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.

Mills strikes back in new poll; why MN-8 will be close

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: October 17, 2014 - 12:00 PM

The political class of Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District is abuzz this morning following the KSTP/Survey USA poll showing Republican Stewart Mills 8 points ahead of incumbent Democrat Rep. Rick Nolan just 18 days before the Nov. 4, 2014 election.

I'm not typically a fan of horse race reporting, especially because polling the 8th District accurately is a bit like watch a horse race in a dense cloud of fog. Since this district became competitive for the first time in half a century in 2010, I only recall one poll that turned out to be close to the final result -- the 2012 Star Tribune poll. Sometimes, however, polls can discern trends -- and that's where this poll might have something.

If you're a fan of Mills, you are happy for several reasons, primarily for the complete domination Mills is showing in the cross tabs of this particular KSTP poll. Further, in all the polls taken in the last three election cycles, this is the biggest Republican lead in a MN-8 poll I've ever seen. Like, ever. In my life and the life of my father. Since polling started. Chip Cravaack's 2010 win never showed him leading in the pre-election polls. He lead by a few points in some of his 2012 polls, but ultimately lost that race by 9 points.

Additionally, it's hard to say that the poll is inherently biased because the statewide polls released simultaneously by KSTP show leads by Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton very similar to other recent polls in those races.

That being said, a DCCC poll (yes, an internal poll, but internal polling that's got some credibility) showed Nolan with an 11-point lead just over a week two weeks earlier. The same poll had showed a statistical tie back in the summer.

Either the KSTP poll is an outlier, the DCCC poll is an outlier or they both are. I tend to agree with the principles of poll aggregation. And as such, barring further polls that confirm one or the other, we should probably look at this race as being very close and highly volatile.

That's certainly in keeping with the observable activities of the Mills and Nolan campaigns. Here are a few notes that I believe show a close race:

  • Vast campaign spending, including wall to wall TV commercials and near daily direct mail pieces.
  • The only scheduled debate among all candidates in the race showed Nolan as the feisty, aggressive incumbent and Mills playing it crisp and safe.
  • Republicans up and down the ticket have reinvigorated their pro-mining attacks on the DFL ticket, claiming that DFL incumbents have done too little to advance mining despite their stated, albeit nuanced, support of new mining projects in Northern Minnesota. This had happened months ago but had subsided for other issues. Now it's back in the daily soundbites and the subject of GOP press releases. As I've written before, votes that would actually turn over mining are highly localized. MN-8 is no longer just the "Iron Range" district, and the DFL's base in Duluth is actually motivated by anti-mining sentiments. I did say, however, that mining could be an issue if the election came down to 2,000 votes or less, and that's looking quite possible. It might even be likely.
  • Just as in 2010, the real threat to the DFL is low turnout among its base. That's actually much more dangerous than mining defections in Ely and Hoyt Lakes. One of the classic moves to turn out the base is to bring in a big gun, and that's exactly what's happening next Tuesday when Vice President Joe Biden is coming to Hibbing to stump for Nolan.

Here's what I think we can discern from polling, spending and behavior of candidates put together: the MN-8 race is very close, trending toward Mills, but both parties still believe they can win. Future polls may show an even clearer trend, but the two factors I see as being most important for Nov. 4 are turnout in Duluth (high is good for Nolan, low is good for Mills) and which native son the Brainerd Lakes region, always a swing area, chooses to support this time around. This area was a bellwether for Cravaack in 2010 and Nolan in 2012. I'd be surprised if it failed to predict the winner again in 2014.

Many months, probably years for nonferrous mining in Northern Minnesota

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: September 29, 2014 - 11:21 AM

It's been several months since the public comments period closed for the environmental review and permitting process for PolyMet, a controversial proposed nonferrous mineral mine in Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. Most had hoped for news about the completion of the Environmental Impact Statement and a clearer timeline for the final permitting by this fall. However, a Marshall Helmberger interview of DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr in the Sept. 24 issue of the Timberjay shows that it could be years, not months.

For those following this issue closely, Helmberger's story is a must-read.

