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.

Rick Nolan's greatest challenge in MN-8

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: July 23, 2014 - 11:23 AM

Forgive residents of Northern Minnesota's 8th Congressional District some sense of disorientation. Since 2010, the district elected as many new congressmen as it had in the previous six decades. After former Rep. Chip Cravaack scored the region's biggest Republican upset in three generations, defeating longtime Rep. Jim Oberstar, Cravaack lost by 9 points to current Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8) in the 2012 race. Now Nolan, the "comeback Congressman," faces another tough race against Brainerd area businessman Stewart Mills, who one national publication has dubbed "the Republican Brad Pitt." Should Mills win, the district would rightly be considered a political metronome.

Congressional campaigns here in the North Woods were once sleepy affairs involving stately billboards along highways that Oberstar had built, and sacrificial Republicans hoping in vain to maybe, just maybe, break 40 percent. Now, Northern Minnesotans live in a swing district. Or at least we might. It's hard to say because the district is in the midst of a great deal of change.

Quite simply, Nolan, Mills and Cravaack at one time, all hail from a part of the state that only entered the 8th district later in the career of Jim Oberstar. The district became vast, and diversified greatly from the time it was known as "the Duluth and Iron Range" seat. Such is the result of demographic and population shifts that not only changed the size of the district, but its political composition as well. This, coupled with the erratic turnout patterns of liberals in midterm elections, was the main reason for Oberstar's shock defeat in 2010 and the district's continuing unpredictability.

As 2014 began, Nolan was considered safer than your average Democratic incumbent. He still is, on paper, though recent press and a rush of Mills ads suggest that Nolan might be watching his theoretical lead erode. That's certainly the feeling evident in this recent Roll Call piece by Colin Diersing (I'm quoted therein explaining Nolan's aversion to the amount of fundraising expected of current members of Congress, which has grown exponentially since he first served in Congress from 1975-80).

To his credit, Nolan has managed to more or less keep pace with Mills in fundraising, but just barely. It's clear that not only will Mills and Nolan raise and spend a million bucks each, outside groups will be pouring in a greater amount of money as the campaign wears on.

One advantage Nolan has is the fact that Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken, both Democratic incumbents, seem to be faring pretty well right now. If they manage to stay ahead in their races, or even expand their leads, Nolan might be carried along with them. But since the DFL base is gelling around the Twin Cities, both Franken and Dayton could win without the votes Nolan needs to prevail in his race. This is Nolan's special challenge, and it has vexed him and his staff for more than a year.

Case in point: mining. Because the Eighth District is still perceived as the "Duluth and Iron Range" seat, even though that's now only half true, there is a continued misperception that this race will turn on whether or not Iron Rangers who seem to overwhelmingly support controversial new copper/nickel mining projects view Mills or Nolan as the better champion of their cause. I say misperception because, as I've stated before, mining might move a couple thousand votes on the Range, but many, many more Democratic votes rest in Duluth, where these mining projects are much less popular. And more votes still lie in the southern part of the district, where mining is viewed with relative ambivalence, except as an issue that some Republicans hope to exploit.

But the drumbeat on mining forced Nolan to make the "safe" political vote in supporting a Republican pro-mining provision on a bill that passed the House but died in the Senate last year. In the process, he angered some of his staunchest DFL environmental allies, and now walks a tightrope in explaining his precise position.

In considering Mills, one must admire the fact that he appears to have made a race out of a situation that could have gotten away from him. Everyone and their pontificating brother refers to Mills as a "non tradition Republican candidate," but that's mostly a reference to his long hair. Besides that fact he's an ideal Republican candidate for a district like this: he's from a business family, is outspoken about guns, and has no voting record on issues like Social Security, health care or education to defend.

Unlike Cravaack in 2012, Mills doesn't have to worry about his ties to the district, as he clearly lives here and has for a long time. Cravaack's family's move to New Hampshire before the 2012 race, coupled with his conservative votes on a number of issues close to the heart of socially conservative, fiscally liberal independents was what undid the district's first GOP congressmen since WWII. Mills will try to avoid those traps.

