Radinovich's rise: Despite adversity, Crosby man keeps making impact
Crosby native Joe Radinovich, a 31-year-old former legislator, will become chief of staff to the mayor of Minneapolis in January.
To get to this point, he had to overcome a harrowing origin story containing tragedy, hatred and defeat. But the difficulties he's experienced on his road to Minneapolis City Hall apparently haven't dimmed his willingness to work hard or his ambition to go further.
Radinovich recalled his first voting experience, when his mom took the 6-year-old to vote with her in the 1992 election (She voted for Ross Perot, he said). His dad was a lifelong Democrat—Radinovich joked he thought as a kid Ronald Reagan's middle name was a swear word.
When he was in the eighth grade, the Crosby-Ironton School District proposed deep budget cuts, and Radinovich attended a school board meeting with 500 people. A young Radinovich was featured in a photo on the front page of the Brainerd Dispatch.
The next day, the students walked out in protest.
"I remember feeling like that was a powerful thing to do," he said. "We were breaking the rules to advocate for our views."
The cuts stayed, but the earnestness with which locals fought them stuck with Radinovich. He told himself he would do something about it if he ever got access to power.
In the meantime, a series of incidents with his family derailed not only his educational career but his life as a whole, he said.
He came home from school one day his junior year to find a close family member attempted suicide. Radinovich missed much of the rest of the school that year to be with his family in the intensive care unit.
"The teachers in my life really kind of rallied around me, supported me, made sure that I passed my classes and had the emotional and structural support that I needed," he said.
But in February the following year, his mother was murdered by his step-grandfather, who then killed himself.
Again, he relied on teachers to help him protect his grades enough so he could go to college, he said. He made it, and while attending Macalester College in St. Paul, he got a chance to help the people who helped him. The teachers in Crosby went on strike, and Radinovich went back to his hometown to walk picket lines with them and buy them pizza.
It was at that time he came to know John Ward, another area DFLer active in the teacher's union. After Ward was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2006, Radinovich called Ward to ask if he would hire him as an intern. Ward agreed.
"For me, what was important about that is, my parents aren't involved in politics, they weren't on local committees, they didn't know legislators—I had never known how to access that," he said.
Ward set him to work writing letters to constituents. Big events in people's lives, like babies or anniversaries, drew a letter on behalf of Ward, written and mailed by Radinovich.
"It wasn't glamorous work obviously, but what I started to recognize was, politics is one of the few places that's almost totally meritocratic," he said. "If you work hard, you gain entry. If you're kind of earnest ... if you ask questions and kind of provide your value, there's always going to be another opportunity."
Eventually, the weight of what happened to his family was too much for Radinovich, and he dropped out of college to return to Crosby. He needed time to repair his mind and body.
"I remember that time of my life, being a pack-a-day smoker, just generally unhealthy," he said.
In the spring of 2008, the Democratic party was being shaken up by the intense presidential primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Radinovich felt safe to get involved in politics once again. He became a delegate to the DFL county unit convention and then the state convention, supporting Clinton even though at times the position wasn't popular.
Radinovich's efforts were noticed, and he became a field organizer for the state DFL—his first paid job in politics.
"It was 10 years ago this coming spring," he recalled fondly.
At the time, his boss warned him it may prove to be the worst job he ever had, with long hours and a high potential for burnout—but if he worked hard, there would be opportunities for advancement. So Radinovich poured himself into the job, working six or seven days a week until late at night, and broke up with his high school girlfriend.
In the end, 2008 turned out to be excellent for Democrats, from Obama's ascent to the presidency on down to the re-election of Ward to the state Legislature.
Excited to get another job in politics, Radinovich spent most of 2009 unemployed at his parents' house while he waited for the phone to ring.
But then, his old boss at the DFL told him about an opening at the federal employee union, American Federation of Government Employees. He traveled the country, speaking to federal employees about labor relations.
Still, he became restless—until a chance to run for office himself arose.
Youngest guy in the Legislature
Redistricting based on the 2010 Census meant the 2012 election would feature a new legislative district created alongside that of John Ward's—and Radinovich saw his opportunity. At age 25, he decided to run for the Minnesota House of Representatives seat for House District 10B.
Over a beer, he turned down an offer from 73-year-old primary opponent David Schaaf to run his campaign in exchange for being his "heir apparent," Radinovich recalled. He later took heat from Schaaf when he ran against him in the primary.
