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PolyMet controversy recalls 1978 DFL split

The 1978 DFL primary race for the Senate pitted Iron Rangers against the state’s environmentalists over proposed BWCA protections.

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.

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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.