Koochiching County Commissioner and former labor leader Rob Ecklund came out on top Tuesday in a four-way DFL special primary election for House District 3A.
Ecklund won the race with nearly 44 percent of the vote, beating out longtime DFL activist Bill Hansen, who earned 37 percent of the vote, and Ely City Councilwoman Heidi Omerza and outdoors outfitter Eric Johnson, who each got about 9 percent of the vote.
Ecklund now heads to a Dec. 8 special general election, called by Gov. Mark Dayton after DFL Rep. David Dill died of cancer this summer. While the sprawling seat in northeastern Minnesota leans DFL, Ecklund will face off against former Democratic Ely Mayor Roger Skraba, who is running as a Republican, and lobbyist Kelsey Johnson, who is running as an independent candidate.
The primary race was cast by some as a proxy battle over PolyMet, the controversial mining project that is aiming to be the first copper-nickel extraction operation in the state. Hansen was the only candidate in the race to oppose the project, largely over concerns about mining waste creeping into northeastern Minnesota’s lakes and streams. Ecklund outperformed Hansen in mining-friendly towns in the district, like Babbitt, while Hansen pulled in more votes in towns dotting the North Shore, including his home in Tofte. Ecklund also did better in bigger towns in the district, including International Falls and Ely.
Ecklund, a former labor president who works at the Boise paper mill in International Falls, pulled in support from nearly all organized labor in the district, including the United Steelworkers, Teamsters and AFSCME.
Hansen was the center of the biggest controversy in the campaign after he made comments in a video about how PolyMet could lead to the construction of “man camps,” not unlike those in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. Labor officials criticized Hansen for the comments, asking him to apologize. Hansen said his words were manipulated by his opponents.
“I’d like to congratulate Rob Ecklund on winning the DFL primary in District 3A. David Dill left a tremendous legacy. But Rob’s diverse life experience — as a long-time employee of the Boise Cascade paper mill, a union leader, a veteran, a county commissioner and a youth hockey coach — have prepared him well to represent northern Minnesota in the House of Representatives,” DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said in a statement late Tuesday night.
Skraba, a popular Quetico Provincial Park wilderness guide, also congratulated Ecklund on his victory in a statement Tuesday that gave a preview of his messaging for the general election.
“I look forward to contrasting my vision of better paying jobs, safer roads and putting an end to wasteful spending with Ecklund’s vision of bigger government, higher taxes and support of the Minneapolis-based leaders in the DFL,” he said.