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.

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?" 

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