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Failure to endorse at 8th District DFL convention ensures a primary — and questions about the party’s direction

The decision of who will pick up the party banner ahead of a crucial 2018 election is about more than who is the best candidate that matches up best against Republican candidate Pete Stauber.

Candidate Leah Phifer speaking to delegates at this weekend's convention.
MinnPost photo by Paul M. Walsh

At the 8th District DFL convention over the weekend in Duluth — where Democrats met to endorse a candidate for Congress — candidates and attendees talked about explosive infighting on social media, a “breakdown in civility,” and “strategies to divide us.” A pro-immigrant activist heckled supporters of one candidate because of her former employment at the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. On the convention floor, a delegate for that candidate openly accused another candidate’s campaign of deliberately sowing division within the party.

Ultimately, after a 10-hour marathon session, the 170 or so delegates in attendance opted not to endorse a candidate after a lengthy stalemate between the top two contenders. Democrats retreated to their hotel ballroom banquet tired, exasperated, and contemplating the prospect of a bloody primary contest that no one wanted.

In the 8th Congressional District, which comprises most of northeastern Minnesota, Democrats pride themselves on their love of politics and their proclivity for duking it out and debating friends and foes alike. It’s that “moxie,” as one candidate, state Rep. Jason Metsa said, that makes them special.

Moxie, clearly, was not in short supply at this year’s convention. But the event seemed yet another symptom of years of simmering tension within the party on controversial issues such as guns and the environment, in particular, the role of sulfide mining in northern Minnesota. That tension is straining the coalition of miners, farmers, and progressives that has carried the DFL to victory in CD8 for generations.

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Retiring DFL Rep. Rick Nolan, an old-guard Democrat from Crosby, has held that coalition together since 2012, even as rural Minnesotans grew more disillusioned with the party’s mainstream on key issues. Donald Trump won precincts on the Iron Range that a Republican hasn’t won since the 1920s.

The decision of who will pick up the party banner ahead of a crucial 2018 election is about more than who is the candidate that matches up best against Republican Pete Stauber in what will be one of the most hard-fought and expensive U.S. House races this year. It’s become an outlet for soul-searching over what the DFL stands for in rural Minnesota in the age of Trump.

Joe Radinovich with delegates
MinnPost photo by Paul M. Walsh
Candidate Joe Radinovich shaking hands with delegates.

Differences between the five candidates in the running, and their supporters, simmered and sometimes blew up in the battle for the endorsement. The candidates and DFL loyalists insist that the party’s divisions had nothing to do with the convention’s failure to produce an endorsement, and cast debates on issues like mining as signs of a raucous, big-tent party — not a party facing an existential crisis. Others disagreed, openly wondering if the storied DFL coalition in CD8 has finally reached its expiration date.

Convention leads to stalemate

Of the five Democrats vying to succeed Nolan, none reached the 60 percent threshold of delegate support required to secure the party’s official endorsement on Saturday. Two candidates, North Branch mayor Kirsten Kennedy and former veteran TV news anchor Michelle Lee, got less than five percent on the convention’s first ballot and failed to advance. Metsa made it to the third ballot but failed to exceed 20 percent of delegate support.

Most of the convention was a two-way competition between Leah Phifer and Joe Radinovich. Phifer, a college professor who formerly worked for ICE and the FBI, entered the race in October intending to challenge Nolan. By the time the other four candidates entered the race following Nolan’s retirement announcement in February, Phifer had been working delegates for months, giving her a big advantage: the 31-year old got the most votes on each of the convention’s 10 ballots.

Radinovich, a former state legislator who left his new job as chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to run for this seat, usually trailed Phifer by a few percentage points, but by the final ballot, there was little movement among supporters of both candidates. At 7:30 in the evening, 12 hours after many of them arrived, the majority of delegates moved to not endorse anyone.

Despite the stalemate, there was agreement in the convention hall on a broad range of topics. Each of the five candidates was in favor of single-payer health care, for example, and all talked about the importance of protecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — surefire applause lines from a DFL audience in a district like CD8. Several candidates, too, are supportive of a $15 an hour minimum wage, and all strongly denounced efforts to weaken labor unions.

North Branch mayor Kirsten Kennedy
MinnPost photo by Paul M. Walsh
North Branch mayor Kirsten Kennedy got less than five percent on the convention’s first ballot and failed to advance.

Most of them had tough words for Trump: Phifer said he led “the most corrupt administration we’ve ever seen” and Lee talked about how Trump’s win galvanized her to run for office.

