Just before Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech in Duluth on Friday, the Trump campaign released a letter from six mayors in northeast Minnesota endorsing the president for re-election. It was meant to illustrate the Iron Range’s rightward shift from a Democratic stronghold to a source of votes Republicans hope will help them flip Minnesota red in the November election.
The mayors — from Virginia, Chisholm, Ely, Two Harbors, Eveleth and Babbitt — together accused Joe Biden of doing “nothing to help the working class,” in part by supporting “bad trade deals.” (For instance: Many on the Iron Range strongly opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership under President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump scrapped the proposed deal.)
In an interview Monday, Larry Cuffe, the mayor of Virginia, described himself as a “lifelong Democrat.” Cuffe was first elected mayor in 2014 after a stint on the city council. He spent 30 years as a police officer, retiring in 2010 as an investigator for the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department. He said his first vote for any Republican was Trump, whom he endorsed in 2016 along with several of the other mayors who signed the letter Friday.
Since then, Cuffe has broadly supported the GOP. He twice endorsed Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber for the 8th Congressional District seat, and is now backing GOP Senate candidate Jason Lewis over incumbent DFLer Tina Smith.
What changed? Cuffe said Republicans are stronger supporters of iron mining and two proposed copper-nickel mines, issues that have at times split Democrats. The mayor said Virginia’s economy is heavily dependent on mining and health care. But Cuffe also said the GOP aligns with his anti-abortion views and pro-gun ownership views.
The mining industry has not always thrived under Trump. As demand for steel dropped while governors across the country shuttered businesses to curb the spread of COVID-19, four of the region’s six taconite mines laid off more than 1,800 workers. About 4,000 people work at the mines. The industry has since bounced back, though U.S. Steel’s Keetac mine remains idled.
MinnPost talked with Cuffe to learn more about his continued support for Trump and his criticisms of Biden. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
MinnPost: A lot of people credit the Obama administration for 2016 tariffs that were aimed at stopping steel dumping for sparking revival on the Iron Range. Given your Trump endorsement, how would you respond to that?
Larry Cuffe: I know that President Obama, at the request of (former) Congressman (Rick) Nolan, they brought up his chief of staff, (Denis) McDonough, who was from this area, to hear out all the mining executives and of course some of the elected officials. I was fortunately one who was invited to listen to what they had to say and talk about mining and how that works. And they had the tariffs that were put on. I think tariffs are important from a temporary perspective. I don’t think broad tariffs on a permanent basis could be helpful long term for the economy, at least that’s what economists say. They’re put in place to correct a specific issue. So tariffs across the board probably aren’t good but tariffs for some individual specific things, for sure, for a time, are. And so tariffs brought forth in a variety of areas can be helpful.
MP: So you think that was a positive development?
LC: I think so, yes.
MP: I ask because in your endorsement letter, it says Joe Biden did nothing to help the working class. And Democrats have used the Obama administration’s tariffs to critique that. Do you give any credit to Biden or do you not trust that he would continue to do things like that if he was elected?
LC: Well, my opinion is that the working class right now was suffering as a result of when President Obama and Vice President Biden were in. Part of the working class up here suffered significantly. I mean, it was only in the last part of his term that the tariffs took hold. And during the whole time … our iron industry was suffering. We weren’t running on full tilt. Our economic engine wasn’t running. The mining companies, they don’t pay property taxes here. They pay a production tax to the state and we get money from the state for the production tax. So the less production, the less tax revenue we get and therefore the less, the rest of the economy suffers. And when they’re in the ancillary employment that supports mining, there were a lot of people laid off as a result of that.
There is the ups and downs in mining. I don’t begrudge, I don’t say President Obama, Vice President Biden, that it was their fault. I just said it was a product of not having those tariffs in place or addressing those in 2008, 2009, 2010 and in 2011.
MP: I know at one point during the pandemic, there were more than a thousand people out of work at the taconite mines because of the economic slowdown during the pandemic. The U.S. in many measures is doing poorly handling the disease. Do you fault the federal government and President Trump at all for the mining slowdown?
