Saxhaug faces challenge from Eichorn in Senate 5

Justin Eichorn made a run at DFL state Rep. Tom Anzelc last year and came up just short, so now he's taking aim at at incumbent DFLer Tom Saxhaug and the Minnesota Senate.


Justin Eichorn made a run at DFL state Rep. Tom Anzelc last year and came up just short, so now he’s taking aim at at incumbent DFLer Tom Saxhaug and the Minnesota Senate.

The race for Senate District 5 pits the young conservative Eichorn against the veteran Saxhaug - both from Grand Rapids - in the district that covers a huge swath of Itasca County along with parts of Beltrami, Cass and Hubbard counties.

Saxhaug, a retired insurance agent and former county commissioner, has been a key player in St. Paul on education and natural-resource issues. He serves as chairman of the Finance Committee’s State Departments and Veterans Budget Division and also serves on the K-12 Education Finance Division.

At a candidate’s forum earlier this month, Saxhaug said he's proud of his legislative record in job creation efforts and education, especially expanding job training efforts across the Iron Range.

“My strength has always been in jobs and economic development, particularly in wood products,” Saxhaug said, noting that he’s a lifelong resident of the area.


Eichorn, whose family owns and operates Glen's Army Navy gun and sporting goods store in Grand Rapids, also is a lifelong resident of the area but said economic development efforts have been sluggish and that the area lacks opportunities for young people.

“I’m one of the lucky ones in my generation who got to stick around,” Eichorn said at the forum,  noting many people have had to leave the area to find steady jobs.

Both candidates railed against the stalemate that struck at the 2016 Minnesota Legislature where major construction, tax and transportation bills failed to pass. Eichorn blamed the deadlock on DFLers entrenched on paying for the Southwest light-rail line in the Twin Cities while DFLers blamed last-minute politics by the Republican-lead House.

Both candidates also stressed support for long-term funding for roads and bridges, with Saxhaug saying the state needs to pump $8 billion into transportation during the next 10 years just to keep up with degraded roads. He supports a gas tax increase and/or possibly license tab increase to set aside dedicated money for the work.

“One of the core functions of government is roads and bridges,” Eichorn said, agreeing that  transportation efforts need to step up but stopping short of supporting a gas tax increase or offering any other solution.

Both candidates also agreed that broadband internet also is a key factor in helping rural areas compete with urban areas for education and economic development opportunities. Saxhaug said he supports a combined public-private effort, including an investment by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. Eichorn said he supports private investment and co-ops funding broadband without “government throwing money at it.”

Saxhaug said Minnesota is a leader in regional economic development because it spend more on early childhood and high school funding, saying the state needs to focus on two key areas of education -- namely pre-kindergarten spending to close the minority achievement gap and have all children reading well by third grade, and also focused job training efforts at higher grades so graduates are ready for the available skilled jobs in the state.

Both candidates railed against escalating health care costs, with Eichorn blaming government efforts such as the federal Affordable Care Act and the state MNsure programs as too costly.


“It’s absolutely crazy,’’ he said of rising costs of MNsure plans.

But Saxhaug said that, while those programs may need tweaking, rising health care costs are the fault of private industry, not government.

Health care costs have been rising for decades, Saxhaug said, noting unhealthy habits also play a role. “The providers are charging more than we can afford. The drug companies are charging more than we can afford. The insurance companies are charging more than we can afford.”

Eichorn won a Republican primary for the Senate race in August with 73.26 percent of the vote to 26.74 percent for Lavern “Pedie” Pederson of Bemidji.

Tom Saxhaug Age: 68

Occupation: Retired insurance agent

Education: Graduated Grand Rapids High School; Bachelor's degree from St. Olaf College. Elected/civic experience: First elected to the Senate in 2002.  Served on the Grand Rapids City Council from 1995-97; Itasca County Commissioner from 1997-2003

Family: Wife, Nancy; two grown children


Website: None

  Justin Eichorn

Age: 32

Occupation: Family owns Glen's Army Navy Store in Grand Rapids; owns rental property

Education: Graduated Grand Rapids High School; attended Concordia University, St. Paul; attended Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids

Elected/civic experience: Served on the Grand Rapids Housing and Redevelopment Authority; ran unsuccessfully for the Minnesota House in 2014

Family: Wife, Brittany; four children



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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