Aaron J. Brown is an author and radio producer who teaches at Hibbing Community College. Years of writing about Iron Range news, history, culture and politics have culminated in his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He lives on the western Mesabi Iron Range in Itasca County with his family.

The creeping hyperbole of Iron Range mining politics

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: July 29, 2014 - 1:09 PM

Last week I was called into town to do another "Iron Range political pundit" interview with Northland's NewsCenter's Nick Minock. The story was about something presumptive Minnesota GOP U.S. Senate nominee Mike McFadden had said about nonferrous mining projects in Northern Minnesota. McFadden had suggested that projects like PolyMet and Twin Metals, which have been mired in environmental review, have the potential to have the same economic impact the Bakken oil fields had on western North Dakota. I was asked, is that true?

In short, no. In long form, hell no. The sheer amount of money and people working to extract oil in the Dakotas will not come close to being matched by Northern Minnesota's PolyMet or Twin Metals, even if these projects are permitted, financed and open to rousing success -- none of which is assured for reasons outside the control of a solitary U.S. Senator. It was a piece of political hyperbole, one which McFadden all but copped to later.

I've written before that the controversial "mining issue" will flare up throughout Election 2014, with particular flourish in the MN-8 Congressional race, the U.S. Senate race and governor's race. Each of these races have indeed featured the same dynamic: Republicans who support new mining arguing that Democrats who support new mining don't support new mining enough. I'll call this the Mesabi Daily News Rule, which states: Any deference to the concerns of project opponents, even if patronizing and entirely rhetorical, is equivalent to outright opposition.

The MDN rule essentially allows this GOP gambit, which is based on the notion that Iron Range voters who support mining and distrust the Twin Cities in a general sort of way will flock to Republican candidates. I've written a general argument that it won't work this way; not quite. Nevertheless, it's an easy position for the GOP to take because the party has no environmental wing whatsoever. Besides, the GOP will see a general benefit if the DFL looks like it's off its game or defending its home turf, which is perhaps the real motivation behind all this.

But that's not the end of the Election 2014 Iron Range hyperbole.

This week Eric Black of MinnPost posted more of his recent interview with McFadden, in which the candidate focused heavily on economic issues. Again, McFadden argued the "MDN Rule," that he would expedite more mining jobs on the Iron Range. Black, upon citing several positive Minnesota economic numbers in recent years, quoted him:

Do you know what the unemployment rate is in the Iron Range, Eric? It just came out, too. It’s close to 10 percent. Do you know what it is in Bemidji? It’s close to 11 percent. Do you know what the labor participation rate is in Minnesota? The lowest it’s been in 30 years. Do you know what the wage growth has been over the last six years? The average weekly wage has gone up $8…

That’s why the vast, vast majority of Minnesotans don’t feel like we’re going in the right direction.

So, fact check. I went to DEED's website to see the most recent raw unemployment numbers from June. The Virginia area posted 7.1 percent in June with 7.2 in Hibbing and 8.2 in Grand Rapids. Taken together, this suggests about a 7.5 percent unemployment average for the Iron Range region. Still, the county unemployment rates in Itasca and St. Louis are even lower, so 7.5 percent might be on the high end. That's above the state average, but not as bad as 10 percent.

Further, the suggestion here is that the higher unemployment rate is because there are people qualified to work in the mines who can't, because environmental review is holding up their livelihoods. That's simply not true at all. As I've said before, if you can pass a drug test and have two years of technical training in some aspect of the mining industry, you have a very good chance at a mining job right now. And sure, new mining would open more jobs -- probably bringing in new residents to work the nonferrous mines more than anything else.

That's good, actually, but if we're really concerned about those 7.5 percent who are here now and not employed, we should be figured out a way to get them the two years of college they currently can't afford or aren't prepared to take. We should be concerned about their wages for full time work, so that people with families don't have to work 70 hours to pay for basic needs. Is this what McFadden was talking about? I wonder. Sen. Al Franken has talked about these issues, but he is the one McFadden blames for the discrepancy.

The reason northern Minnesota's unemployment is higher than that of Duluth or the Twin Cities is because our economy is less diverse, less responsive to the economic activity that fuels the larger recovery. Thus, doubling down on the single natural resource based industry isn't a long term solution to that problem. It doesn't hurt. But it's not economic diversification.

Only diversification will bring the Iron Range's economy in line with the state's unemployment averages, which -- it bears mentioning -- are well below the national average. Minneapolis has the lowest unemployment rate among all metro areas in the United States.

For McFadden and other Republicans challenging DFL incumbents, this sort of Iron Range mining and unemployment hyperbole makes for a nice talking point. And these points are rooted in real issues deserving of our attention, but they are exaggerations made for effect, not outcome. Exaggeration makes jokes funnier and fish bigger. But the real story is often more complex and requires solutions not rooted in the staccato party doctrine soundbites of a modern campaign.

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