Raukar reflects on 28 years on St. Louis County Board

HIBBING -- Steve Raukar's office in the courthouse here became a defacto museum over the years, chock full of boxes, photos, proclamations, cartoons, newspaper clippings and scrapbooks acquired while serving nearly three decades on the St. Louis ...

Outgoing St. Louis County Commissioner Steve Raukar sits in his chairman's seat in the county board meeting room in Duluth recently. Raukar is retiring after 28 years on the board. (Steve Kuchera /

HIBBING - Steve Raukar’s office in the courthouse here became a defacto museum over the years, chock full of boxes, photos, proclamations, cartoons, newspaper clippings and scrapbooks acquired while serving nearly three decades on the St. Louis County Board.

The longtime county commissioner wasn’t sure what to do with it all as he moves out to make room for his successor, Mike Jugovich of Chisholm, by the end of the month.

“Now where do I put all of this?’’ he wondered aloud, anticipating the move.

Raukar, who was elected when Ronald Reagan was still president and Rudy Perpich of Hibbing was governor, is leaving the County Board and politics on his own terms, opting not to run again this year.

The 64-year-old nearly lifelong Hibbing resident (he grew up in the house next to Bob Dylan) was first elected to the board in 1988. He represents the 7th District that includes the southwestern corner of the county, including Hibbing, Chisholm, Floodwood and Meadowlands.


Raukar’s 28 years of board service is the most of any active commissioner. (Bill Kron of Duluth holds the record on the board with 32 years ending in 2008.)

“I feel I was able to accomplish a lot,” Raukar said during an interview in his Hibbing courthouse office earlier this month, adding that he never felt compelled to use the county post as a springboard to state or federal office.

“I think we’ve made county government more accessible to the people,” Raukar said. “But the landscape is changing (in politics.) At some point you have to say enough is enough. It’s good to know when it’s time to move on, and it’s time for me to move on.”

That won’t mean moving away. Raukar and his wife, Trish, will stay in Hibbing (In Kelly Lake, “the wrong side of the tracks” as he puts it.). They may travel more but they want to be close to their children and grandchildren, in Hibbing and Hermantown, and Raukar wants to keep up his curling, golfing and photography.

Move away from cronyism

Raukar says he’s most proud of how county government moved, slowly at first, from a very parochial, political government to a professional, businesslike operation. That happened, Raukar says, because the county moved to an administrative form of governance where a professional administrator runs the day-to-day operations of the county and the County Board sets long-term policy.

The county has become “a well-run service delivery system” for government programs, many of them mandated by state and federal law but left to counties to operate, Raukar said.

“When I got in, there were still power struggles between department heads. There were silos and a lot of competition, between departments and between commissioners,” Raukar said. “Those silos have broken down now. There’s cooperation across departmental lines. We’re  delivering services more efficiently, and that’s good for the residents of the county.”


Raukar has been a tireless supporter of the Northern Lights Express passenger rail proposal between Duluth and the Twin Cities and hopes to keep serving on the NLX board even after he leaves the county post.

“It’s passed all the hurdles in the way. The numbers show it can work. … Now we just need to get the funding,” Raukar said.

Raukar was on the board when the county moved to a uniform 911 system, a combined solid waste landfill and collection system (outside the Duluth area) and a regional corrections system. There have been tough votes and tough choices along the way, he said, like getting out of the nursing home business, a move opposed by union workers. Building a single county jail in Duluth, but also developing overnight lockups in Hibbing and Virginia and joint law enforcement offices in the Range cities, also was a controversial decision, he said.

“Some people on the Range wanted a second new jail up here, but it didn’t make financial sense,” Raukar said. “We made a good compromise.”

St. Louis County also has been more willing to work with other governments to combine efforts, like county public works garages combined with city and state highway departments in Ely and in Hibbing.

Meanwhile the county has slowly been moving its more than 1,500 employees out of rented office space and into county-owned buildings, investing in buildings instead of paying rent.

