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Capitalizing on PolyMet rift, Republicans mining DFL votes on Iron Range

An abandoned open pit iron ore mine near Virginia, Minnesota.
An abandoned open pit iron ore mine near Virginia, Minnesota.

Republicans aren’t being shy about trying to poach typically Democratic votes on the Iron Range for their slate of candidates this fall, capitalizing on a rift between pro-mining Democrats in northeastern Minnesota and environmentalists over a proposed copper and nickel mining project.  

Former Republican House speaker and gubernatorial candidate Kurt Zellers has been pushing the slogan “We’re all Iron Rangers.” Endorsed Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden recently tweeted “Let’s get this done!” — referring to the PolyMet Mining Corp. project near Hoyt Lakes, which would create more than 350 jobs on the Iron Range. And GOP-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson says he’s ardently in favor of using the state’s natural resources to create jobs.

Most agree — all of these are more effective campaign slogans in the state’s economically struggling mining towns than incumbent DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s “let’s wait and see” approach, or even Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s calls to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS) but still move ahead with the project. They are responding at least somewhat to opposition to the project from environmentalists, who fear the untested non-ferrous mining project could damage the area’s pristine lakes for hundreds of years to come.

But the Republican messaging has DFL political operatives worried that mining support will push the longtime labor voters in northeastern Minnesota into the GOP column. In a midterm election with DFL turnout outlook already low, many operatives say Iron Range votes — while dwindling — could be critical in the race for the Eighth District, the governor’s office and possibly even a handful of state House seats.  

Long term, Democrats are looking for a way preserve Iron Rangers as a continuing part of the state party. Leaders recently indefinitely spiked a debate over including mining support in the party’s platform, but it’s an issue that can only be pushed off for so long.

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost file photo by James NordGov. Mark Dayton

“The thing that’s more dangerous with mining isn’t the votes that are in play but the fact that it creates a sense of discord and chaos and that makes people uneasy,” DFL Iron Range blogger and longtime political activist Aaron Brown said. “There’s a general frustration and malaise over the fact that for 40 years we’ve watched decline — not growth — on the Range. There’s frustration with that, and some believe mining new minerals will solve that, others no.”

Every vote counts

When it comes to Dayton and Franken, both of whom are up for reelection this fall, it’s easy for political operatives to point to their last narrow margins of victory in the 2008 and 2010 elections. Franken famously won his race six years ago after a protracted recount by only 312 votes. Dayton won his first race for governor in 2010 after a much shorter recount and with a margin of nearly 9,000 votes.

This fall is shaping up to have similar dynamics to 2010, a midterm election that saw DFL voter participation drop considerably. That year also saw a surge in GOP participation in response to the passage of the federal health-care overhaul, which knocked the late 36-year DFL incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar out of the Eighth District in favor of political newcomer and Republican Chip Cravaack.

That upset rocked perceptions of Democratic support in the Iron Range, but Dayton did well in the area that year, touting his support for mining jobs and pulling in votes many considered critical in the close race. He could lose some of those votes this year, some say.

Sen. Al Franken
Sen. Al Franken

“[Mining] might hurt [Dayton] a little this election, there’s no doubt about it. Both he and senator weren’t the biggest winners in their last elections, and everyone knows that,” former Iron Range state Rep. Tom Rukavina said. But overall, Rukavina thinks most Range Democrats won’t be so quick to abandon the DFL Party for another party that has historically butted heads with the region.  

“Tim Pawlenty took $50 million from our mineral fund for the budget, which would have solved some of this, and three years ago Republicans tried to take $60 million in local taconite taxes,” he added. “I think the Republicans have been no friend to the Iron Range.”

That same fortune may not fall on DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who made a statement about mining last October when she voted against 31 nonferrous mineral leases over potential cost overruns to taxpayers on the PolyMet project. Afterward she sent out a fundraising email blast noting that she was the lone no vote on the state’s Executive Council against the leases. That riled DFLers on the Iron Range, where “Dump Otto” signs quickly started popping up in yards.  

While Otto doesn’t claim to be pro- or anti-mining, she’s facing an intra-party primary challenge from former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, who has made his support of the PolyMet project one of the key differences between the two in the campaign. Republican-endorsed auditor candidate Randy Gilbert is also pushing his support for mining.

“I don’t think Rebecca Otto is going to come up here and do very well,” Rukavina noted.

Iron Range candidates in trouble?

But just how many votes do statewide candidates stand to lose in the Iron Range mining towns? Mining has been on the decline in Minnesota since the 1960s, making the voice of the miners less of an economic and political force. The district has shed tens of thousands of residents since the 1980s, and those who do move in don’t necessarily thinks of mining as their top issue.

