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Underdog Hujanen battles giant reputation in Rukavina

Christina Hujanen had to pop out of a senior citizens center bingo game to return a call to a reporter. "We do it the first Monday every month. I got it going seven years ago and now the charter school kids are running it," the Tower resident noted.

Christina Hujanen had to pop out of a senior citizens center bingo game to return a call to a reporter.
“We do it the first Monday every month. I got it going seven years ago and now the charter school kids are running it,” the Tower resident noted. “We get seniors from across the Iron Range now.”
She wasn’t at bingo to campaign so much as to help out. Volunteering and getting involved is just something Hujanen does, especially with seniors. It’s that drive to help people, she says, that moved her to run for St. Louis County Board.
Hujanen started running for county commissioner in St. Louis’s County’s sprawling Fourth District in 2010, when incumbent Mike Forsman appeared close to retirement. Forsman changed his mind and ran again and, despite the fact nearly everyone who meets Hujanen likes her, Forsman won re-election, 57 percent to 43 percent.
This year, Forsman was more certain he would retire, and in fact he did not file for re-election. And Hujanen, who had just kept campaigning over the past four years, looked like a potential frontrunner.
That is until Tom Rukavina entered the race. Rukavina may be the shortest politician on the Iron Range, but his reputation is giant-sized.
“It’s hard to campaign against someone when everybody already knows his name,” Hujanen said. “For good or bad, for me, his name is legendary on the Range.”
A good chunk of the county’s 4th District overlaps with the legislative district that Rukavina represented for 26 years (formerly 5A, now 6B) before retiring in 2012. That’s when Rukavina said he was tired of politics, tired of fighting, and he wanted to spend more time with his new wife and grandchildren at his Pike Township home outside Virginia.
But retirement didn’t last long. Within months he was back on the political payroll, this time as an Iron Range adviser for U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. The job rekindled Rukavina’s appetite for government service and elected office. But Rukavina also realized he didn’t like playing second-fiddle to someone else’s political aspirations.
“I’d be with Rick on all these meetings across the Range and I knew everybody in the line shaking hands. … I figured I might as well be shaking hands for myself and not someone else,” Rukavina said.
He didn’t want to go back to St. Paul and the Legislature. But the County Board, Rukavina saw, would allow him to stay at home, earn a decent living and still have a real impact on his beloved Iron Range. “I found out I miss politics. And when Mike (Forsman) decided for sure not to run again, people started asking me to run. I couldn’t turn them down,” Rukavina said with a smile.
“Whether it’s roads or law enforcement, a lot of the issues the county deals with are pretty big deals in our area,” Rukavina added. “It’s the things people are talking about.”
Rukavina, 64, says his years in the Legislature give him ample political chops to handle the county job. He also notes that his relationships with people in other layers of government - federal, state, regional and local - will help him serve his district well.
“I think I have the record for people to look at … and I have experience as a township officer, as a School Board member and as a legislator at the Capitol for 26 years,” Rukavina said at a recent voters forum. “Now I’d like to see what the County Board does.”
County government, Rukavina added, is “in the trenches,” dealing with day to day issues in people’s lives, such as veterans’ services, health and human services for seniors, and other vulnerable county residents.
But Hujanen, 47, says Rukavina, for good or bad, has been around Range politics too long. He’s part of a good ol’ boy network, and it’s time for a change in Range leadership, she says. Not only is Hujanen a rare woman politicking on the Range, but she says it’s time for someone who hasn’t been on the government payroll for years.
“This job (County Board) is not about political experience, it’s about people,” she said. “I’ve been all over this district talking to people … and they want some fresh ideas, someone who is willing to listen to new ideas.
“Tom may have a lot of experience, but it’s the same old same old,” she added. “I think I will bring a lot of fresh energy to the job and a willingness to listen to more people.”
Hujanen, who resigned from a real-estate sales job to run for County Board, also says the county needs to help the region’s wood products industry get through tough times as the global paper and wood economy squeezes out Minnesota mills. She said she this knows because her husband is an independent logging contract trucker.
Hujanen said she will pay closest attention to the ongoing effort to start copper mining in the region, a topic she says is foremost on the minds of many residents.
“Not just for the schools, to get some families back, but every Main Street I go to, people are hoping we can get the copper mining going and get some activity gong on this part of the (eastern) Iron Range,” she said.
Roads arguably are the next-biggest issue and are an obvious place where the county commissioner can have impact. The county has more than 3,000 miles of roads, and nearly half are in the district. And she said senior citizens need to be a higher priority.
Rukavina, too, has been a vocal promoter of expanding the century-old Range mining heritage from iron ore to copper. And he agrees roads, bridges and the sheriff’s department are critical issues for county commissioners.
Both Hujanen and Rukavina, however, are slow to support any kind of new taxation for county road improvements - such as a vehicle title fee or sales tax - both saying county residents already are taxed too highly.
Instead, Hujanen would look for cuts in other areas of county spending and aim that money at roads. Rukavina said he would try to get more of the state’s tax on taconite earmarked for county highway projects.
Rukavina says his priority would be economic development and jobs - so his grandchildren’s generation can stay and build their lives here. He wants the county too look at burning biomass, wood chips, harvested locally, in county buildings, to help cut fuel costs and boost the local wood products industry.
“The biggest issue in this district, of the county’s business, is infrastructure. We have half the road miles in the county, and a lot of bridges and a lot of them are in bad shape,” Rukavina said. “But the other thing we need to do is keep working on our economy for the next generation. … We need to keep St. Louis a vibrant county for the next generation.”

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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