The reason for the delay, according to Landwehr, is the unprecedented number of primarily critical comments, many of which involve unique and extremely detailed scientific questions and concerns. About 58,000 written comments were received, which raise between 7,000 and 8,000 unique concerns or questions about the massive Draft EIS document discussed last winter.
From the story:
Indeed, it’s by far the largest such undertaking in state history, and that makes it difficult for state officials to even estimate when the job might be completed. Landwehr was blunt: “We don’t know how long it will take. We can’t even say months.”

That’s true, in part, because addressing some of the comments may require more information than officials have gathered so far. “It would not surprise me if we have to find new information, or if some remodeling is required,” said Landwehr. “But that’s the purpose of the comments. We want to do this right.”

So the obvious question is why do we have to deal with these delays? Why does it take so long? Can't we do something to make it go faster? The tempting answer is, "Sure! Most of the concerns raised are probably just delay tactics, right? Why let minutia hold up the wheels of commerce? Let's force them to disregard whole categories of complaints, just to move it along." That's certainly going to be the position of the most devout pro-mining individual.

Another way of looking at the issue, however, is through this question: Do we want to have a process that deliberately ignores comments and questions because of popular or political pressure? Won't those ignored individuals then have legal recourse to sue their government and stop the process anyway? That's what the regulatory agencies like the DNR see, and they don't want their work to be negated by a judge or for the state to have to pay damages or legal fees. Further, if the public's interest truly is in safe, responsible mining, these kinds of issues must be addressed in due time: either now, during permitting, or during a legal challenge after the fact.

Additional staffing for the DNR, EPA and MPCA might also help, but it's hard to see support for that materializing anytime soon.

Mining supporters and the companies themselves are justifiably frustrated with these delays, but we shouldn't fail to recognize an important fact here: part of the reason so many comments require so much time to answer is because there are unanswered questions about long term impact of the mining and the financial assurances the company must make in the event of a disaster like the one last month in Canada.

Further, PolyMet isn't capitilized yet. Part of the reason the gap between promises and what's written in the EIS is causing so many comments is because the company is still packaging itself to attract robust investment, which puts a premium on reducing legacy costs and assurances. As I've said before, this is an ongoing negotiation between a private company, with potential for new jobs and investment, and the people of Minnesota, who actually own interests in the minerals, water and air. The best outcome would come from a fair valuation of what both sides bring to the table. That, however, requires honest deliberation and money up front. Which is why it's not quite happening this way.

This is precisely why waiting on nonferrous mining to be the economic savior of the region is a losing strategy. Even if the permits and mines come -- in 2016, 2017 or beyond -- we will be wasting precious time and precious iron mining revenue propping up an economy built for the wrong century. I certainly understand why news of these delays would prompt call for reform. Let that reform include everything, including our economic development plans and tired old attitudes that place far too much trust in the whispered promises of mining companies, or the hope that doing nothing will lead to anything but further economic decline.

Restaurants aplenty: Rural Minnesota's service economy challenge

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Economics, Employment, Restaurants Updated: September 25, 2014 - 6:28 AM

It's no secret that tourism is big business in Northern Minnesota. The hospitality and recreation industries employ thousands, while the ebb and flow of tourists are a big part of life here in the North Woods.

I often write about Northern Minnesota's economy, and how its actual composition compares with the idealized one usually discussed in the media. Mining, for instance, gets a lot of attention for its employment figures, and for good reason. Today's mining jobs are the highest paid positions available to people on the Iron Range without having to leave the area for advanced degrees. But the number of mining jobs available are much smaller than the number of service jobs held by the kinds of unskilled works who, 100 years ago, would have been working in the underground mines and domestic kitchens of yore. More dollars in mining; more people in service fields. More dollars in doctors and medical facilities; more workers in nursing and personal care.

Where do the young work? Restaurants and gas stations. Where do people new to the area work at first? Restaurants and gas stations. In short, restaurants and other service businesses are a big deal here, and there is numeric evidence to support the theory.

The Pine Poker, a community blog based in Pine City, ranked Minnesota towns based on restaurants per capita. No, this isn't a qualitative study. Those restaurants include Subways, Arby's and joints where the deep fryer does the work of ten men. But it shows you the tilt toward higher restaurant ratios in small, rural places.

Tops on the list? Brainerd. In this Crow Wing County seat the Poker finds one restaurant for every 89 permanent resident. This isn't terribly surprising, since Brainerd remains one of Minnesota's biggest bastions of  tourism.