“We are talking about single-digit thousands, a few thousand people in the cities and townships of the predominantly eastern Iron Range, that are motivated by mining and would considering breaking the DFL in certain races,” Brown said. “All Dayton or Franken or Otto would have to do would make up those votes in the suburbs or in the metro.”

Eighth District DFL Chairman Don Bye, who has served in that role since the 1970s, said he thinks the issue touches the district more broadly than just the people living in mining towns. “Every job in the mine or mining area was the focal point of about eight jobs throughout the area,” he said.

Stewart Mills
Stewart Mills

Eighth District Republican Treasurer Ron Britton said even DFL legislative candidates could see their usually solid margins slim this year. “The local Democratic legislators are taking a hit from the metro-area environmentalists who have proposed stopping the mining up there. That’s our basic industry,” Britton said. “This means there’s a lot more sentiment for the Republican Party than probably in the last election.”

Brown worries the mining could that could hurt more insulated Iron Range candidates like Eighth District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. While Nolan strongly supports the PolyMet project, GOP challenger Stewart Mills is criticizing him for supporting Otto’s campaign for reelection.

“Rebecca Otto is the most anti-mining statewide elected official but Rick Nolan fell right in behind her, putting party over the good of the Iron Range,” Mills said. “The bottom line is you can’t say you support mining and support Rebecca Otto.”

But University of Minnesota Duluth political science professor and former DFL lobbyist Wy Spano says he doubts Mills’ argument on Otto alone will be enough to tie Nolan to anti-mining sentiment. “It’s really kind of just hard for me to believe that it’s an issue you could make stick,” Spano said. “He endorsed somebody — that’s too inside baseball for most voters.”

Nolan’s campaign manager, Kendal Killian, dismissed the criticism from Mills, saying the Fleet Farm executive can’t connect or relate with “middle class folks in mining communities or anywhere else.” “He’s never even had to apply for a job,” Killian said. “His campaign is struggling to gain support on the Iron Range and this desperate attack won’t change that

Preserving support

In the long run, some Democrats are less worried about the election cycle and more about how to preserve the longtime participation of Iron Rangers in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Nancy Larson, a former DFL lobbyist and a longtime activist who grew up on the Iron Range, is concerned over a call from environmentalists to push a broad EIS that would not only impact the PolyMet project, but could potentially endanger mining projects already underway. That could tip support on the Iron Range with Republicans for many years to come.

“They are pushing so hard,” she said. “If they are successful at that, that will really undermine [the mining] side. There’s always going to be conflict on the Range, which is not unusual. Certainly it doesn’t have the clout it used to have, but that’s an area of the state that’s important to [Democrats] and we care about and we want to keep it strong.”

One thing is certain: the political jockeying from Republicans has left Iron Rangers with a feeling of dejectedness from both political parties over the last several election cycles.   

“These are bar-stool independents,” Brown said. “These are frustrated folks who aren’t getting what they want from the Democrats, but they haven’t forgotten what was taken from them when Republicans had power.”

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/13/2014 - 10:33 am.

    great article

    The DFL will have to decide if they will embrace the extreme agenda of the environmentalist and the huge special interests money that comes with radical environmentalism or jobs.

    • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 06/13/2014 - 01:25 pm.

      Special Interest Money?

      There are few interests on this planet as huge as Glencore-Xstrata. Ron, it might be more productive if you can point to a mine of this size and scale that has produce no significant pollution over its lifetime. Or, even show that PolyMet’s technology is proven in a mine of this sort.

      • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/13/2014 - 05:46 pm.

        Run on it

        Brian, I hope Al Franken and Mark Dayton broadcast and embrace your viewpoint.

        • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 06/14/2014 - 10:47 am.

          Why not, Ron.

          Why not run asking opponents to provide concrete proof? But, again, I understand that cynicism is really the GOPs style. Right, Ron?

    • Submitted by jason myron on 06/14/2014 - 03:02 pm.

      Extreme agenda?

      Yeah, all of that clean air and water…ick.

    • Submitted by Kent Burn on 06/16/2014 - 02:21 pm.

      The “extreme agenda” is what the pro-mining nuts embrace. The short-sighted and selfish hope that maybe there will be a few lousy jobs for a few people while the land, water and air is permanently ruined for residents and their offspring for years.

      There is no such thing as “radical” environmentalism. The myth has been created by the rich billionaires that seek to destroy land that they don’t live on, or even near, to gain yet more wealth.

