DULUTH – Eric Urbas watched presidential election results trickle in from Illinois, where he was staying overnight for a work trip Tuesday. He wasn’t paying attention to the local races back home in northeastern Minnesota until text messages flooded in with a surprise.
He’d been voted mayor of his tiny hometown, upsetting Ely’s three-term incumbent, Chuck Novak.
Urbas, 31, filed to run for Ely mayor last spring but dropped out of the race in August, citing health problems, which he has not disclosed publicly. His name remained on the ballot because it was too late to change them.
“I figured I’d still get some votes,” Urbas said Wednesday. “I just didn’t figure I’d win.”
He earned 924 votes to Novak’s 800. Now Urbas is mulling whether to take office despite his continuing health concerns.
“I feel proud that people want me and think highly of me,” said Urbas, who works for a local freight company, serves as a volunteer firefighter and owns some rental properties in Ely. “I just need to take some time before I make my decision. I need to do what’s best for the town and take care of myself.”
The city of almost 4,000 has drawn attention in recent years because of the Twin Metals project, a proposed copper-nickel mine that’s sparked controversy due to its proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Novak is an outspoken supporter of the mine and the jobs he thinks it could bring to the region. He and five other mayors from the Iron Range signed a letter endorsing Donald Trump in August that said the president’s pro-mining policies helped the local economy.
Novak declined to comment Wednesday, saying only that he’s heard from a lot of folks around the state shocked by the results. He served an additional term as mayor in 2006 but lost a re-election bid two years later.
“I have no immediate plans and no immediate response,” Novak said.
Urbas’ political beliefs aren’t that different from Novak’s; he also supports mining and Trump. However, the mayor-elect said he if he were to take office, he would approach those topics a bit differently. Novak drew criticism in March for encouraging the boycott of businesses owned by the Bois Forte Band, which advocated for a congressional bill that would kill the Twin Metals project.
“I think I just had a bunch of younger, fresh ideas,” Urbas said. “I get along with everybody, and I think people get along with me because I sit down and listen with them.”
Former Ely Mayor Roger Skraba said he thinks locals were “sending a message” by voting for Urbas.
“It’s not that they’re angry with Chuck. He did a lot of good for the community,” Skraba said. “They just want something different.”
If Urbas turns down the office, Ely would host a special mayoral election.
Ross Petersen, another former Ely mayor, said he thinks Novak would have won handily had Urbas not dropped out.
“They both hold the same views, but Chuck knows everyone in the Legislature and has the experience,” Petersen said. “Being mayor is like a half-time job, so if Eric has a full-time job and he has health problems … maybe he ought to consider bowing out and letting Chuck have it.”
Joe Folio, 70, said he doesn’t think Urbas’ win was an accident. He heard folks in town planning to vote for the 31-year-old even after he dropped out. “People are saying: ‘We want you,’ ” Folio said. “I would like to see him say yes — to see what he can do.”