'Lorrie' takes on Nelson for St. Louis County Board seat

Lorrie Janatopoulos got around the name thing on her campaign signs this fall by simply having "LORRIE" printed in big letters. She's hoping that voters will cast a ballot for the first-time candidate for the St. Louis County Board -- even if her...

Keith Nelson
Keith Nelson

Lorrie Janatopoulos got around the name thing on her campaign signs this fall by simply having "LORRIE" printed in big letters.

She's hoping that voters will cast a ballot for the first-time candidate for the St. Louis County Board -- even if her name is Greek to them.

But she'll have to overcome a lot more than her hard-to-spell last name to win on Nov. 2.

Janatopoulos, 53, of rural Eveleth is challenging popular incumbent Keith Nelson for the County Board seat that covers the Quad Cities on the Iron Range and townships south nearly to Duluth's suburbs.

Nelson, 52, also of rural Eveleth, has served on the board since 2002. He's a third-generation farmer, a former taconite plant worker and a small-business owner, including of a convenience store.


Janatopoulos is making her first run for office but has been a longtime DFL party and community activist. She's the planning director for the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency and previously served as aide to former County Commissioner Liz Prebich. She says her current job and past experience give her invaluable experience to be a county commissioner.

"I've dealt with budgets. I've dealt with constituents who have problems and worked to find solutions," she said. "I have experience on the issues the county deals with every day."

Nelson has been the County Board's chief budget cruncher in recent years. He works with staff to develop the basic blueprint that other commissioners help massage and that determines the county's share of local property taxes. It's a job Nelson relishes, and he often touts the county's stingy tax increases.

"Each and every family in this county is tightening their belts. The message I want to send is that St. Louis County is tightening our belt, too," Nelson said last month when the board set its maximum tax levy for 2011 at just 0.6 percent above 2010.

Part of that budget-cutting effort, spurred by big state cuts in payments to the county, has come at the expense of county jobs -- more than 600 have been shed over the past decade.

With those efforts to cut county budget and staff, Nelson has come under fire from county employees, for what they consider to be disrespectful comments during board meetings and for his role in slashing budgets.

County employee unions -- including the St. Louis County Sheriff's Deputy Association Local 288, Teamsters Joint Council 32 DRIVE and AFSCME Minnesota Council 5 -- have endorsed Janatopoulos.

Nelson has said the bad blood is spurred by his efforts to keep county budgets lean, including staff pay and benefits, and that he is not disrespectful to workers on the job. The rift widened last year when Nelson and the majority of the board voted to cut county ties with the Chris Jensen nursing home in Duluth, which had been staffed by county workers. Those workers now are employed by a private firm.


The board also cut home-care services in Duluth low-income apartments that had been staffed by county employees.

Nelson notes that the county's work force has been trimmed from about 2,300 to about 1,680 without layoffs, mostly through attrition, and that the county has streamlined its staff by innovative measures such as having highway sign and bridge crews serving on snowplows during snow emergencies.

Janatopoulos and some county labor leaders say Nelson has been disrespectful and downright mean in his dealings with county employees. She said Nelson's frequent criticisms of county workers have been disruptive to county government.

"I'm running because I know I have the skills and experience to be a great county commissioner, to bring people together to find solutions," Janatopoulos said. "But I'm also running because I can be a better leader than our current commissioner. Leaders listen to everyone on an issue. Leaders are respectful of others' opinions and viewpoints. Our current commissioner has not been respectful, and that's hurting our ability to get things done."

Nelson also has been active in supporting the Northern Lights Express, the proposed Twin Ports-to-Twin Cities passenger rail line that Nelson says will boost the regional economy and someday include spurs to bring people to the Iron Range.

Being a county commissioner is the toughest job he's ever had, Nelson said, adding that he works on county issues 50 to 60 hours a week, often behind the scenes. But he said it's also his most rewarding job ever.

"It's all about customer service," Nelson told the News Tribune. "My agenda is the people I serve."

That credo might have led him into a political and ethical quagmire when he stated at a 2007 County Board meeting, when pressed by another commissioner, that he is so intent on representing his constituents that he would even support slavery if his constituents did.


The slavery comment, widely seen on YouTube, was also widely criticized, including by the Virginia Human Rights Commission. Nelson later said he apologized if his words offended anyone. But he has also blamed the issue's traction on political opponents among county labor unions and on Duluth media, including the Duluth News Tribune, which he says are biased against him.

Janatopoulos said Nelson seems too quick to blame others.

"I'm finding a lot of people don't really know who our commissioner is or what they do," Janatopoulos said. "But I'm also running into people who say they know Keith for what he's said at some board meetings and that they don't appreciate how he's acted."

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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