      Mining is always a boom/bust. Maybe a few years of some shitty mining jobs, then nothing. It’s happened on the Iron Range before, you would think people would learn. I guess not.

  2. Submitted by Leslie Davis on 06/13/2014 - 10:39 am.


    I am Leslie Davis, DFL candidate for Governor challenging Governor Dayton in the August 12th DFL primary.
    I am the founder and president of the Earth Protector group
    My Governor web site is 612-529-55253
    P.S. You mention Entenza challenging Otto in the primary, how come you don’t mention Davis vs. Dayton in the primary?

  3. Submitted by Clyde Hanson on 06/13/2014 - 11:05 am.

    Labor needs Greens

    Labor support in legislative bodies is declining as union membership falls. Labor needs environmentalists as allies to protect the existence of the union movement from hostile legislation. Pushing risky mining projects and demanding unquestioning support of the mining industry is not a way to build such a necessary coalition. Some metallic sulfide mines don’t deserve to exist (or open) and Minnesota’s taconite mines do not have “clean hands” with respect to clean air and water.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/13/2014 - 03:45 pm.

    Another thing to consider…

    …is IF the PolyMet proposal proceeds, and IF it leads to an environmental disaster, who will be blamed for it, and, more particularly, FOR HOW LONG will they be blamed ??

    I’m thinking the parties responsible for promoting and approving such a debacle will be held responsible for DECADES, which is how long an environmental disaster of this scope could last – perhaps even much longer than that, based on the DEIS.

    There is nothing whatsoever that will sway the thinking of the state legislators from up north. Even if you told them, “Hey, as an alternative, we’ll appropriate money to pay for 350 tourism and business development jobs for 20 years.”, I’m pretty sure they would refuse in a huff. They seem to no longer have the ability to even listen to alternatives, much less consider them.

    But our national Senators, Congressmen, the DFL, and the Governor, might stop and thoughtfully consider the risk, considering the downside, which might be remembered as their primary legacy, all their good deed forgotten. They might consider proposing and funding alternatives that would produce those 300-400 jobs, alternatives that don’t involve possibly destroying natural resources.

    • Submitted by Hank Lee on 06/14/2014 - 02:29 pm.

      You’re on a roll. Why stop now?

      “…we’ll appropriate money to pay for…” what? Part-time, seasonal, low-paying tourism jobs for 20 years so you can barely put bread on the table for 350 families?

      With good-paying mining jobs, we will be able to afford more than bread for our kids. Not to mention construction jobs, drivers, increased shipping of ore from union docks in Duluth. You forget 1000+ direct jobs and 3,000+ spin-off jobs, new housing and much more that would result from the underground mining proposed by Twin Metals.

      Many environmental groups would have Minnesota shut down the entire mining industry. It’s the age-old biased “not in my back yard” mentality, and the majority of those advocates don’t even live up here. So, how would they propose the state appropriate $225 million that’s going to area schools and the rest of state from taxing mining operations?

      Pretty weak argument. Minnesota’s legacy is mining, not poverty.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/15/2014 - 06:28 am.

        Exactly as I expected, Hank !!

        The post’s “They seem to no longer have the ability to even listen to alternatives, much less consider them.” pretty much describes your response.

        You’ve completely misunderstood and mischaracterized the post; not answered its thesis – which is long ongoing political risk; and then.cited exceedingly dubious claims of your own.

        And no, your straw man of “Part-time, seasonal, low-paying…jobs” is not what I’ve suggested could be done, but rather well-paying, full time, permanent tourism development jobs which will last for many years after the PolyMet mine’s 20 year lifetime. But as I predicted, “…I’m pretty sure they would refuse in a huff.” as you’ve done here.

        Minnesota’s legacy is not mining. It is a whole lot more.

        • Submitted by Hank Lee on 06/15/2014 - 10:24 am.

          Politicians talk the talk

          Who is misunderstanding? If what you say is true, then why is northern Minnesota the most economically depressed area of the state? If there are so many alternative job development opportunities available where are they? Why haven’t they come to fruition?

          Mining opponents, the powerfull environmental lobbies and their allies in the DFL legislature, have been promising diversity and jobs for decades. But it hasn’t it happened. You, like our metro DFL lawmakers and governor, like to talk the talk and failed to walk the walk.

          The legacy of Minnesota DFL-party, who once proudly represented the common working family, will be that they fell apart because they became a party ruled by elitist environmentalists. The “Labor” in Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, when it merged long ago to form a single party, was largely the mining union laborers.

