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VIRGINIA, Minn. – From the mineral-rich Mesabi Iron Range to the tourist-clotted Duluth waterfront and down to the more affluent northernmost fringe of the metro area, the Eighth Congressional District is a politically restless place.
Blue collar, job-hungry miners and the businesses that thrive from them are at odds with environmentalists. A swelling population of exurban voters is turning the southern tip more conservative. The local economy is partly tethered to the wild swings of mining and tourism.
These are the voters who unceremoniously tossed out the state’s longest serving member of Congress, the late Rep. Jim Oberstar, in 2010 for Republican Chip Cravaack. Two years later, the same voters bounced Cravaack to bring back Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democratic House member from the 1970s who gained a new lease on political life.
These at-times fickle voters are also especially critical to the fortunes of all statewide candidates — particularly those for governor and U.S. Senate.
That has DFL state Chair Ken Martin fretting.
“I’m worried about the Eighth,” Martin said. “The rank-and-file union members showing up and supporting the Democratic candidates, I’m worried about environmentalists in Duluth showing up and supporting our candidates. I’m worried about college students throughout this district and young people showing up. We have to win big. We have to run up the score here.”
Miners vs. environmentalists
Increasingly, the Eighth is cleaved by forces difficult for any one party to address. PolyMet Mining Corp.’s plan to extract copper and nickel from the long-closed LTV mine in Hoyt Lakes has pitted out-of-work but union-loyal miners desperate for decent wages against preservationists, who say the mine could damage the watershed and poison the landscape.
Even after loyal DFLer and Aurora City Council Member David Lislegard lost his job at the mine in 2000, he canvassed for DFL candidates, fighting to get fellow miners to the polls.
No more. “The party is starting to change in direction to the point where I don’t know if it necessarily aligns itself with northeast Minnesota anymore,” said Lislegard, 41. “I’m going to support those who support our way of life.”
Former state Rep. Tom Rukavina, who lives here, was more brusque.
“I just wish one day that our good DFL senators, both of them, you know, would tell the environmentalists to quit crying wolf, you can’t be against everything,” he said. “You can’t want a broadband if there is no copper. You can’t want windmills if there is no nickel. You can’t want a medical device industry if there aren’t stents made of copper, nickel and stainless steel. So cut the crap and grow up.”
Quotes like these are gold for Republicans, who see the chance to change the hue in northern Minnesota. While DFLers must maintain an increasingly fragile coalition of urban environmentalists and northern union workers, Republicans have taken advantage of this tension to tout their support of mining.
“I’m going to be a champion for using the resources God has given this state to actually create good jobs,” GOP gubernatorial endorsee Jeff Johnson said recently on a swing through the district. “There is no better example of that than here in northern Minnesota and the mines.”
Lislegard still favors Nolan in the upcoming election, but he is wavering on whether to support Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken’s re-election bids. He senses that the DFL has taken his and other blue-collar votes for granted, and he is particularly disgusted with the carefully parsed answers he hears about the idled mine that once was his livelihood.
Mindful of the different factions, both politicians are careful when talking about PolyMet.
“What they [miners] want is sustainable mining, that’s what they always wanted,” Franken said. “That’s what we’re doing with the process, and I think the process has improved the project considerably. … There is never anything without risk, but we have to make sure the risk is as minimal as possible.”
Dayton makes no apologies for staying neutral until more is known about one of the most environmentally sensitive projects the state has embarked upon.
“I’ve said before and I’ll say again, my position is I’m not going to take a position,” Dayton said. “I’m going to remain intentionally neutral until all the reports are done, all the comments have been made and filed and responded to, until there is final information. When that will be, I’m not entirely certain. Some people jumped in already pandering to one group or another … before the final analysis came in. I think that’s irresponsible.”
Stewart Mills, the Republican trying to unseat Nolan, said the issues go deeper than that. Voters throughout the district are depressed about their lack of opportunities.
“Jobs and the economy are things people talk about quite a bit,” said Mills, a scion and current executive of the Mills Fleet Farm enterprise. Projects like PolyMet, he said, could “cause this part of Minnesota to have an economic boom.”
Nolan agrees, calling PolyMet “a global standard for environmental stewardship.”
A deeper divide
There are actually other, less obvious, forces at play in the Eighth that are not as easy to corner for politicians.
In 10 years, the region has rapidly changed. While Iron Range miners flex substantial and hard-to-ignore political muscle, their actual numbers are dwindling. In the seven counties that span the Range, the top employment sectors are health care, retail trade and tourism. Once a powerhouse, mining now straggles in at 11th.
The district’s growth is arriving in two forceful blows: one conservative and one liberal. More conservative exurban Twin Cities sprawl is gently edging into Chisago County, which shares a border with the Sixth Congressional District, a GOP powerhouse. The state’s overall economic health has meant nicer homes on bigger sprawls in places like Brainerd.
At the same time, Duluth’s downtown liberal bastion is relishing a miniature boom with health care and education jobs — something St. Louis County lobbyist John Ongaro says was born out of severely desperate times in the 1980s.
“There was a billboard here that said, ‘Will the last person leaving Duluth please turn out the lights?’” Ongaro said. “It was really destitute. The unemployment rate was 30 percent. It was terrible. But since then it’s pulled itself up through colleges, medical jobs and Canal Park tourism.”
Now, Duluth’s non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 5.1 percent, within sight of the statewide rate of 4.5 percent.
All that may be good for Duluth’s tax base, but politicians say these newcomers are never the most reliable voters. They are generally less loyal to the area and its particular issues than those rooted here for several generations. And without a presidential candidate on the ticket, it’s often hard to get them to pay attention until the last minute, which means they can sway depending on national mood.
“A large number of people are apolitical,” said Aaron Brown, a Grand Rapids radio show host and blogger who occasionally writes for the Star Tribune. “They may put down Democrat out of reflex. If they don’t, they’ll put down independent. But they don’t engage in politics except when it’s very specifically affecting them in some way.”