LC: My view is the pandemic caused that. I mean, when people get sick, rules are put in place trying to protect the general population from a pandemic, which is a rare occurrence. Whether it’s President Trump and Vice President Pence, or whether it was President Obama or Vice President Biden, this is a pandemic that had to be handled and I don’t think it was mishandled.
I mean, you have to react based upon what you have, and you look at what your reserves are. And when you look at the reserves being depleted with the [N95 respirator masks] back when we had that big H1N1 flu epidemic, when President Obama was in place, there were [respirators] that did not get replaced. Well, you can’t blame President Obama for that either.
So I don’t blame President Trump. I think they did the best they can to try to handle this pandemic and then accelerated and brought to bear all the doctors and the researchers and the scientists in order to fight this thing to try to find a way in which to move forward. And when you lay out some rules and regulations, stipulations regarding the pandemic, it’s up to the citizenry, it’s up to the people in the communities to abide by those things. …
And now the mines have made an adjustment, they’re up and running almost full bore right now. And so our sales tax revenue is where it’s supposed to be now, which was newly established to put a new convention center in. And so we’re moving forward with that.
MP: In your letter, it says the Iron Range is “roaring back to life.” What did you mean by that?
LC: I believe it’s roaring back because now that the mining companies — and there are several mines around this area — … they’re all fully operational. They’re operating at full capacity and they’re driving the rest of the economy because mining of course is the economic driver for this area and all the ancillary services that go along with mining — the parts (industry), the services, the grocery stores, the retail spaces, all benefit as a result of the vibrancy of the mining industry, which increases our labor force here. And so I think that’s what we meant by roaring back from where it was before.
MP: What’s one example of a policy that President Trump supports that you believe would help the Iron Range should he be re-elected? Is there something he has specifically advocated for in his second term that you feel would be crucial for the Iron Range?
LC: Well I keep harping on the mining industry, but he’s a strong supporter of fossil fuels. And I believe that we have to rely on fossil fuels (to power mining), at least in the short term and in the near future, until we find a biomass or some other alternative system, that might be effective to the point where it can provide all those services. We’re not there yet.
He supports fossil fuels, he supports hard rock mining. He supports the precious metal (copper-nickel) mining. He supports the delivery of oil as part of an economic driver, the Line 3 pipeline, which is already in place, all they have to do is replace it. And so he supports all those issues and those help our economy. And so I think if I had to pick one thing — I can give you other issues about the platform itself — but that helps the Iron Range significantly.
MP: What else do you want people to know?
LC: I can just tell you that as a lifelong Democrat and most of us … it’s about the Democratic platform now as opposed to what the Democratic platform was 15 years ago. We have our elected officials here who basically have the same values that are currently displayed in the Republican platform. I can just give you the example that we support our police officers and our military veterans. In fact, all around the city of Virginia, there are signs that are in people’s yards that were purchased by a group of business owners that said support law enforcement and first responders. That’s a big deal for even our elected officials, our Democratic officials.
Then the support for mining is very strong within our Democratic electorate up here. And I’m going to give you one example: Tom Bakk, who was a carpenter’s union representative, was elected as a (state) senator. And he was the majority leader. And then when the Democrats lost the Senate, the minority leader. And he has been ousted as the (Senate) minority leader of the state of Minnesota. And he was … a very strong supporter for the Iron Range. And we supported him 100 percent and continue to do so. But he lost his chairmanship, purely because of mining.
And then there’s a strong belief in the Second Amendment, the right not only to bear arms, but to keep arms. And then the late-term abortion, right to life thing … So there’s a lot of things. … For the most part we kind of have the credo that we stand for our flag and we kneel to pray. You know, where there’s a really strong support for America, standing for the flag and what the flag represents. And not using the flag as a tool to dishonor our country.
MP: So you’re going to vote for Pete Stauber, and you’re going to vote for Trump. Are you going to vote for longtime incumbent Democrat David Tomassoni for state Senate?
MP: How come?
LC: Well because I’ve known him for a lot of years and he stands for those principles we just talked about. I’m not a full ticket Republican moving forward. If there was a Republican candidate that I thought was a better candidate, I would consider voting for him. But Sen. Tomassoni has been there for a long time, he’s supported the Iron Range, he stands for these principles that we all stand for up here.