Mills is using Cravaack's 2010 playbook to a tee, and the question is whether it will work when it's no longer a surprise. After a summer of intense Mills ad buys, most of which are focused on soft, friendly name recognition, it will be interesting to see how Nolan responds.

Truly, the outcome of the 2014 MN-8 race depends a great deal on Nolan's moves here in the late summer and early fall. What kind of ads does he run? What kind of pressure can he pour onto Mills? How will the debates go? Most congressional ratings still show the race as leaning toward Nolan, but that hasn't stopped national Democrats and Republicans from moving MN-8 to their respective top spending lists. It's up to Nolan to keep his lead, or take it back.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range author and community college instructor. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts a traveling live broadcast variety program, the Great Northern Radio Show, on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org) and other public stations.

Northern Minnesota finally has stake in Emmys fight

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Society Updated: July 11, 2014 - 10:50 AM

Not since Kevin McHale was snubbed for his groundbreaking guest role on "Cheers" have Northern Minnesotans had this much interest in the outcome of the Emmys. 

The Northern Minnesota-based FX drama "Fargo," inspired by the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, earned 18 Emmy nominations in the mini-series category yesterday, including nods for the four actors who portrayed the main roles. I filed episode-by-episode reviews of "Fargo" from my unique perch here in the real Northern Minnesota.

I started watching the show with a healthy dose of skepticism but quickly came around when the dramatic craftsmanship of Noah Hawley and his team became apparent. What began as an opportunity to make jokes about regional continuity errors quickly became a well-read feature of my blog, as fans gathered to talk about the latest episodes and as questions about Bemidji, Duluth and other places depicted in "Fargo."

"Fargo" was not a traditional style TV drama. It was designed as a "one off," a 10-episode run that would end definitively after a single season. That's how they got so many relatively big stars to do roles both big and small. But Hawley said that he would be open to doing another, similar season, albeit with all new characters and probably in an all new venue. He's described his vision as being a "true crime of the Midwest" series that would stay fresh by leaping through time and location. ("True Crime" being part of the irony here; despite the disclaimer at the beginning of each episode, "Fargo" is entirely fictional).

So there's no guarantee that the next show would be based in Northern Minnesota, but it would probably be fairly nearby if it weren't.  Though it's not official yet, sources are saying a new second season of "Fargo" is likely. But some of the first season's stars seem resigned to the fact that they won't be a part of the new one.

Turning back to the Emmy's for a moment, the 18 nominations for "Fargo" all come in the "Best Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special" category. This was a strategic move by FX, as the show would also have been eligible to be entered in the Best Drama category (where HBO's similarly-formatted "True Detective" ended up). But the move did allow all of the show's deserving people to be nominated and may set it up for a historic sweep if Emmy voters like the show as much as critics did.

Billy Bob Thornton (Lorne Malvo) and Martin Freeman (Lester Nygaard) were both nominated for Best Actor in a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special." In a move that I question, Allison Tolman (Molly Soverson) was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the miniseries category. I had long considered her a leading actress, the protagonist that counterbalanced the evil of Thornton and Freeman's characters. So it goes. Colin Hanks (Gus Grimely) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor in this category, meaning all four of the "main" characters were nominated.

I would have liked to see some of the out standing guest actors get nominated for this series -- Russell Harvard, Adam Goldberg, Bob Odenkirk -- but none of them got the call.

Noah Hawley was nominated for writing, where he is very deserving, and two directors were nominated for different episodes: Adam Bernstein for "The Crocodile's Dilemma" and Colin Bucksey for "Buridan's Ass." My personal feeling is that "Buridan's Ass" is the best episode in the whole series, its only fault being that it was so much better than the others that the finale had a hard time catching up to the expectations. So that's my favorite.

So we'll see what happens on Monday, Aug. 25 when the Emmy's awards ceremony is held in Los Angeles. Then we will find out if "Fargo" is coming back, and "where" it will happen. My vote is for the Iron Range. Noah! Call me!

