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Senate Candidate Profile: Jerry Janezich
By Michael Khoo
August 16, 2000
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In June, State Senator Jerry Janezich survived hours of debate and nine ballots to become the DFL's endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate. With the party's backing, the support of the state's major labor unions and a strong base on Minnesota's Iron Range, the Chisholm native might seem like a natural choice to challenge incumbent Republican Rod Grams. Janezich, however, must first fight his way through a hotly contested primary battle where he faces three well funded opponents.

ONE EARLY SUMMER afternoon, Jerry Janezich settles into a booth in the side room of Tom & Jerry's Bar and Lounge, which he co-owns with boyhood friend Tom Varichak. He says the qualities that make a good bartender aren't all that different than the qualities that make a good senator.

Jerry Janezich in a U.S. Senate candidate debate on Minnesota Public Radio on August 11th.
(MPR Photo/Michael Wells)
"There's nothing fancy about what you do," he says. "You serve people, you treat them nice, you treat them good, you listen. You tell them what you think whether they want to hear it sometimes or not, and you develop relationships."

Simple, if not a little too simple, but that's how Janezich wants to present himself. A no-frills bartender from the Iron Range, son of an iron miner, advocate for anyone who hasn't managed to become a millionaire in the dot-com age.

Mike Kirnyczuk, a regular at Tom and Jerry's, is a retired police officer who says he trusts Janezich's humble roots.

"He has come up from the bottom, just like any one of us. We've been in the trenches and he's been there. And I'm just saying, it's something you've got to look at because he's not for himself. He's for the people that he represents."

While Janezich portrays himself as a regular guy, he is nonetheless closing in on 18 years in elected office, beginning with a stint as a St. Louis County commissioner. Since 1992 he's represented Chisholm and a large portion of St. Louis County in the state Senate. As a legislator, Janezich maintained a relatively low profile until 1997 when he sponsored legislation for a new Twins ballpark in Minneapolis. That effort failed after running into overwhelming public opposition and Janezich says he's no longer interested in pushing the issue.

Otherwise, despite chairing the Economic Development Budget Committee, he's not strongly identified as a legislative leader on any particular issue. Janezich says that's a result of his behind-the-scenes style.

"I probably should have taken credit for a lot more than I have," Janezich said. "But I never saw that as being how I thought I got elected to do a job, you do the job and the rest takes care of itself. I think that's always been the case."

Among his accomplishments, Janezich lists an expansion of the state's school breakfast program and funneling more money to affordable housing.

During the Forest Lake Fourth of July parade, Janezich was busy shaking hands and searching for votes. As he darted along the route in his trademark white shirt and yellow tie, he said meeting constituents is his favorite part of the campaign trail.

"I like touching people. I like laughing and having fun. I think for the most part, the parades we've done so far, they've been very friendly."

By all accounts, Janezich is working hard at the grassroots level to build support. His efforts paid off when he secured the DFL endorsement. In July, he picked up another major supporter, the Minnesota AFLCIO. Bernard Brommer, the president of that organization says labor doesn't endorse anyone lightly. He says the endorsement will bring fresh blood to the Janezich campaign.

"Any endorsement such as the AFL-CIO, COPE endorsement for the state of Minnesota carries with it access to affiliates and to rank and file members," Brommer said. "Information is going to be going out and it also provides a volunteer base, if you will, that not many, if any organizations can bring, other than organized labor, to this campaign."

Brommer says the national AFL-CIO will also provide financial assistance to Janezich, although he declined to say how much. An infusion of cash may be just what the sometimes anemic campaign needs. Financial records show as of June 30, Janezich had raised just over $200,000. His opponents have each spent or will likely spend that much or more on television ads alone. Janezich has yet to mount a TV campaign, although he recently began a series of radio spots. True to style, the radio ads are spare. They feature a short message from the candidate focusing on his blue collar roots.

Jerry Janezich's bar, which he co-owns with friend Tom Varichak, appropriately named "Tom and Jerry's"
(MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
"Did you know that there are 85 millionaires in the Senate today? But not one electrician, plumber, waitress, or secretary? The United States Senate should not be a millionaire's club The working men and women of Minnesota need genuine hometown representation, not million dollar politics," the Janezich ad asserts.

Janezich campaign officials say radio will dominate their broadcast advertising. They say they'll buy some television air time before the September primary.

Political consultant Dan Cramer says that's important. Cramer worked on both of Senator Paul Wellstone's campaigns and he says for Janezich to stay in the game, he's got to reach a broader audience.

"I do think there's a very real question about whether Jerry Janezich, again, either through having enough resources to get his message out or figuring out a quirky way to get his message out in lieu of financial resources," Cramer said. "If he can't compete on a state-wide level with the others, I think there's a risk that he will fall behind. Because even the best grassroots campaigns on their own can't beat hundreds and hundreds of thousand dollars of television unless there's some quirky message element to distinguish himself there."

Cramer says it's too soon to count Janezich out. He notes Wellstone also began with a shoe-string operation and succeeded in unseating incumbent Rudy Boschwitz. Janezich himself doesn't like to discuss the role money will play in the primary and general elections, except to say high-priced campaigns are distorting the political process.

"I think people have to pay attention, because that's crucial in where we end up the next twenty years, thirty years," Janezich says.

Janezich notes that going as far back as being elected president of the Hibbing Junior College student senate, he has never lost an election. Now he's hoping his streak will hold out, at least until November.