Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District is a somewhat awkward giant. It sprawls from the northern prairie fringes of the metro area to the wooded wilderness along the Canadian border, embracing the resort-rich central lakes region around Brainerd along with its traditional heartland from Duluth to the broad shoulders of the Iron Range.
It has the oldest population of any Minnesota congressional district, and the highest unemployment and poverty rates among rural districts. A potential new mining boom in nonferrous metals inspires both high hopes and trepidation, but many economic sectors will have to thrive if prosperity is to increase districtwide.
Among the district’s immediate challenges is a choice between two imperfect candidates for Congress. On balance, we conclude that this changing district would be best served by a fresh voice, and we give the endorsement edge to retail executive Stewart Mills.
One charge relentlessly leveled at Mills is that he is the beneficiary of inherited wealth through his family’s Fleet Farm empire. But we doubt that many Minnesotans really consider such a background a disqualification from public office.
Having begun his Fleet Farm career scrubbing toilets and emptying trash, Mills today is vice president in charge of the chain’s health care plan, covering 6,000 employees and their dependents. He has developed a hands-on understanding of the intricacies of the health care marketplace, coming to see wellness and prevention as keys to controlling costs.
Mills says his objections to the Affordable Care Act are central to inspiring his run for Congress. His candidacy follows what he calls the “Hunting Camp Rule”: If you complain about something, you get the job of fixing it. His condemnation of the ACA is too sweeping, given that he backs the law’s key goals. But the market-based approaches he prefers — including more price transparency and tort reform — could contribute to needed improvements in the law.
Mills is challenging Rep. Rick Nolan, who returned to Congress in 2012 after a 32-year hiatus. Nolan lists several accomplishments, including working with Minnesota Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar in securing $10 million in federal funds for improvements for the Port of Duluth-Superior.
Nolan has been a leader in efforts to clamp down on foreign-made steel dumping in this country. He has also worked to expand invasive species protection in the Great Lakes. And he says he’s committed to campaign finance reform and efforts to improve the legislative process.
We differ with Mills on a number of issues — not least on his unyielding stance against firearm regulation. But we’re also persuaded that Mills has the intelligence and pragmatic instincts to learn, grow and adapt in office. Indeed, his realism stands out on several issues.
On entitlement reform, Mills emphasizes the importance of keeping promises to seniors who rely on Social Security and Medicare, but he candidly acknowledges the need to seek solutions for the programs’ financing shortfalls — noting that they cannot be protected in the long run any other way.
We would welcome more specifics. But Nolan already translates Mills’ position as wanting to “privatize” and even “abolish” the safety-net programs. It’s the kind of extravagant rhetoric that makes reasoned discussion, public understanding and progress so difficult on these issues. But Mills seems ready to try.
On foreign affairs, too, Mills’ view is the tough-minded one. While Nolan wishfully believes America can safely ignore Mideast turmoil, Mills cautiously supports President Obama’s military intervention to roll back the advances of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, recognizing that regional chaos endangers U.S. interests.
If elected, Mills will face a learning curve in Washington. But he has the energy, the zest for ideas and the deep commitment to northern Minnesota to make a success of it.