Omerza, Skraba advance

Councilor, former mayor top vote-getters in low turnout primary

by Tom Coombe
Heidi Omerza and Roger Skraba served together for several years in city government, but they’re now opponents for Ely’s top political post.
Omerza, a current city council member, and Skraba, a two-time former mayor, were the top two vote-getters in Tuesday’s mayoral primary and will advance to an Aug. 11 general election.
Only 571 voters turned out for a primary in a special election triggered by an unusual series of events, and Omerza led the six-candidate field with 203 votes.
Skraba was second with 146, 19 more than third-place finisher - current council member Paul Kess.
Two other council members trailed further behind, with Angela Campbell collecting 69 votes and Jerome Debeltz finishing with 23.
A first-time candidate, Micca Leider, failed to gain any votes in her initial try for public office.
The results set the stage for a general election that won’t take place for nearly four months, thanks to the state’s uniform election laws.
The race pits Omerza, who has served continuously on the council since first winning election in 2006, against Skraba, who served as mayor during the 2000s and again from 2009-2013 and has previous experience as a council member as well.
Both candidates said they weren’t sure what to expect in a primary marked by light turnout and held in an off year and during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I didn’t have a feel for this thing,” said Skraba. “My goal was 200 votes because I felt right from the beginning that 200 would be enough to get in.”
Omerza agreed and said “these are just interesting times to have an election.”
The election was triggered by a surprise win by Eric Urbas, who unseated incumbent Chuck Novak in last November’s general election despite dropping out of the race several months earlier.
Urbas subsequently declined the two-year term he won in November, which forced city officials - because of city charter rules - to call for a special election this year.
Novak was appointed interim mayor in January and will continue to serve until a winner is seated after the August vote.
The primary survivors were in touch not long after the election results were compiled Tuesday at the Ely Senior Center, but neither shed much light about the race to come.
Omerza said she will continue to tout her experience on the council and her connections beyond Ely’s borders - which have been strengthened by frequent lobbying trips to St. Paul and tenures leading organizations including the League of Minnesota Cities and Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
“I have the experience that’s needed and over the years I’ve proved it,” said Omerza. “I know what I can do and what’s happening at the capitol. I’ve been in the know. I know who’s who, and being we’re in the middle of a pandemic I know how to reach them and that will continue to be fruitful for the city of Ely.”
Omerza added “I know me. I really don’t know Roger all that well. I know what I can do.”
Skraba said he believes the city would benefit from stronger leadership.
“I think a lot of things are happening and people are afraid to speak up,” he said. “Part of it is when after the election a Democrat came out said ‘why should we support your local government aid?’ Traditionally Republicans have threatened it but they haven’t taken it. Somebody has to speak out against this and we need a strong voice. I don’t want to follow. I want to lead.”
Skraba said Ely voters have another reason to choose him in August - the cost of a special election that would take place if Omerza wins the mayoral chair and gives up her seat on the council.
“If she wins this one it will cost the taxpayers over $10,000 to have a special election,” said Skraba. “It’s another election and you wouldn’t have a full council for another five or six months. I’d like to win this one and be in there for a year and a half and then make a decision on whether to run again.”
The primary had low turnout despite several weeks of early or absentee voting.
Data released Tuesday showed 110 absentee ballots were cast and another 471 Ely residents showed up at the polling place the day of the election.