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.

Pro-mining forces win battle, lose war in Otto challenge

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: August 18, 2014 - 2:56 PM

I was out of town last week when the Primary Election results came in. I'm back, and today I'll be offering my thoughts on the DFL State Auditor race from a new angle: What the Iron Range "Dump Otto" movement did and didn't accomplish, and what it means for the divided DFL party in MN-8.

Before this Primary I had warned that pro-mining DFLers who lashed out with anger at Otto were sowing the seeds of their own isolation and self-defeat. Now we have proof. Here is a breakdown of the results by precinct in a graphic by friend-of-the-blog Chris Saunders:

GRAPHIC: Chris Saunders for MinnesotaBrown.com

There are two ways to look at this map. The point-of-view of some on the Range might be: "Wow, look at what we did. Even though Otto won, we sure showed her what the Iron Range thinks of her vote against leases for nonferrous mining projects. No one should take us for granted."

But there's another way to look at this map: "Otto won 81-19 statewide. She lost cities like Ely and Hoyt Lakes badly, but those 60ish-40ish losses only netted 100 votes in Ely, for example. Meantime, Otto carried the Eighth Congressional District with 75 percent, showing just how much clout the "conservative DFL" Iron Range has lost in the electorate there. Otto won Chisholm, Hibbing and the towns of the western Mesabi. Otto dominated Duluth, where the most votes and particularly the most DFL votes in MN-8 are actually located.

Pro-mining forces have the ability to influence local races, such as the current Dist. 4 St. Louis County commissioner race or the 2012 DFL House 6B primary, but not much else. In this, you can imagine the transmitter for low-watt AM stations placed in Ely, Hoyt Lakes and the offices of the Mesabi Daily News in Virginia. The farther you get from those transmitters, the less it all matters. The perception of pro-mining sentiment in MN-8 is much greater than it actually is, and if you like mining, you should leave it that way and not attract attention to yourself. It's far more valuable to win votes in the legislature than it is to seek perfection and purity in primary and general elections.

The Dump Otto crowd managed to deliver votes in their midst, but failed to affect the outcome of the election whatsoever. In the process, they tipped their cards and showed that the Iron Range is slipping in influence and is less unified behind single-issue voting as some would like us to believe. That greenish blob in a sea of blue is what "winning the battle, but losing the war" looks like.

Mind you, the same could be said on the Republican side in the governor's race, as this Chris Saunders graphic shows:

GRAPHIC: Chris Saunders for MinnesotaBrown.com

The candidates, Zellers and Honour, who spent the most time talking about nonferrous mining picked up a few extra votes on the Range but lost the race. Actually, Zellers didn't even really do that. And despite having the endorsement of GOP-darling former Rep. Chip Cravaack, Honour was a bust in MN-8 and statewide.

(On a side note, Chris offered this amusing gem when he sent me this map: "I remember an old Wayne's World sketch where they're talking about reasons why it sucks the Soviet Union dissolved, because now all the maps of the independent republics are going to look like a big plate of hurl.  That's pretty much sums up Governor's race on the GOP side.")

The candidate perceived as most socially conservative was Johnson, and he won the same Hibbing, Chisholm and western Mesabi precincts where DFLers supported Otto. Why? As you leave the eastern Mesabi and Vermilion, nonferrous mining competes with other issues, many of them unrelated to mining. The same is true on both sides of the aisle.

The next chapter of this tale is the General Election. The extra attention and attacks Otto has received might make her more vulnerable than the other incumbent DFL constitutional officers, but whether she wins or loses the prospects for mining policy remain the same.

If you want mining, focus on permits and financing. If you don't want mining, focus on permits and financing. But as a matter of motivating people to vote, mining is a limited topic. Unless, of course, something bad happens after the fact. We're assured it never could, but the risk exists. There is, of course, the hope that a huge economic boom could come from new mining; but all evidence points to a modest uptick in hiring that would be completely negated once mines start automating their trucks, or if even one of the Range's taconite mines reached the end of its viability.

Meantime, I get on my old soapbox. You don't like the sound of the Iron Range losing clout? You're starting to find that waiting for mining jobs to rain down like manna from heaven is a hollow, frustrating experience? Don't shoot the messenger. Install modern tech infrastructure, adopt an entrepreneurial spirit, invest in education and build a new future where the Range does impact the rest of the state -- not just in elections, but with inspiration and force of attraction. This new Range need not exclude mining or natural resources, but it must not rely on these industries to the degree we have in recent years.

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