Oh, the things you'll see at an Iron Range Fourth of July

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Society Updated: July 3, 2014 - 9:52 PM
The Eveleth Clown Band performs during the July 4, 2008 Eveleth Fourth of July parade on the Iron Range. PHOTO: M.C. Morgan, Creative Commons license

The Eveleth Clown Band performs during the July 4, 2008 Eveleth Fourth of July parade on the Iron Range. PHOTO: M.C. Morgan, Creative Commons license

Most every little hamlet in Minnesota claims some special Fourth of July tradition. After all, Minnesota was born in the patriotic fervor preceding the Civil War, swaddled in the stars and stripes and raised to feed, build and Bob Dylan-ize America. A territory founded on the cornerstone of community (and large, powerful railroads), the Fourth of July is a special time in the North Star State.

But this time of year always reminds me of the special traditions that exist in my homeland: Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. This mining region in northern St. Louis and Itasca counties was sacred Ojibwa land before becoming home to immigrants from 43 nations on Earth. About the only thing everyone shared was the desire to have fun and demonstrate patriotism in the middle of the summer. So, sure, we do up the Independence Day parades and fireworks as well as anyone (though the locals would say that's an understatement). But the entire Iron Range Fourth of July experience? Can't be beat. It is a wholly unique cultural phenomenon.

Every year at my blog I detail the parades, street dances and fireworks that highlight the Iron Range Fourth of July. For many, especially those who only make one trip "home" from someplace else, these events are the apex of summer.

There's a flip side, though. These Iron Range expatriates returning to their roots invariably bring new people with them. City people. Farm people. People from other states or even other countries. These new husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends are told precious little about what they will really see until they get here. As such, today I present the following …

Things You Will See at Your First Iron Range 4th of July

  • Everyone Your Loved One Ever Knew You know how your boyfriend/girlfriend told you about their first kiss, that jerk in high school, or that neighbor who carries around a bag of fingernail clippings? You’re going to meet them now. They are, more or less, right where he/she left them. And they have names: Jake, Bobby, Suzie, Mary, Tyler, Madison, Tiffany, Jennifer, Lindsay, Lindsey, Lyndsy, Lindsey P., Other Jake. Don’t forget these names, because one or two of them will be in a sleeping bag in your car tomorrow morning.
  • People Drinking More Than They Should In Places They Shouldn’t We have these things called “street dances” on the Iron Range during the Fourth of July and several other festive weekends throughout the summer. You will have to squint pretty hard to find any dancing, though. These are really just elaborate excuses to close the main streets of Iron Range towns and drink in public. Police spend the entire year planning how to hold down the number of fights. A good year is one where people don’t refer to the fights as a “melee” in the newspaper.
  • The Old “This” is Now the New “That” That place where your new husband or wife used to eat chicken? It became a liquor store when he/she was a child. Now it’s a clinic.
  • People Using Hair, Animals or Clothing to Express Social Disorder Whether it’s the lady with a ferret in her shirt, they guy with a bone through his nose or the lady with the skunk stripe down the middle of her head, you’re going to see people who appear in public just once throughout the year. It’s not clear how they support themselves the rest of the time. One theory is that they derive energy from glow sticks and cigarette smoke.
  • Clown Bands But, wait. Clowns aren’t known for playing music (true). Clowns aren’t supposed to be drunk (true). Dressing in drag isn’t the same thing as being a clown (true). These paradoxes are all part of the appeal of the Eveleth Clown Band and others like it. Membership in the band is nebulous. Leadership is unclear. The tradition stretches back past Watergate. The quality of the music is tied to an exponent based on the distance of the clown band from a working bar. The quality of the female impersonation is getting better with new technology. One gets a raw, Mardi Gras feeling from Iron Range clown bands. Something is being let loose here, and it’s OK so long as no one ever, EVER talks about it.
  • Cruising As One People People often forget that the Iron Range is one distinct region, much like a mid-sized regional city. The only catch is that “da’ Raynch” is organized as a string of small towns along a 130-mile stretch of iron in the middle of the woods. On the Fourth of July, the parochial borders that keep the towns apart disintegrate and roving groups of people intersperse the towns. It’s not unusual to plan a night around two parades, three street dances (and one, maybe two fights).
  • Actual Patriotism Never mind the nationalism of some cable news shows or jingoistic bumper stickers one might see in the parking lot, the patriotism of the Iron Range on Fourth of July is real. This region showed record enlistments in all the major American wars since immigrants started arriving 100 years ago. As a people, these new Americans wanted to show everyone they cared about their new country and would serve it to the highest degree possible. Iron Range steel quite literally built America. Despite the economic roller coaster of recent decades, most Iron Range families will tell you of an immigrant grandparent or great-grandparent who saw an impossible dream come true in the United States of America. That truly is cause for celebration.