          Today’s DFL party should change its name to Democratic-Environmentalist-Farmer party, because they have become DEF (deaf) to the pleas of working families. Their ears are stuffed with campaign contributions from the elitists who are to ones that walk away in a huff when challenged by hard-working families who aren’t afraid to get their fingernails dirty.

          No, we don’t misunderstand you at all. We’re the ones who do understand how you are destroying the party the way Tea Party activists fractured the GOP.

          The DFL/DEF party needs to wake up and start listening.

          • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/16/2014 - 12:19 pm.

            Many of us would have greatly preferred that nearly billion…

            …dollar tax capture over 30 years which went to Racketeer Stadium to go instead to business development in outstate MN. Now THAT is an investment that would have made sense & paid manifold dividends over the years. Same goes for the Twins sports palace. Instead, those manifold dividends produced by that money will go to wealthy sports team owners and a handful of downtown Minneapolis businesses.

            I agree with you that the DFL has screwed everyone. However, I disagree that they have turned their backs on the unions. It was the unions who pushed the stadium issue forward by threatening the DFL. The unions wanted those temporary construction jobs. They got them alright, and the rest of us got the tax bill.

            I’m sure those all-powerful elitist environmentalists would be astonished to hear how they’ve taken over the DFL and now rule it.

            I think you’re going to get your way on this PolyMet mine, and the list of mining proposals which are certain to follow once it is approved. There are proposals waiting in the wings on this decision right now to see which way the wind blows.

            One reason you’re going to get your way is that PolyMet hired a crafty DNR leader to manage its effort, a smart guy who knows where all the levers and buttons are. Another is that the DNR is conflicted in its dual roles of natural resource management – one to preserve and protect the natural resources, the other to promote mining. And finally, there are a lot of people living in northern MN who are in favor of new mining operations. I’m not so sure those people understand that PolyMet is not going to hire as many local people as claimed; that the potential damage to the water resources could have much greater impact than imagined; that the wildly optimistic speculations on collateral benefits are not sound; and that after 20 years or so, they will be left holding the bag.

            Northern MN is economically depressed because the legislature has sent steak and foie gras to the metropolitan area, and rice and beans to those up north. It may seem that mining will create local control of economic interests up north, but the big decisions will be made by those mining companies and those who own those mining companies.

            • Submitted by Hank Lee on 06/19/2014 - 05:58 pm.

              Spending woes

              Yessir! The tax & spend reputation of a DFL-controlled legislature will play a big part in this year’s election and I totally agree with you on two points:

              1. the metro area gets a disproportionate amount of tax payer money, and;
              2. economically-depressed areas of our beloved state are given the leftovers after metro lawmakers have sated their appetites first. Beans and rice… and we already have rice.

              On the DFL, perhaps this phrase is more accurate: MONEY rules and environmental groups and their many metro-area supporters, have a LOT of money to influence lawmakers. Much more than folks up north do.

      • Submitted by Kent Burn on 06/16/2014 - 02:29 pm.

        And these Wonderful High-Paying Super-Safe mining jobs that “thousands” of people will get because of the blessings of billionaires who don’t even live in the USA, those will last for more than 20 years?

        The only people that will benefit long-term from ruining our land are foreign investors who don’t care about you, our land, our nation or anything but making more money. And you will believe all the lies they tell you because you believe you will get some wonderful mining-related job from it.

        What happened to all those great iron mining jobs? Where is the wonderful economy that iron mining created?

        Minnesota’s legacy is nature and the outdoors, not digging holes in it to make foreign billionaires even richer. Don’t be a fool.

        • Submitted by Hank Lee on 06/19/2014 - 07:34 pm.

          Being a little melodramatic, aren’t you?

          If the political discussion is about mining, then you have to include Twin Metal’s proposal which, when combined with Polymet creates more than 3,000+ direct and related jobs for another 100+ years, meaning new housing, and businesses to serve all these workers and their families.

          Since you also brought up iron mining, we could talk about how the steel that went into ships, tanks and equipment used to win World War II came from Minnesota. The national security aspect of mining in a politically stable country like the USA seldom is discussed.

          Before you shut down iron mining, too, you may also consider the impact on great lakes shipping and the union dock workers in the Port of Duluth and other ports.

          The environment is important, too, but when you consider the whole picture, it makes more sense to support new mining with environmental regulations that protect the environment as much as possible, to provide jobs and billions in state taxes.

          Also let’s not forget that Medtronics billionaires are now moving to Ireland because of our state and federal corporate tax structures. Should we kick all their factories out as well? With mining, the jobs and taxes stay here. You can’t move a mine like you can our factories.