“We’re better serving people for less money,” said Raukar, who spent many years heading the County Board’s budgeting efforts, using skills he said he learned from longtime Commissioner Herb Lamppa of Tower.

“Herb was a math teacher and he really knew numbers and the budget. But he also made sure things were fair, right down the line,’’ Raukar said.


Raukar said he’s also tried to help mend long-simmering Iron Range-Duluth rifts. Those efforts have led to cooperation on a host of issues, from tearing down blighted, tax-forfeited properties to combining assessor’s offices and developing a joint, city-county law enforcement center in Duluth.

There are still some north-south tensions and conflicts on the board, Raukar conceded, but not nearly as many as in past years.

“It’s all but disappeared. We’re bringing down those walls pretty well,” Raukar noted, adding that he’s opposed efforts to split the county in two. “We get a lot of attention up here (from state and federal officials) because we are the biggest county (in the U.S.) east of the Mississippi River.”

The 2014 County Board vote to impose a new countywide sales tax to pay for road repairs became one of those north vs. south rifts, at least for a while. Some Duluth city officials worried that most of the tax would be raised in Duluth, where most stores and restaurants are, but be spent in rural areas, where most county roads are.

Eventually, Duluth commissioners voted for the tax, confident that the county’s administrators would spend the money equitably in and out of the city.

“The money is going where it’s needed the most, in and out of Duluth. It’s being decided through a long-term plan,” Raukar said.

Frank Jewell, county commissioner representing central Duluth, said Raukar often worked to keep controversy and confrontation out of board meetings.

“Steve has a liberal side to him and he’s very passionate about some things, like people and the arts. He’s a big supporter of local arts in the county,” Jewell said. “He also had that knowledge, from being around so long, of how things have developed over time and how the budget got where it was. He was very good on budget issues. We’re going to miss that experience.”


From art teacher to politics

Raukar graduated from St. Cloud State University with a teaching degree and plans to be an art teacher. But he diverted to the state capital and a government job, working for the Minnesota State Arts Board in 1975, as a public information officer, and was part of the U.S. bicentennial planning efforts for towns across the state.

Raukar and his wife moved back to Hibbing in 1977, and he worked for two years as an art teacher in the Nashwauk-Keewatin School District. Raukar was working in advertising sales for the Hibbing Daily Tribune when he ran for and won his first County Board race in 1988. That primary, where his opponents included now-state Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm, was his most difficult race of all.

Raukar hasn’t had any close elections since then. But his time on the board hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

In 2007, Raukar was accused of making improper sexual advances during late-night telephone calls to the county’s media relations spokeswoman, Ellen Quinn, while both were out of town at a conference.

Raukar acknowledged being responsible for the phone calls and said he apologized to the County Board, his family and to Quinn. In August 2007, a resolution that would have formerly censured Raukar for the incident failed on a 3-3 tie vote with Raukar abstaining. Raukar said his actions did not warrant censure.

“It did not rise to the level of sexual harassment,” he said on the day of the County Board vote. “Both of the calls were to socialize, and I shouldn’t have made them given the late hour.”

Quinn eventually filed a lawsuit against the county claiming Raukar’s actions, and actions by other county commissioners over the years, amounted to sexual harassment and that she was bullied into leaving her job. The lawsuit was dismissed in September 2010, with the judge saying the federal law cited in the suit didn’t apply.


Despite the allegations, Raukar was re-elected in 2010 and again in 2014 for an unusual two-year term as part of a County Board move to stagger the terms of the three Iron Range commissioners so they were not all up for re-election at the same time.

The affirmation of being re-elected so often and with so little opposition makes it seem like folks in his district are happy with Raukar’s performance over the decades.

“You’d like to think you are doing the right thing to keep the job like that,” he said. “People up here aren’t afraid to let you know what they are thinking, but that’s a good thing. … It’s been a good run.”

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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