Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


PolyMet controversy recalls 1978 DFL split

As the 2014 political season gets under way, Minnesota’s DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is facing a vexing controversy over the proposal for a copper-nickel mine in the Northern Minnesota. The NorthMet project plan by the PolyMet Mining Company threatens to drive a wedge between two of Dayton’s key constituencies — job-hungry Iron Rangers who support the plan and the state’s environmentalists who oppose it.

The current controversy recalls a similar DFL split in 1978 between environmentalists and the Rangers. That year’s battle pitted advocates for wilderness protection in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) against Northern Minnesotans who resisted the advocacy efforts by people they viewed as outsiders.

Don Fraser

The controversy came to a head during Rep. Don Fraser’s unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. While he was busy rounding up support in Minnesota for the DFL Senate endorsement, Fraser was also promoting legislation in Washington that would sharply limited the use of motorboats and snowmobiles in the million-acre BWCA, directly north of the heavily DFL Iron Range.

As he traveled the state, Fraser faced a formidable foe for the DFL Senate nomination — Minneapolis businessman Robert Short. In the fall, at the September primary, Short and Fraser would vie for the party’s nomination to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Hubert Humphrey, who had died in office earlier in the year.

Bill struck a raw nerve

Sensing an opportunity to cut into Fraser’s DFL support in Northern Minnesota, Short took a strong stand against Fraser’s BWCA bill, backed by the pro-environmental Friends of the Boundary Waters. Ostensibly, the BWCA controversy involved a dispute over the use of motor boats and snowmobiles in the wilderness area. But for many in the northern part of the state, the BWCA was much more than a conservation issue. For them, the environmental movement, with its strong demands for strict wilderness protection, was a symbol of the arrogance and elitism of the Twin Cities. Particularly on the Iron Range, with its long tradition of populism, the environmentalists, like the mine owners, were seen as the enemy. Fraser’s support for a seemingly benign conservation bill had struck a raw nerve in that part of the state.

Bob Short

Midway through the campaign, a couple from Cloquet, who were staunch DFL partisans, sent back to the Fraser office a DFL fundraising letter they had received from Hubert Humphrey’s widow, Muriel. The couple wrote that if the funds had been requested for Humphrey, they would have gladly contributed. But they would not contribute to Fraser “after what he had done to northern Minnesota.”

According to the Cloquet couple, Fraser was interested only in helping those “so called environmentalists whose only goal was to secure a playground for the rich and the able bodied, and to hell with the rest of us!”

“Why don’t you people clean up Minneapolis and St. Paul,” the couple continued, irately. “Why are you making Northern Minnesota a target for destruction – to appease the privileged people!

Several ‘hot button’ issues in race

The BWCA was only one of several other “hot button” issues, including abortion and gun control, that Short used to attack his rival for the DFL Senate nomination. During his eight terms in the U.S. House, Fraser had taken strong stands in favor of gun control and abortion rights, incurring the wrath of well-organized groups on the other side of those highly controversial issues. By appealing to opponents of gun control and abortion, along with those who opposed BWCA wilderness protection, Short was able to develop a potent trifecta of issues that substantially cut into Fraser’s traditional DFL support.

As the 1978 nomination battle began to heat up, Short opted to bypass the state DFL endorsement convention in June. Instead, his supporters rallied around the last-minute Senate candidacy of State Sen. Doug Johnson, who was viewed as a surrogate for Short. Johnson succeeded in holding off Fraser’s endorsement for three ballots, an ominous sign of the difficulties the Fraser campaign would face as it moved toward the fall primary election.

In the days leading up to the Sept. 12 primary, Fraser, now the DFL-endorsed candidate for Humphrey’s Senate seat, continued to hold a significant lead in the polls. Even so, his campaign sensed that Short was gaining momentum.

On election night, as the early returns rolled in from Fraser’s base of support in the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis congressman maintained a healthy lead over his DFL opponent. But, as the late returns came in from Northern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, the political tide began to turn. When all the votes were finally counted, Short had eked out a narrow victory over Fraser, thanks to a massive outpouring of votes from his Eighth District stronghold.

Short lost to Durenberger

That fall, in the November general election, Short lost to his Republican opponent, Dave Durenberger. DFLers Wendell Anderson and Rudy Perpich also lost their statewide bids in an election that came to be known as the “Minnesota Massacre.”

