The boxy brick building on Central Avenue is easy to overlook, upstaged by the pizazz of the historic Heights Theater just across the street.
Don’t let the dime-a-dozen facade fool you: For decades, this has been a seat of power in Columbia Heights.
Al and Jim Kordiak, father and son, long have run their real estate and income tax business out of the garden-level workplace, where a window sign bears the last name that for years was shorthand for influence in Anoka County.
It also doubled as their Anoka County Board office, where since 1954 the father and son have represented the county’s most urban and diverse pocket, anchored by Columbia Heights and Fridley.
But come November, voters here won’t find a Kordiak on the ballot for the first time in more than half a century. Jim Kordiak announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election to the board, throwing open his Fourth District seat in a way it really hasn’t been for 64 years.
The Kordiaks “were virtually unbeatable,” said former Columbia Heights Mayor Gary Peterson. “They are basically an institution.”
Al Kordiak, sometimes called the “Godfather of Columbia Heights,” controlled the County Board seat for 32 years and is perhaps best known for his role in creating the Anoka County parks system, the first of its kind in the state.
In 1986, Jim was elected to his dad’s County Board seat and has held it ever since, also marking 32 years in the job. Longtime county employees say the younger Kordiak continued his father’s legacy in his own way, from pro bono work helping seniors with property tax credit forms to his dogged commitment to boost the county’s recycling efforts.
Countless locals have ventured into their Columbia Heights office looking for help from the industrious, well-connected Kordiaks, who never lost sight of their working-class voter base, according to city and county officials interviewed for this story.
Now, the tax business has been sold, and the office where sundry hobnobbing and deal-making unfolded for decades will go dark once Jim Kordiak’s term ends in January.
“This building is my life. I live here,” Jim Kordiak, 67, said recently from behind his desk. “Not having it will be difficult.”
On the office wall hangs a black-and-white photo of a blocky house with a slim chimney, blanketed in snow. During his regular visits to the office, 90-year-old Al Kordiak loves to linger over the old image of the Kordiak homestead in the former Czechoslovakia. He often points out a small, dark door on the left side of the house.
“That’s where the cow was kept,” he tells visitors with a slow grin.
Al Kordiak’s parents left the old world for the new, settling in the suburbs just north of Minneapolis and making their children speak Slovak at the dinner table. Al Kordiak still lives with his wife, Millie, in Columbia Heights, a melting pot city in steady transition.
Once home to largely Polish and eastern European immigrants, Anoka County’s southernmost city has more recently welcomed a wave of new families from Africa, Asia and Latin America. About 40 percent of Columbia Heights’ 20,000 residents are people of color, more than double the racial makeup of the rest of the county, according to data from the research project Minnesota Compass.
County observers say Al Kordiak was a skilled, old-school operator at a time when county governments commonly resembled good-old-boy networks. Nepotism often was accepted as a matter of course.
“Al used to say, ‘Of course I hire on my relatives. I know which ones are the good workers,’ ” said Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo.
Not that it soured public opinion. Former colleagues also say Al Kordiak enjoyed enormous popularity in his district as a homegrown politician who could get things done. The story goes that a call placed by Kordiak after a grieving mother’s plea meant that a son bound for Vietnam made it back in time for his father’s funeral.
“He was a pretty powerful guy,” said County Administrator Jerry Soma. “If Al said yes, usually it happened.”
It was Al who said “yes” to the trailblazing idea of county parks. Today Anoka County has one of the largest county park systems in the state, including Kordiak Park — the first county park in Minnesota, a patch of wilderness that Al Kordiak saved from bulldozers.
“All those years,” Kordiak said, “nobody ever ran against me.”
Agree to disagree
When Al retired in 1986, his oldest son Jim stepped in. Already well-known as a county juvenile probation officer, Jim Kordiak won the seat and has since run mostly unopposed. Colleagues say he continued the family commitment to parks while also carving out niches in recycling and solid waste and pushing for high-speed internet access and commuter rail.
County officials note the striking resemblance between father and son. Same sloping nose, spare frame, boundless energy. Both well-respected family men with unflagging work ethics.
But Jim Kordiak, they say, is better at compromise — even with the current County Board, which Kordiak described as perhaps the most conservative and Republican of any he’s served on. While neither he nor his father have accepted partisan endorsements over the years, Jim says he is more liberal and DFL-oriented than his colleagues.
“I think we just agree to disagree,” said Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah. “He has never made it personal.”
On a recent morning, father and son sat in the office where they’ve worked side-by-side for so long. Al thumbed through old news clippings while Jim tapped steadily on his computer keyboard. The door stood open.
“I have an office in my district on purpose,” Jim Kordiak said. “I’ve always been here. People always know where to find me.”
But not for much longer. With his children living in different states, Jim Kordiak plans to move to Florida once his term ends — making Al and Millie the last Kordiaks in Columbia Heights. The thought gives his son pause; it means that one day, there may not be any Kordiaks there at all.
When the time came to leave the office for the next morning activity, the outgoing commissioner quietly closed a door that soon won’t display the family business sign. The Kordiaks headed up the stairs and onto the street, father climbing first, then son.