Joe Radinovich: The Politician with a Heart

Joe Radinovich

Joe Radinovich Colin Michael Simmons

City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

Not every politician can brag that they voted themselves out of office.

Joe Radinovich can. In 2012, the fresh-faced Crosby, Minnesota native was elected as a Democrat to represent his conservative home district, about two hours north of the Twin Cities, in the state Legislature.

“I was 27, I was a legislator, and I felt pretty good about myself,” he says. “I was on Almanac, looking good and talking smart, and I got done with the show and my dad called me. He said, ‘You’re getting really good at this politics thing. You made it through that whole interview without saying yes or no to anything.’”

Joe laughs, but his father’s ribbing would soon prove a somber moral compass—one that would stop Joe’s legislative career in its tracks.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court settled the question in 2015, the battle over gay marriage roiled in the states. The question of legalizing gay marriage was a no-brainer for most metro politicians, but for Democrats elected in more conservative rural districts, like Radinovich, a vote in favor of gay marriage could cost them dearly in the 2014 election.

Joe knew his personal beliefs on the matter. He was still haunted by a 2011 spate of suicides by gay students in the Anoka school district. A close family member had also attempted suicide while he was in high school.

“I’ve got a lot of personal experience with depression, and in my family suicide and depression have been something we’ve had to deal with,” he says. “One of the scariest thoughts in the world is the pain someone feels right before they get to that point. If you have the opportunity to change something like this and you don’t, then you’re complicit.”

But it was the phone call from his father that cinched it. Joe’s dad told him about his friend from high school, “the nicest guy you’d ever meet,” who one day just left town and didn’t come back. “A few years later, we found out he had died,” Joe says his father told him. “He died of HIV/AIDS in the early ’80s.”

Joe chokes up as he gets to the next part of the story. “He never felt comfortable coming back to town because he was afraid of what people would think. Nobody should ever feel afraid to come back home.”

It’s a road Radinovich had to walk himself. After his vote to legalize gay marriage, he had doors slammed in his face and angry constituents yelling at him. He lost his seat in the 2014 election.

“My brother Brandon said, ‘You gotta come back up here and walk tall. Be proud of who you are.’”

So he did. Then he resumed his life in politics. In 2016, he managed U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s successful re-election bid. In 2017, he led Jacob Frey’s mayoral campaign to victory. Now he’s clinched a position as Frey’s chief of staff.

The newly minted city boy still talks of his love of Crosby, how he wants to bridge the gap between rural Minnesota and the metro area. “People’s basic concerns are almost always the same, whether you’re living in Cuyuna, Minnesota or north Minneapolis: Am I safe? Does my family have enough to eat? Can I afford the things that I need to live? Will I have opportunity and will the people I care about have opportunity?”

And he still goes home on weekends.

UPDATE: On February 15, Joe Radinovich announced he would run for Congress in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District. Radinovich is seeking the seat held by his former boss, DFL U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who is retiring from Congress.

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