Fast forwarding to 2014: While the PolyMet controversy threatens to exacerbate tensions between environmentalists and mining supporters in Northern Minnesota, DFL leaders are hopeful that a compromise plan can ease those tensions and pave the way for Dayton’s re-election on Nov. 4. But 1978 provides a vivid reminder of the stresses and strains that can still occur within the DFL’s big political tent.

Iric Nathanson was a legislative aide to Rep. Don Fraser in 1978.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/15/2014 - 10:24 am.

    A compromise plan ?

    “…based on a 90 percent probability, modeling predicted that pollutants from the mine wouldn’t exceed the state’s water quality evaluation criteria, with the exception of aluminum and lead. The levels of those two elements would increase in nearby waters, including the Embarrass River watershed, not because of discharges from the plant, but as a side effect of the project…”

    THIS is a compromise ?

    Maybe next they’ll propose a model that won’t take 500 years of mitigation efforts, but say, only 300 years, and call THAT a compromise !!

    • Submitted by Paul White on 01/15/2014 - 03:27 pm.

      More False and misleading hyperbole by

      The head of the DNR has already publicly stated that this is complete nonsense.
      Please stop spreading half truths and putting out misleading scare hyperbole.
      The system designed and built by the great American company called General Electric has already proven to work.

      See the article in the Duluth news for unbiased information.

      The article is entitled

      Insist on civility at PolyMet hearings

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/15/2014 - 05:51 pm.

        It is YOUR claims that are false and misleading

        You obviously need a little better information:

        The following is from PolyMet’s OWN NorthMet SDEIS Executive Summary on Water Quality, published on the DNR site:

        “Both mechanical and non-mechanical treatment would require periodic maintenance and monitoring activities. Mechanical water treatment is part of the modeled NorthMet Project Proposed Action for the duration of the simulations (200 years at the Mine Site, and 500 years at the Plant Site). The duration of the simulations was determined based on capturing the highest predicted concentrations of the modeled NorthMet Project Proposed Action. It is uncertain how long the NorthMet Project Proposed Action would require water treatment, but it is expected to be long term “

        Links are at – see the “Water Quality” header on the right and click on “Executive Summary”.

        I hope this helps you clear up your confusion.

  2. Submitted by Dee Ann Christensen on 01/15/2014 - 11:30 am.


    I remember the race for a particularly potent bumper sticker: Abort Short.

  3. Submitted by Howard Hirsch on 01/15/2014 - 02:13 pm.

    plus ca change . . .

    I was a young IR (as they were known back then) precinct chairman in St. Louis Park when this happened, and one of my friends and I decided to crash the DFL convention at the St. Paul Civic Center and watch the spectacle ourselves.

    And since our own nominations for both senate seats were secured by Rudy Boschwitz and Dave Durenberger (although IIRC Malcolm Moos contested one of them, not seriously and I can’t remember which one), I felt confident enough in voting in the DFL primary for Short. I remain convinced to this day that his narrow margin was the result of enough Republicans making the same decision. Looks like it paid off handsomely.

    Howard Hirsch
    Dayton (yes, really), Nevada

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/15/2014 - 09:17 pm.

    Ali I remember hearing over and over …

    and over again was the gun control issue. It was a dirty precursor to what we see today put out by the GOP. Also as I remeber it it was the beginning of “liberal” becoming a political slur. Sad ! Sad election. Was it the beginning of winning at all costs. Maybe.

  5. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 02/28/2014 - 05:32 pm.


    I, too, remember this election. Short ran on 3 hot button issues–anti-BWCAW, pro-life, and pro-gun. From what I remember, it was the Republican cross-over vote in the primary election that threw the election to Short. I remember telling every Democrat that I could that Short was going to lose the general election, and this was bad over-all strategy for the Dems. Durenberger was considered a liberal Republican, and Short was soundly defeated.
    This demonstrated to me how a political opportunist can take advantage of public sentiment and fan the fire to get everyone riled up. Even if he had won, there was no way that Short could have delivered on any of the 3 issues.
    The same thing is happening today. Local politicians are promising lots and lots of jobs–which can’t be delivered in today’s mining economy which uses a minimum number of workers. These same politicians are overlooking the very valid concerns about long-term pollution–even when that pollution stretches out for 200-500 years. This makes no sense. It might, however, lose the election for Dayton and Franken–who have some semblance of progressive liberalism left.

Leave a Reply