Speakers and delegates routinely brought up the idea that what unites CD8 Democrats is far more significant than what divides them. Yet, the party’s divisions on some issues permeated the entire convention. Lee opened her speech by declaring “I’m not going to talk about guns, I’m not going to talk about mining,” before lamenting the nastiness she witnessed on social media between candidates’ supporters.

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“Right now, they talk about how divided we are,” Kennedy told delegates. “You know what? We’re a family.”

Do the ‘right thing’

If the CD8 DFL is a family, some members were not on the best of terms with one another as they met in Duluth. A big reason why is the one issue that has laid bare the party’s core political, social, and economic divisions: mining.

Though the region’s economy is varied, the mining industry has long wielded more influence on politics than other interests in the district. Iron ore has been the engine of the mining economy for generations, producing boom-and-bust cycles that have defined life for Iron Rangers. Land near the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness, a protected area of pristine lands and waters near the border with Canada, is home to a valuable trove of copper and nickel that mining advocates believe could boost the region’s economy and provide jobs for some time.

There is currently a bitter tug-of-war underway between environmentalists and mining advocates to determine who can access those minerals, and when — or whether they should be accessed at all.

Candidate Jason Metsa speaking with delegates
MinnPost photo by Paul M. Walsh
Candidate and state Rep. Jason Metsa, speaking with delegates, made it to the third ballot but failed to exceed 20 percent of delegate support.

Actions from Barack Obama’s administration in late 2016 put the current fight over mining into high gear. The administration denied leases held by the mining company Twin Metals for copper and nickel deposits in Superior National Forest, near the Boundary Waters, and initiated a two-year environmental review of the technique known as sulfide mining that would be used to extract the minerals in this area. The administration stated serious concerns that sulfide mining would lead to irreparable damage to the area’s land and water, and its review set into motion what could be a moratorium as long as two decades on any mining activity in the area.

That move sparked howls of protest from Nolan, who framed it as an insult to the hard-working miners of the district. He has long argued that companies will soon have the technology to extract these minerals in an environmentally responsible way, and the DFLer worked with Republicans like 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer to persuade Congress and the Trump administration to overturn or block the actions. In January, the Trump administration downgraded the environmental review that the Obama administration put in place, to the dismay of environmental groups. 

Beyond the Boundary Waters area, copper-nickel mining is expected to move forward on the Iron Range: in January, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released a draft permit for Canadian company PolyMet to open Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine on the Iron Range, estimated to create several hundred new jobs. Though the proposed mine is still many years from opening even if it clears all the regulatory hurdles, it is currently the focus of outrage and activism for Minnesota progressives, who forecast widespread degradation to the environment if such a mine were to operate.

In the eyes of some Democrats, Nolan went too far in his embrace of mining interests, and Phifer entered the race last October strongly emphasizing her opposition to the congressman on mining issues, attracting progressives who had grown disillusioned with Nolan.

The DFL candidates’ stances on mining were closely scrutinized by delegates in the run-up to the convention, and for some of them, the wrong position on the issue was an unequivocal dealbreaker.

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Joseph Abeyta, a delegate supporting Metsa, lives in Grand Rapids and works at MinnTac, a large taconite mine in Mountain Iron. Abeyta has been laid off before and doesn’t want to see it happen again, to himself or anyone else. To hear him tell it, the stances of some candidates, such as Phifer and Lee, are dangerous to the region’s economy and will risk the livelihoods of working people.

“I think any candidate, Republican or Democrat, who is against mining is against the Iron Range and the people who live there, the people who built this country,” Abeyta told MinnPost. He said that Nolan did a great job for miners and believes Metsa, who represents an Iron Range district, will do the same. “I have confidence in our Democratic Party to do the right thing,” he said. “I have questions about who is going to do the right thing.”

Generally, Metsa is seen as the candidate most in line with mining interests, and he has attracted significant support from mining workers and their unions. Other candidates, such as Radinovich, have attempted to thread a needle on the issue, insisting there has to be a way to extract lucrative minerals in northern Minnesota in a way that does not jeopardize the environment.

For some delegates, even trying to strike that balance is going too far. Mike Mayou, a student at the University of Minnesota at Duluth and a Phifer delegate, said he doesn’t think that he could support either Metsa or Radinovich. “My ultimate goal for our party is that we push in the progressive direction we want to go, and not stick with a moderate person who’s going to stay moderate on the issues,” he said.

