The Northern Minnesota [mining] political narrative: Real and Imagined – by Aaron Brown (Minneapolis Star Tribune – June 11, 2014)

It’s an election year. Not just that, it’s another year fraught with continuing statewide debate over mining and environmental issues in northern Minnesota. This brings with it a combustable mix of political speculation, hammer-fisted rhetoric and economic obfuscation in a region populated by trees, deer and people (in that order).

I might not be the only political speculator in this state, but I might be the only one who can see two mines, a lake, a dirt road and the outskirts of a national forest from my roof. So off we go.

In the interest of shaking up the conversation, I’m presenting a contrast today: the real Northern Minnesota as contrasted with the imagined one often found in political speeches and media accounts. It’s not just a Cities vs. Up North thing: perceptions can be just as cloudy “up here” as they are “down there.” As we all should know by now, perception is not always reality.

The Imagined

Northern Minnesota is deeply split over copper and nickel mining, with the Iron Range being for it and Duluth against it. The DFL is split over the issue because of its environmental base, so Republicans’ full-throated support of mining threatens to shift this former DFL stronghold to the Republicans this year. After all, that’s what happened in 2010.

Rep. Rick Nolan has to balance support from environmentalists and his Iron Range labor base, and there’s no way he can keep that balance with a well-funded opponent in Republican Stewart Mills, scion of the Fleet Farm stores, who backs all forms of mining no matter what.

The Real

A number of longtime Iron Range pro-mining Democrats are indeed very upset over those in the DFL who oppose mining. Some of them will vote with Republicans this fall, some will consider it, and others will begrudgingly vote DFL anyway.

However, this fact in itself does not mean there is a seismic shift occurring in the 8th District. Why? The Range now comprises less than a quarter of the entire district. And while most Iron Range residents probably support nonferrous mining, their passion on the topic varies greatly. So there are a number of votes in play: hundreds, perhaps; no more than a couple thousand. The reason it seems like ubiquitous overwhelming Range support is that the loudest opinion leaders and local officials support nonferrous mining, due partly to the fact that the current political system requires a steady flow of mining revenue.

In a very close congressional race all this could be problematic for Nolan, but even a couple thousand votes wouldn’t have changed the outcome last time. And the 2010 election that saw Republican Chip Cravaack defeat DFL veteran Jim Oberstar had other dynamics: namely, a stronger Republican wave and Oberstar’s huge collapse in the non-Range, non-Duluth central Minnesota part of the district, where both Nolan and Mills are from.

In fact, the reason Nolan beat Cravaack in 2012 was in large part because of Duluth, which has become a liberal DFL fortress. In Duluth, environmental concerns over water and air far outpace support for nonferrous mining. Mills could win the election, but if he does it will have more to do with low DFL turnout in Duluth than mining defections on the Range.

The Imagined

“Unemployment is worse up north. The economy of the 8th District is a disaster. This election matters a great deal as to whether or not these mines happen, and without these mines the Iron Range and 8th District are doomed.”

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