitive legislative race in the Northland this year - so much so that the statewide political parties are eyeing it as a key factor for either side to control the House in 2017: DFLers need to keep it and Republicans - backing well-known Grand Rapids-area businesswoman Sandy Layman - think they can steal it away.

Throw in a third party candidate with a history of attracting votes, Dennis Barsness of the Green Party, and the 5B race becomes a wild card that will be hard to pick. (Barsness landed 23 percent of the vote in a 2014 Itasca County Board race.)

Anzelc, who lives in the far northeastern corner of the district in rural Balsam Township, was thrown into the district in 2012 along with Republican incumbent Carolyn McElfatrick, both of whom saw their previous, adjoining districts erased and redrawn to form the new 5B. Anzelc won that bid between incumbents, 53.5-to-46.5 percent, then came back to win in 2014 against Republican challenger Justin Eichorn 56-to-43.
Now Anzelc up against Layman, who had the high-profile job of commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.


As could be expected, jobs and the cyclical Iron Range economy are by far the biggest issue in the race. Layman is stressing her small business background and experience at the IRRRB as a selling point for the House. But she’s also touting the benefits of electing a Republican, especially if Republicans keep control of the House. That would give her an in where House DFLers are on the outs.

“What happens in St. Paul matters,” Layman said during a recent debate, adding that she’s sensing a strong desire across the district for new representation. She blames the state DFL party for holding down small businesses across the state with high taxes and health-care costs and for opposing copper mining, even if Iron Range DFLers support it.

“The biggest theme for me is that people want change. People are seeing that forces outside the area, in the Twin Cities, are dictating our economic future,” Layman told the News Tribune. “I’m running with the Republican Party because Republicans align with small business interests and are very supportive of our mining and timber industries.”

Layman stresses her experience as IRRRB commissioner, not just with businesses but working with DFL lawmakers to get important legislation and policy passed, including efforts to boost higher education on the Range - namely a four-year, hands-on engineering program.

Anzelc, of course, was also instrumental in getting that policy passed and he said the district deserves to have his experience and skill set at the Capitol. He’s been a key player in behind-the-scenes efforts to salvage the Essar Steel Minnesota project and has worked to bring the One Aviation subsidiary to Grand Rapids to make airplane parts.

Anzelc closely follows the global iron ore and steel industries and was among the first Iron Range officials to foretell the crippling downturn of 2014-15. While he applauds state and federal efforts to help recover taconite jobs, he said yet another downturn shows how critical it is to diversify the economy.

Anzelc stresses that he’s a lifelong Ranger who grew up in a company-owned home in a company-owned mining location where his father walked to the mine each day. Now, he lives on a lake in the Chippewa National Forest - on a dirt road, he likes to note - where he says the benefits of life in the Northland are bountiful.

Anzelc said public schools will remain his priority at the Capitol, especially increased state funding for districts that are losing population and tax base.


“The great public schools are the backbone of the Iron Range. They were my passport out of poverty,” he said at the debate.

But he said job creation and diversification must remain paramount for the region.

“We educate our kids well. We raise them well. We give them our values. But all too often they have to leave... to go where the jobs are,” Anzelc lamented.

Both Layman and Anzelc support diversification into copper-nickel mining, such as the proposed PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes.

On copper mining, Anzelc said that “the politicians need to take a step back and… we need to let science be our guide,” adding that the science so far shows it can be done right.

Barsness is categorically against copper mining, saying the potential environmental damage isn’t worth the few jobs, especially for a cyclical industry marked by regular layoffs and corporate instability.

“I’m totally opposed to the sulfide precious metal copper nickel mining,” he said. “There's really not anything anyone can say to change my mind.”

Barsness lays out his agenda as “clean air and water, economic growth, sustainable wages, affordable education... growth in local agriculture and community rights to industrial responsibility and accountability.”


He describes himself as a born-again follower of Jesus Christ, a rare mix with his strong environmental background and Green Party affiliation.

“I’m getting some pretty positive views on it. I’m hoping people are ready to try something different,” Barsness told the News Tribune.

Barsness said that sustainable economic growth, not built on cyclical industries such as mining, builds strong communities.

“I support small business and local farmers. I favor community rights that keep local people in control, not foreign interests. I support wages that can sustain families, not dead-end jobs. I believe in environmental responsibility rather than environmental plundering,” Barsness notes on his website.

“The two-party system has failed to hear many. It has become a fixed system controlled by corporate interests,” he added. “Corporations are not people, and money doesn't equal free speech. Corporate funding should be taken out of campaigning.”

Tom Anzelc, DFL

  • AGE:  70
  • HOME: Balsam Township
  • OCCUPATION:  Retired teacher, labor leader.
  • EDUCATION: Nashwauk-Keewatin High School; Hibbing Community College; St. Cloud State University
  • ELECTED/CIVIC EXPERIENCE:  First elected to the House in 2006; former St. Louis County commissioner; served as assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services under then-Gov. Rudy Perpich; legislative coordinator for the Laborers Union District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota for 12 years
  • ENDORSEMENTS: United Steelworkers of America; Education Minnesota teachers’ union; AFL-CIO; Building and Construction Trades unions; Minnesota Peace and Police Officers  Association; Farmers Union; Farm Bureau; Minnesota Gun Owners Alliance; National Rifle Association; Minnesota Nurses Association; Teamsters; Minnesota DFL party; Duluth News Tribune.
  • FAMILY: Three grown daughters.
  • WEBSITE: ; Facebook at Tom Anzelc.


Sandy Layman, Republican

  • AGE:  66  
  • HOME: Cohasset
  • OCCUPATION: Owner, Layman Consulting
  • EDUCATION:  Brooklyn Center High School; BA degree in organizational management & communications, Concordia University; masters in executive management, University of St. Thomas.
  • ELECTED/CIVIC EXPERIENCE:  Served as commissioner of the IRRRB from 2003 to 2011. Adjunct faculty, College of St. Scholastica, 2011-16; president, Itasca Development Corporation, 1997-2003; president, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, 1987-97.
  • ENDORSEMENTS: National Federation of Independent Businesses; Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life; Voices of Conservative Women; Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Leadership.
  • FAMILY: Husband, Bill; two sons, one grandson
  • WEBSITE: ; Facebook at Sandy Layman for State Representative

Dennis Barsness, Green

  • AGE: 48
  • HOME: Trout Lake Township
  • OCCUPATION:  Handyman; personal care attendant; pastor at "His spirit fills us" fellowship.
  • EDUCATION: Greenway High School; electricians school
  • ELECTED/CIVIC EXPERIENCE:  Member of Grand Rapids Voice, a local watchdog group. Ran unsuccessfully for Itasca County Board in 2014 but managed nearly 23 percent of the vote.
  • ENDORSEMENTS: Green Party.
  • FAMILY: Single father, two children.
  • WEBSITE: ; Facebook at Dennis Barsness for Representative 5B.
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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