Candidate and former veteran TV news anchor Michelle Lee
MinnPost photo by Paul M. Walsh
Candidate and former veteran TV news anchor Michelle Lee chatting with delegates at this weekend’s convention.

Roger Hill, a Phifer delegate from Floodwood, grew up on the Iron Range. “Boy, any kind of sulfide mining that jeopardizes the water quality up there,” he said, “that’s an absolute loser to me.”

‘We’re in a tough spot’

With the convention’s failure to endorse, the DFL’s brewing battle will go to primary voters after playing out for months within the confines of party insiders. Radinovich, Kennedy, Lee, and Metsa all announced they will move on to a primary, to be held on August 14. Phifer has not officially committed to a primary as of Monday morning, but she said on Saturday she intends to move on.

The candidates and some delegates argued the lack of an endorsement was only indicative of the different things the candidates bring to the table, along with the compressed campaign timeline created by Nolan’s retirement announcement. State Rep. Mike Sundin said a primary will only make the eventual nominee stronger, putting them in the best position to defeat Stauber, a lock for the GOP’s nomination. “This is not a doom and gloom thing by any means,” he said.

Before rallying her supporters at the end of the convention, Phifer told MinnPost that the stalemate “absolutely” can’t be blamed on ideological rifts in the DFL. “This is just two different kinds of candidates who bring different energy and credentials to the table, and I think people were torn between that,” she said, referencing Radinovich.

Shortly before the convention officially ended, Radinovich said “I think the party is united around sending a new voice to Congress. I think the party is united in its opposition to Donald Trump.”

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The candidates didn’t say much on Saturday to suggest they’d go after their fellow Democrats hard in the primary, and all of them expressed concern that a divided DFL will be poorly-positioned to beat Republicans in November’s election. But observers could already see how issues like mining will take center-stage in a primary where the field is in agreement about almost everything else.

Jacob Littler, a Metsa delegate from Virginia, said the convention stalemate was the result of “a division within the very narrow base of who comes to the convention. The activist base tends to draw from labor and environmentalists, and they’re at loggerheads over one issue.”

“It’s going to be an intense primary for sure,” Littler said, noting that the candidates come from different corners of this vast district and have the ability to draw on different bases of political and financial support for a primary. “This is a complicated one, knowing that all five of the candidates that were in it originally have the capability to push a primary,” he said.

Jesse Dahl, an electrician and Metsa delegate from Aurora, voted for no endorsement rather than support Radinovich or Phifer, who he says he couldn’t support due to her challenge of Nolan. (He did say that either candidate would be better than Stauber, the Republican.)

He wondered if the DFL could nominate anyone who could satisfy both camps of the mining debate: if miners hear anything that sounds remotely anti-mining, Dahl said, the DFL will lose them. On the other hand, even a candidate like Radinovich could alienate environmentalists, and push enough them to a third-party candidate to hand the seat to Republicans in a tight race. (Skip Sandman, a Green Party candidate in the 2014 race, is running this election under the Independence Party banner.)

“I think we’re in a tough spot,” Dahl said. “It’s not like this is a blue district anymore. It’s so big, there’s such different, diverse views from top to bottom, it’s hard to find somebody to rally all of them.”

High-level Democrats outside CD8 are hoping the party can move beyond the activists’ mining war and focus on making the tried-and-true economic case they’ve advanced here for decades.

DFL Chair Ken Martin said “what’s most important for us is to not take our eyes off the issues that matter to the district, the bread-and-butter economic issues that people are relying on us to speak up for in Washington.”

Aaron Brown, a political blogger and close observer of CD8, said in tweets after the convention that the Democrats were not offering much to people outside the activist core. “I can’t help but wonder if there’s something more important than what the DFL talked about today,” he wrote. “That’s not to absolve the GOP. I don’t know that they offer anything at all, other than distraction and blame. But that’s enough to win lacking an agenda that addresses the people we see outside the convention hall.”

The convention room on Saturday night was filled with young people, as well as with DFL veterans who have seen their fair share of chaotic, contentious 8th District gatherings. The old guard tended to be the most optimistic that the issues that appear to be ripping the party apart are overblown, and that Democrats will unify when it counts.

Sundin, surveying the convention floor as delegates moved to make the no-endorsement stalemate official, predicted Democrats will survive this fight, as they have survived many before. After a pause, he added: “In spite of ourselves.”

This article has been corrected to clarify the nature of the Trump administration’s action with respect to an environmental review of mining in Superior National Forest.