A North Oaks resident's dream for Croatia
Boris Miksic fled his homeland 30 years ago to start a new life in Minnesota. Now he is a long-shot candidate for president of that country.
BY MARY BAUER
Personal wealth has distinct advantages for political underdogs. One, you can fund the campaign. Two, you can claim the high road against special interests and bribes.
North Oaks resident Boris Miksic is counting on both benefits, spending millions of his own money in his quest for the presidency of Croatia.
"A guy told me the other day that he'd vote for me because I have enough money that I won't have to steal," Miksic said.
Kickbacks are common in Croatia, he said, and some candidates see national public office as the road to self-enrichment or to lucrative government contracts for their own companies.
As he ticks off Croatia's strengths — vast stretches of Adriatic Sea shoreline, natural resources and an established manufacturing sector — it's clear he never really left home.
"If I can fight off corruption, Croatia is on its way to becoming the most successful nation in Europe."
Building Croatia's economy is the chief platform for Miksic, 56, who has spent most of the past two months in the country he fled 30 years ago. His returns to Minnesota to see his family and to touch base with his business in White Bear Township are brief.
With the Jan. 2 runoff election bearing down on him, Miksic has no time to spare. In a field of six candidates, the most recent official polls give him just 5 percent of the vote. The top two candidates will advance to the final vote.
The leading contender is President Stjepan Mesic. If Mesic wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the runoff — a possibility, according to polls — he returns to office without a runoff.
Miksic bristles at comparisons to Ralph Nader, who, like Miksic, ran as an independent.
He discounts the official polls as biased, and said his own poll gives him 14 percent of the vote. Informal polls by radio and TV talk shows rate him even higher, he said. And, he points out that Mesic won the 2000 presidential election after a similar start in the polls.
Miksic takes a recent break-in at his Zagreb offices as further proof that his star is rising. Thieves stole computers that held campaign materials.
"It's a sign we're becoming dangerous," he said.
But his larger opponent remains recognition. His standing is shaky even among Croatian expatriates living in Minnesota, who are allowed to vote in Croatian elections.
Biba Stefnovski, 33, a recent emigrant from Croatia living in Forest Lake, said Miksic is an enigma.
Her Croatian friends in the Twin Cities and relatives back home know his name, but not much else.
"I talked with my mom and dad," she said. "They say he has no chance in Croatia. People don't know much about him."
Miksic is trying to counter that with 17-hour days of speeches and appearances. He's also handing out a half million copies of his book "American Dream: A Guy from Croatia," which details his rags-to-riches story. "I think the fact that I succeeded in the largest economy in the world works for me," he said.
Miksic came to the United States in 1974, fleeing what he said was a sure death because of his activism against communism while he was a student at the University of Zagreb in Croatia.
"I had to disappear or they'd make me disappear," Miksic said.
After brief stints working as an engineer for others, in 1977 he founded Cortec, a solvents and chemical company that emphasizes water-based paints and cleaners.
"I figured I came here anyway, so let's try the American way," he said.
The company employs 150 people at five plants in Minnesota and Wisconsin. But Miksic remained active in Croatian politics, acting as an unofficial ambassador. In 1995, he opened the first honorary Croatian consulate in North America, and vehicles with honorary consulate license plates dot the parking lot at Cortec in St. Paul, where the consulate is housed.
Miksic said his dual loyalties mirror those of another Minnesota-Croatian ex-patriot, the late Rudy Perpich. After losing his last run at the governorship in 1990, Perpich returned to Croatia, where he worked at getting the fledgling country on its feet.
He refused the post of Croatia's first minister of foreign affairs for fear he would have to renounce his U.S. citizenship, a decision that broke Perpich's heart, Miksic said.
"Before his death in 1995, he told me, 'Boris, someday you should run for public office there.' "
Miksic made an unsuccessful run at the Croatian parliament in 2003, but said if he loses this race, he's retiring his political aspirations in his homeland.
If elected, he'd turn Cortec operations over to his wife, Anna, the company's vice president of sales and marketing. And after one term, he'd be back in North Oaks.
"I love this place," he said. "Five years is not too long."
Mary Bauer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5311.