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What a progressive DFLer’s primary victory in Duluth says (and doesn’t say) about politics and environmental policy in northern Minnesota

Though plenty of DFLers in northern Minnesota support two copper-nickel mining projects proposed for the region, PolyMet and Twin Metals, Jen McEwen says Duluth residents have pent-up demand for a “more progressive politics.”

Progressive Democrat Jen McEwen crushed state Sen. Erik Simonson by more than 46 points this week in a Duluth primary that was one of four notable races in which DFL incumbents were ousted by left-wing challengers.

Jen McEwen
Jen McEwen
Far more than the other three primaries, which were in the Twin Cities, the Duluth race highlighted the party’s split over climate change and copper mining. Environmental policy was one of the defining issues in the election for Senate District 7.

In an interview Wednesday morning, McEwen said Duluth residents have pent-up demand for a “more progressive politics.” Democratic leaders, she said, have been “walking on pins and needles” around issues like copper mining, Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 oil pipeline, and single-payer health care.

“It’s kind of like a logjam breaking,” she said of her win.

Replacing a moderate Democrat

PolyMet and Twin Metals, two copper-nickel mining projects in northeast Minnesota, have emerged as a “dominant issue” in elections all over the region, said Cynthia Rugely, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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And from the start, McEwen and Simonson clashed over copper mining. McEwen sided with environmental groups that argue mines would risk irreparable water pollution, while Simonson has backed PolyMet and said it can operate safely, cleanly and bring an economic boom to the region.

Most Democratic legislators in northern Minnesota support the projects, though Duluth has been a growing hotbed of opposition. The city’s Senate seat has now flipped to an ardent copper mining opponent in McEwen, who has said she wants to explore changes to make the state’s environmental permitting process tougher.

Legislation on the topic has stalled in the Democratic controlled House and the GOP-led Senate, as many lawmakers and Walz officials contend Minnesota has strong environmental standards. But McEwen said a bevy of court challenges to state-approved PolyMet permits shows the process is flawed.

State Sen. Erik Simonson
State Sen. Erik Simonson
Scott Beauchamp, policy director for the advocacy group Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, which opposes both copper mines, said McEwen’s victory “sends a message loud and clear that the people of Minnesota demand leaders like Jen who will protect our clean water for future generations.”

Yet the split between the candidates over environmental policy went beyond mining. Simonson and McEwen also differed on Minnesota’s transition to carbon-free energy, a topic with high interest in a region that currently relies on coal to help fuel its energy-hungry taconite mines and paper mills.

McEwen called for an “urgent” energy shift to address climate change, while Simonson has advocated for a slower turn away from fossil fuels. He raised concerns that a fast and furious energy transition could threaten the reliability and cost of energy production for industry and prematurely end Iron Range jobs at a regional coal plant owned by the Duluth utility Minnesota Power. (The utility plans to operate with 50-percent carbon-free energy by 2021, though some in the city push for further action.) 

“It’s not to say that I’m a big coal proponent,” Simonson said earlier this year. “But it is to say that I pretty firmly believe that we need to generate this baseload (fossil fuel) power for these businesses to survive, for those employees to keep their jobs and keep these communities going.”

A big change — or a more accurate reflection of the region’s range of opinions?

At the Legislature, Simonson has been a powerful voice on energy policy. He is the top Democrat on the Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee, where he has often favored moderate energy policies backed by trade unions, iron mines, and sometimes Republicans. Simonson was in line to be the committee chairman if Democrats took control of the Senate.

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Simonson’s defeat also comes after Senate Democrats in February removed Tom Bakk, whose district covers a broad swath of northeast Minnesota, as their minority leader in favor of Woodbury’s Susan Kent.

McEwen, who was endorsed by the Sierra Club and a host of other environmental groups, said Wednesday she hopes to serve on that energy committee if elected. She is facing Republican Donna Bergstrom, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who lost to Simonson in 2016 by 31 points and was the Lt. Gov. candidate on Jeff Johnson’s 2018 campaign for governor.

Donna Bergstrom
MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday
Donna Bergstrom
There are other reverberations from McEwen’s win. Republicans have highlighted McEwen’s opposition to copper-nickel mining in legislative elections in more mining-friendly areas. Robert Farnsworth, a Republican running in House District 6A to unseat Rep. Julie Sandstede, a DFLer from Hibbing, posted on Facebook Wednesday that McEwen was “another anti-mining DFL candidate, this time too close to home.”

“A vote for any DFL candidate is a vote for further metro DFL control in our state,” he wrote.

Joe Abeyta, a Democratic House candidate in district 5B, which includes Grand Rapids and stretches into Cass County, said the environmental wing of the DFL presents challenges in his race for an open seat vacated by the retiring GOP. Rep. Sandy Layman. Layman beat longtime Democratic Rep. Tom Anzelc in 2016, and DFLers hope they can win the spot back.

Abeyta, a city council member in La Prairie and a union heavy equipment operator, supports PolyMet, Twin Metals and Line 3. The Republican candidate Spencer Igo is a field representative for U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber in northern Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District. Stauber has been a steadfast supporter of the projects.

Joe Abeyta
Abeyta for State Representative
Joe Abeyta
Abeyta praised Simonson’s support for labor but said he hopes that the party can work with whoever is elected to ensure a strong mining and construction sector given the pain they’ve endured during the current recession. He has made an effort to distinguish his views from those of Democrats like McEwen. “Obviously, labor and mining and industry are my top priorities because that’s what drives our economy,” Abeyta said.

Nancy Norr, chairwoman of Jobs for Minnesotans, a coalition of labor, industry and utility groups that supports the mines and pipelines, said McEwen’s win is “a call to those of us who want to see a balanced approach to economic development, to job creation, to be out there educating candidates and elected officials as to how we can have equitable growth and development in the form of increased investment and business development.”

In some ways, McEwen’s race may not represent a massive shift in DFL political dynamics. Northern Minnesota already had a wide range of views on environmental issues. McEwen’s Duluth district is also safely Democratic, said Rugely, the UMD professor, and other topics, such as social justice, played a role in the campaign. Rugely said many voters in Duluth are young and energized by those subjects, too.

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Simonson also faced ethics questions because he took a job this year at Lake Superior College shortly after introducing legislation that would have directed nearly $1 million to the institution. 

The DFL retains considerable support for copper mining, Line 3 and a more centrist approach to environmental policy. While Bakk lost his leadership position, there are several DFL lawmakers who are ideologically closer to Simonson, and key to any of the party’s hopes to flip the Senate’s political control.

Rugely said she would not expect any primary DFL challengers in the near future to find success against moderate Democrats on the Iron Range. Plus, Walz himself has supported PolyMet and generally allowed the Twin Metals project to move through the early stages of environmental permitting.

McEwen said she wants to bring “good living wage union jobs to northeastern Minnesota,” but also press state leaders to reject the international mining companies that want to build PolyMet and Twin Metals. “It’s not a reflection of what the electorate wants,” McEwen said. “It’s more of a reflection that there are these powerful interests who are making these demands.”