What are your Iron Range Fourth of July stories?

The who, what, where, when, why of Iron Range propaganda

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: June 28, 2014 - 1:29 PM

This past week in Northern Minnesota, the Iron Range's three largest newspapers -- the Mesabi Daily News, Hibbing Daily Tribune, and Grand Rapids Herald-Review -- ran the fourth in their series of special sections focused on the positive aspects of the mining industry in Northern Minnesota. "Mine IV" joins its predecessors in featuring profiles of miners and mining officials, photos of mining, and guest commentaries in support of current and future mining projects.

These newspapers have put up four year-round billboards across the region advertising these Mine sections, even amid layoffs in the company and yet another ownership change in the past year.

The Mesabi Daily News front page on June 25, 2014 teases a special section on mining and features a rare front page editorial, written by someone from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

The Mesabi Daily News front page on June 25, 2014 teases a special section on mining and features a rare front page editorial, written by someone from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

As former editor of Hibbing’s Tribune (who still writes a column there, but very much from outside the newsroom) I count the graphics, bylines and pages and can estimate these papers dedicate a significant amount of staff resources to this project.

In “Mine IV,” released on June 25, two of the three papers, the Mesabi Daily News and Hibbing Daily Tribune, also featured a front page editorial written by Mike Hansel of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. This ran above the fold next to the teaser for "Mine IV." In it, Hansel argues that the citizens of the Iron Range should be afraid of the current wild rice standard, that it will not only derail mining projects but also city water treatment plants and other public works.

Hansel writes:

“If you live on the Iron Range, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s upcoming revision to the state water quality standard to protect wild rice could have a big impact on you and your neighbors.

The MPCA proposes to enforce the wild rice standard of 10 mg/L in the future in hundreds of new locations, impacting many private and municipal wastewater discharges across northeastern Minnesota.

Iron Range employers and municipalities will face devastating costs if the standard is not updated.

Hansel's front page editorial continues:

Unfortunately the MPCA has developed a hypothesis regarding sulfide impacts to wild rice. The MN Chamber believes that the scientific studies do not support that hypothesis, that the studies are technically flawed and additional research is needed. The MN Chamber believes that the correct sulfate standard should be 1,600 mg/L or higher.

For those scoring at home, someone who works for a business lobbying organization has said that we should doubt the state PCA’s science, but not the science of his claim that the current wild rice water emissions standard should be multiplied by 160.

Anyway, Hansel’s argument is a point of view. Put on it A4 if you want. Agree with it if you want. But an editorial above the fold on the front page? Like this was D-Day? For me, a line was crossed here.

A special section does not necessarily represent the editorial direction of a newspaper, but it was clear early on that “MINE” had a persuasive goal far beyond its surface value in recognizing people who do important, sometimes difficult work in our region. (Mining is an important part of Northern Minnesota’s economy. I have family members, friends and neighbors who work in mining. Don’t mistake my criticism as discrediting the industry).

The "MINE" publication seeks to tie the Iron Range’s mining history, current iron mines and proposed nonferrous mines all together, as though it’s all the same. Companies are faultless, benevolent entities. Labor unions are barely mentioned, except for their agreement with management. In short, the working class causes that Iron Range men and women fought and sometimes died for over 100 years are recast as talking points in a public relations campaign, sanitized of the conflict. We must choose between saying yes to everything mining companies ask for or having nothing at all. My goodness, that was the argument in 1914! Have we learned nothing?