"Do you want someone who's extremely young, an unmarried union organizer, or somebody who's more of the age and business experience of most people in the district?" Schaaf told the Dispatch at the time.
Radinovich said Schaaf's digs at him gave inspiration to work even harder to beat Schaaf in the primary—and he did.
"I think I beat him like 99 to one (votes) in my home precinct," he said.
He challenged Republican Dale Lueck in the general election. Radinovich credits his victory over Lueck in part to an incident surrounding a letter to the editor written to the Dispatch, claiming to be from a Democratic supporter of Radinovich's from Hill City. In fact, the letter was written by House Republican Campaign Committee staffer Steven Sundquist, who also door-knocked and distributed literature for the Lueck campaign, according to a Dispatch article on the incident. A statement from the Committee said Sundquist subsequently no longer worked for them and the group disavowed his actions. Radinovich won by 323 votes.
"We won a squeaker that year," Radinovich said.
After he took office, Radinovich focused on education issues, serving on the Education Finance Committee in the House.
The education work was soon eclipsed by a vote Radinovich took in the spring of 2013 to legalize same-sex marriage. The vast majority of voters in his district voted in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage the year before. But, minority civil rights should not be determined by the majority, Radinovich said.
"I happen to think that 62.5 percent of the district was wrong," he said.
He knew at the time the vote would likely cost him his seat.
"Even people who supported marriage equality, supporters of mine, were saying, 'You know, if you do this, you're not coming back,'" he recalled.
Radinovich's constituents were indeed angry after he declared his intention to vote to legalize, including one unidentified man who spoke to Minnesota Public Radio in Aitkin and said gay people should be rounded up and executed.
"Well, it sounds to me like (Radinovich) must be gay, too. I'm totally against that," the man told MPR.
That MPR story was running the same day Radinovich voted in favor to legalize same sex marriage, Radinovich remembered. His father called him, concerned for his safety.
In reaction to his support of marriage equality, local Republicans organized a recall effort to remove Radinovich from office. Although the recall failed, Radinovich lost the 2014 election to Lueck, 48 percent to 51.86 percent.
Back on the campaign trail
Despite being sent home from the Legislature by voters, Radinovich soon got a job working for the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, more commonly known as the IRRRB. The state agency injects funding into Iron Range communities to help them get over the fall of the mining industry. But he got bored again after about a year, he said.
He did not have to wait long for a challenge, and when it came, it was a humdinger.
After pheasant hunting with U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, the two were driving together back north when Nolan asked Radinovich to be his campaign manager for the 2016 re-election fight. Radinovich took it on, and the campaign got Nolan another two years in Congress despite opponent Stewart Mills III coming within less than a percentage point of beating Nolan, and Donald Trump taking the 8th District by storm in the election results.
"For us to win in those circumstances was pretty crazy," Radinovich said.
He went on vacation in Death Valley and Colorado to get the stress of 2016 out of his system, but no sooner did he return home that a recruitment call put him back on the horse. It was Jacob Frey, running for mayor of Minneapolis. The two young men had a connection through mutual friends among Democratic supporters. The test of running a campaign in a major city using ranked choice voting appealed to Radinovich, he said. To him, campaigns are like a logic problem or a video game to be mastered, he said.
"You start here, you need to get here, and what do what you need to gather along the way to be successful," Radinovich said.
He and Frey wound up beating all the bosses in the video game of the Minneapolis mayoral election, resulting in Radinovich getting the level-up to become Frey's chief of staff.
In an interview when he was a legislator, Radinovich said his favorite book was "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he read it several times. Both him and title character Jay Gatsby are two young men who come to prominence from obscure beginnings through sheer force of will and personality.
There remains the question of whether Radinovich has finally reached his elusive green light across the water, or if there is something more he wants in the future. Current Lt. Governor Tina Smith once had his same job of chief of staff to the mayor of Minneapolis. Does he see a similar trajectory for himself?
"My philosophy in politics—my philosophy in life, generally speaking—is that, I don't have a plan, and I don't want a plan," Radinovich said.
He advocates for his views no matter what political role he finds himself in, he said. Doing the job in front of him the best he can will lead to further opportunities, he said.
But Radinovich is going to run for office again.
"I expect that I will," he said. "I don't know when it will be."