For Two Harbors judge candidates, a tough roadIf they had the political savvy of say, a Paul Wellstone, they might be able to get it done. That would be the Wellstone who in television campaign ads ran from venue to venue to show that a little-known guy on no budget really had no time for ads, he was trying to knock on everyone’s door to introduce himself.
If they had the political savvy of say, a Paul Wellstone, they might be able to get it done. That would be the Wellstone who in television campaign ads ran from venue to venue to show that a little-known guy on no budget really had no time for ads, he was trying to knock on everyone’s door to introduce himself. It worked, and he got to the U.S. Senate.
But Two Harbors attorneys Russ Conrow and Tim Costley are more reluctant politicians, especially when facing the huge voting pool that is the Sixth Judicial District. They are seeking election to the North Shore judge seat and are part of a field of eight on the Aug. 10 primary ballot. Sitting Judge Kenneth Sandvik is retiring in December.
Geography aside, what’s more daunting is instructing a voter in Duluth – or Hibbing, or Cloquet, or Hermantown – on why they should care about a race that is really about replacing a judge for Lake and Cook counties.
By the time they explain that all eligible district residents – those in Carlton, St. Louis, Cook, and Lake counties – can vote on all judges no matter the seat, the candidates barely have time to talk about why their vote should go to them.
On a door-knocking stop in the Lakeside area of Duluth last week, Conrow described his dilemma. “They think there are multiple judge races,” the Lake County Attorney said of the eight people vying for the seat in Two Harbors. They assume they’re for Duluth spots, he said. Once he explains it’s for the North Shore, “They say they don’t care.”
Costley has heard it too. “They ask me in Duluth ‘Why are we voting?’” he said. “I’m in Ely and they ask why I’m there,” he said. “Because you vote,” he replies.
Costley said 90 percent of his greeting is in the explanation. “It takes all of your time and then you want them to understand why it’s important to me.”
Five of the other six other candidates are attorneys based in Duluth or St. Louis County – Mike Cuzzo, Juhl Halvorson, John Steven Lind, Tim Little, and Lawrence Ulanowski. The sixth candidate is Assistant Carlton County Attorney James Ross in Cloquet.
One van, one vote
Russ Conrow said those Duluth opponents have the political experience or connections that he simply can’t compete with. He knocks on doors after work at the Lake County Attorney’s Office and all weekend at events.
Campaigning has meant one late night with his son in the garage putting a lift kit into a used van he purchased for parades and getting around for literature drops. It’s plastered with the Conrow logo and a lighthouse motif.
“Best thing we’ve done,” he proudly says of the van. “It’s what we’ve got.”
Conrow gave up the job he was twice elected to in order to seek the judgeship. His assistant, Laura Auron, faces Duluth attorney Jeremy Hurd for county attorney.
You’d think Conrow had made a calculation in his chances for the judge seat before taking such a leap. “No,” he says flatly. “I didn’t weigh stuff out. If I’d done that, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Conviction led the way. And also the challenge. “I enjoy my job,” he said. “But I couldn’t just stay in that [county attorney] chair because I’m scared.”
He was in Lakeside Thursday night because it’s the closest Duluth neighborhood to home base. Just driving across the city means he loses time in meeting people and getting literature out.
Conrow knocks on one door and doesn’t get an answer. To get to the home he passed a Costley campaign sign in the yard. “He knows somebody, I guess.”
Conrow will never get to everybody, but he’ll be satisfied in the effort he’s made. “I think I hit every door in Lake County when I ran for attorney,” he said. “I could do that now and it would be nothing, nothing, compared to the whole district.”
Lake County’s population is just over 10,500. In Cook, it’s 5,500. Carlton has 34,300 residents and St. Louis 197, 800.
It makes for a mind-boggling numbers game that Conrow says he has learned to almost ignore in order to keep going door to door, parade to parade.
Name recognition is a problem compared to some of the more well-connected and well-known Duluth attorneys, Conrow said. After spending time talking about why a potential voter should take an interest in the race, he has to tell them who he is and why he wants the job in the finite time he has before feeling like a pest. His politics suit is still ill-fitting.
And there isn’t much time as the statewide primary vote was moved up to Aug. 10 from September in reaction to concerns about absentee voting. Sandvik announced his retirement just two months ago.
Conrow doesn’t let the daunting task overwhelm him, taking in what can seem like the absurdity of it all with a bit of a forced smile. “It’s a lottery,” he said of the crowded field.
“I wouldn’t say this is fun,” he says after covering both sides of a block in Lakeside. “But there are funny moments.”
“I don’t like to intrude,” Tim Costley said of campaigning and explaining the job he’s seeking. “The hardest thing to do is going door to door.”
He’s much more comfortable in Lake County. “I’m not forgetting those who this seat will serve,” he said after going over weekend plans Friday that included the Bay Days parade in Silver Bay. He’s aware of the drop in the bucket potential votes from the North Shore will provide.
He admits he was a bit naïve on what a campaign for judge requires in such a large district, especially with the attorneys in Duluth to contend with. “It’s obviously a big challenge for a small-town candidate,” he said.
He’s wanted to be the Lake County judge since he was a kid and watched his father, Mitch, at work in the family law firm he’s now a partner in.
“It’s like if your dad is a fireman,” he said. “It’s something you always think about.”
He talks about the importance of a judge’s impact on a community and his own law work. A custody case. A divorce. They are all huge events in people’s lives, he said. “It doesn’t let you lose touch with who you are as a human being.”
He wants to make sure the judge seat stays in Two Harbors. With continuing state budget woes, there has been talk of further consolidating courts. The trouble with the Sixth, of course, is the geographic distance between venues.
Keeping the seat here, and in the hands of someone who is from the North Shore, is part of Costley’s motivation. “We’ve lost a lot of things in this town.”
“It’s unfortunate Lake and Cook County don’t get to decide. We need to keep this local.”
He agrees with Conrow on the roll of the dice that is the race. “Everybody has a theory on what could happen,” he said. Some say a low voter turnout favors the Lake County candidates. Others say the opposite.
Costley’s only strategy is to “work as hard as I can” on the campaign while not forgetting the required work at the firm in order to make a living.
He said the more seasoned candidates “are all geared up to steamroll us” but he will “fight and go right to the end.”
He’s only beginning to enjoy the meet-and-greets. “People are nice,” he said. It still takes some doing to stop thinking he’s just a bother in people’s busy lives. It’s not his nature to self promote, he said. “I never in my career would have thought I’d be doing this.”
How the district and voting works
The Sixth Judicial District serves residents in Carlton, Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties. The bench includes 15 District Court judges and one judicial officer who are chambered throughout the district. James B. Florey serves as chief judge of the district, and is a member of the Judicial Council, which oversees the administration of justice in the state.
All eligible voters in the four counties can vote in judge elections, no matter where the seat is. The coming December retirement of Judge Kenneth Sandvik in Two Harbors, who covers Lake and Cook counties, touched off a frenzy of filings for the seat. Eight attorneys filed for election.
Together the judges and court administration staff work to provide see more than 150,000 case filings each year.
Each county seat in the district has a courthouse. St Louis County has two additional courthouses in Hibbing and Virginia. There is a court administration office for each location and a court administrator, a shared job for lake and Cook counties, responsible for the day-to-day operation of that system.