Ah, but aren’t I just spouting my opinion? Am I just mad that I was forced to see something I disagree with? (That’s a pet peeve of mine when I see others cry foul on the media).

I do think this packaged business lobby doctrine goes beyond simple disagreement.

With so many fewer working journalists in places like Northern Minnesota than a generation ago, the organizations left behind do no favors to the region by closing off debate. Nor are the people served when the newspapers declare their servitude to a whole industry which already controls so much of peoples’ fate.

This is propaganda, not journalism. It drags the region into a pit of ignorance, rather than uplifting it to a future that should rightly balance mining with a diverse, self-sustaining economy.

Hey, propaganda is free speech. There's no shortage of propaganda in this blinking, buzzing world. But wise people should not overlook what it is, where it comes from, and why it’s being shoved in our face.

Start by asking, "Who’s paying for it?" 

Politics in jobs data obscures greater challenge for Northern Minnesota

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: June 20, 2014 - 11:45 AM

This week the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) released new employment numbers. The news was good:

The agency said the state has added 45,617 jobs in the past year, a growth rate of 1.6 percent, compared with a U.S. growth rate of 1.8 percent during that period. Since January 2011, the state has gained 154,300 jobs.

The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped to 4.6 percent. The U.S. unemployment rate in May was 6.3 percent.

“Minnesota’s unemployment rate is at the lowest level in seven years, which is yet another indicator of our improving economy,” said DEED Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben. “It is also encouraging to see growth occurring in Minnesota’s construction and manufacturing sectors, which have each added more than 9,000 jobs in the past year.”

You can read the data at the bottom of this post, but before we get there we should review some political background. When Stewart Mills announced his run for Congress against Rep. Rick Nolan, he joined other Republican candidates in describing troubling unemployment figures that signaled Democratic failures. These new jobs numbers run completely afoul of that assertion, something that numerous people from Democratic circles have pointed out to me and anyone else who will listen. Indeed, from a statewide standpoint it's going to get very hard for the GOP to argue that two years of DFL rule in state politics have ruined the economy. They might not like the policy, but that's different than rising unemployment and slowing business growth. Those things just aren't happening.

That being said, I'm not willing to say everything is hunky dory. It would appear from the numbers that Northern Minnesota's employment numbers are growing slower than those of the rest of the state. That might sound like a political point for Mills, but we should resist the urge to point fingers over this. The reason Northern Minnesota's economy is stagnate, especially here on the Iron Range, has everything to do with our lack of economic diversity and our aging demographics, and virtually nothing to do with radical environmentalism. If you hear the opposite, you're talking to someone who doesn't want to deal with the real problem.

Frankly, while Republicans should rightfully shoulder a bigger responsibility for the obstructionism and extremism that has permeated modern politics, both the GOP and DFL have offered precious little to address Northern Minnesota's persistent struggles to modernize. What has been done needs to be prioritized far ahead of much of what we talk about in state political roundtables. I talked about this in a recent interview on AM 950 in the Twin Cities. I don't know how well my style translates to partisan talk radio, but I gave the straight stuff as best I could.

Here are the data:


Seasonally adjusted


Not seasonally adjusted


Unemployment Rate

May   2014

April  2014

May 2014

May  2013












May 2014

April  2014

May ‘13- May ‘14 Level Change

May ‘13- May ‘14 % Change












Over The Year Employment Growth By Industry Sector (NSA)


OTY Job Change

OTY Growth Rate (%)

U.S. OTY            Growth Rate (%)

Total Non-Farm Employment




Logging and Mining












Trade, Trans. and Utilities








Financial Activities




Prof. and Bus. Services




Ed. and Health Services




Leisure and Hospitality




Other Services








Metropolitan Statistical Area

OTY Employment Change (#, NSA)

OTY Employment Change (%, NSA)

Minneapolis-St. Paul MN-WI MSA



Duluth-Superior MN -WI MSA



Rochester MSA



St. Cloud MSA



Mankato MSA



 Source: Minnesota DEED  


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