          Calling it hole-digging is an insult to miners who aren’t worried about getting their fingernails dirty and are eager to begin the next generation of the tens of thousands of proud miners who call northern Minnesota their home.

  5. Submitted by THOMAS REYNOLDS on 06/13/2014 - 06:27 pm.

    Geographic Diversification

    Polymet is just one economic project that will diversify the geographic concentration of investment in the Metro Area. This concentration has created two classes of those that with and those without. Northeastern Minnesota has always respected the natural environment in which it has derived its economic life. When threatened by the Reserve Mining dumping in Lake Superior action was taken and it continued to support that community until the demand for Minnesota Iron Ore declined.

    The cost of concentrating all economic investment in the Metro Area has created an expensive infrastructure in transportation, sewer systems, clean water, air pollution, waste control, and more. It has created exorbitant education costs throughout the outstate and while strengthening the Metro with higher density populations, it has reduced the effective growth and stability of communities all throughout the state.

    Polymet and other mining interests are a fundamental resource for revenue and job creation throughout Northeastern Minnesota. While Polymet would only produce 300-400 jobs future developments led by their success will lead to thousands of new jobs throughout the region. These revenue streams have hardly been touched and could help reduce property and income taxes for all of Minnesotans. A balanced approach of working to protect the environment, as well as, developing these natural resources is needed.

    Unfortunately the DFL has become the home to the radical environmentalists who are unwilling to do anything but block all attempts to develop our natural resources. If they do not begin to recognize that life without jobs and community is no life at all, the party will split apart and their worst nightmares will occur.

    • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 06/14/2014 - 04:23 pm.

      Sounds Great…

      But, PolyMet has said only about 20-25% of those hirings will be people from the Range. The are silent when asked if those mining jobs will be union. As for the “balanced approach” to protecting the environment PolyMet has yet to demonstrate definitively that it’s technology will protect the environment. The current taconite processing facilities using the current technologies operate under variances and expired permits. Plus, they (PolyMet) still won’t tell us what it will cost. Will the longterm economic benefits outweigh the maintenance and clean-up costs that will go on in perpetuity? It seems that if the Iron Range DFL and PolyMet had a reasonable answer they would have offered it by now.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 06/13/2014 - 11:09 pm.

    How is it worth …

    It to provide a go ahead to the 11th generator of money on the Range ? Ten other areas might benefit the range public in a more positive way to provide jobs. The Gop is exercising a Soutgern liked strategy here in Minnesota and range democrats are playing right into it. Every time i hear Ruckavina speak i wince. I hope the people up there begin to actually look at expanding sulfide mining and what it could mean to their sons and grandsons. Most of an entire generation left the range behind both politically and economically. They did so and I include myself in that picture because ourbparents demanded we get educated and look for a better life then was provided for by mining.

  7. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 06/16/2014 - 05:28 pm.


    Montana found that it would have been cheaper to buy the ore from somewhere else and GIVE it away than to let the mining companies come in and ruin their environment. The state is still scratching their head wondering how they’re going to clean up all the toxic metals in the streams that the mines left behind.

    There’s Polymet’s employment legacy: a few jobs in the state for twenty short years, then many more employed for many decades of environmental cleanup.

  8. Submitted by Loren Kuusinen on 06/17/2014 - 09:02 pm.

    Mining & Business in MN

    I do not live in the mining district anymore. After graduating from the UofMN I spent 25 years in California, watching bad decisions in governing that ultimately caused me to return to MN. My father was still alive in the early 90s so I visited there from the twin cities and couldn’t believe my eyes. All the support business for mining were gone from next to Highway 169.

    Never the less, I have attempted to invest in MN, even the Polymet mine. I am seeing people with blinders on and political goals running the arena. For instance, all this talk about sulfide doesn’t mention the year-long test of a cleaner that made the water cleaner than what went into the cleaner. This same narrow view is causing other investors to steer clear of MN. For instance, the tax policy is causing Medtronic to leave MN for Ireland. It may only be the corporate headquarters but this will ultimately cause a loss of income tax revenue to MN. I wonder if 3-M will also leave.

    By the way, iron mining has created a major settling pond north of Hibbing that looks like more of a danger because of the 50 foot dyke around it. Now we should get rid of those jobs just to make a level playing field. Hibbing would be just like one of those deserted mining towns found in the southwest. I guess that is what the politicians want.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 06/19/2014 - 06:09 pm.

      “A chemical cleaner

      that made the water cleaner than what went into the cleaner.” How did you keep a straight face while writing that? Because I certainly didn’t keep one after reading it.

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