The second city on the list, however, with 91 residents per restaurant, came as a surprise: the Iron Range city of Virginia. Looking at the list it's clear that one of the things that propels Virginia so high on the list is a healthy roster of traditional and chain restaurants, coupled with the town's historically robust bar scene, where tiny pizzas and wings might be enough to classify some watering holes as feeding stations.

The Poker's hometown of Pine City is third at 104:1, followed by Park Rapids (106:1), (which is also the city where I'll broadcast my newest Great Northern Radio Show this Saturday at 5 p.m.). Rounding out the top ten: Detroit Lakes (108:1), Alexandria (129:1), Perham 136:1), another tourist epicenter in Ely (138:1); Wabasha (148:1) and a larger town, Bemidji (156:1). The full list may be found here.

You have to be careful making too many assumptions about a list like this. It's a simple calculation of the number of restaurants listed on Urban Spoon for given towns, divided by its most recent Census totals. Still, I live in Northern Minnesota, near many of the towns that ended up on the list. Even among towns not listed, the restaurants are something of an economic and cultural hub. As businesses, they're not particularly profitable, nor is working at one particularly lucrative. Quite the opposite, actually.

So, too, is the nature of Northern Minnesota's economy. Quality of life is often quite high here, but it's literally a different economy than the one found in the Twin Cities. Sure there are many, many restaurants in the Twin Cities, more than anywhere else. But the proportion of restaurants to people is perhaps one small clue to a larger hypothesis.

Northern Minnesota is built to serve and extract. The state's more prosperous cities are built to create, generate and keep wealth. The best economic news for us up North is that we can drown our sorrows with unlimited coffee and a plate full of eggs most any time we want.  We can mine until the ore runs out. The bad news, or perhaps the challenge, is that our tireless service workers can't afford to eat the food they serve. A vast number of our population have yet to find their economic footing in modern times. Oh, the possibilities if we ever do.

Order up!

The (Northern) Minnesota Poll conundrum

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: September 15, 2014 - 9:00 PM

Today, the latest in a battery of polling data from Minnesota's U.S. Senate race was released, this time the Star Tribune's Minnesota Poll. The results of the poll are not my reason for this post, though if you're interested Sen. Al Franken, the incumbent Democrat, was up by double digits. The thing that got my attention was the sub-head, which read that Franken's substantial lead over GOP challenger Mike McFadden was reversed in Northern Minnesota, quite literally my neck of the woods. Here's an excerpt from the Abby Simons Star Tribune story:

Franken gets the backing of 49 percent of likely voters, while McFadden gets 36 percent. Another 11 percent say they have not yet decided.

The first-term Democrat runs strongest in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, where two-thirds say they support him compared with 20 percent for McFadden. The outlying metro suburbs also tilt toward Franken.

But that lead vanishes in northern Minnesota, where 55 percent prefer McFadden to Franken, who gets a little over one third. The number of undecideds also dwindles to 5 percent. The state’s Iron Range region has become politically volatile in recent elections, with fissures deepening this year over controversial issues like the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mining project that sometimes pit labor against environmentalists.

There it is again, mining. Well, let me tell you: The mining debate in Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District is a funny little hat on a complicated monkey.

According to the poll, 33 counties are included in the categorization of "Northern Minnesota." Only two counties -- St. Louis and Itasca -- contain significant sources of iron ore or other kinds of minerals. And while St. Louis County is the largest in Northern Minnesota, it is only a plurality of this region's population.

So there's the first issue: McFadden's lead in these counties doesn't necessarily come from the Iron Range, if he leads here at all. (Honestly, I'm not sure, though I sense another solid but less-than-spectacular DFL victory in the principal cities of the Mesabi Iron Range, somewhere between the soft 2010 and robust 2012 margins).

We don't know how many poll responses came from Duluth, where the index is dramatically more liberal than other parts of the region. Frankly, with 800 statewide respondents, only about 100 could have come from the "33 counties in Northern Minnesota" and there's just no way you can use that as a full picture of where the region is. For instance, if you're polling the 218 area code you're also polling western Minnesota, central Minnesota and other areas that routinely elect Republicans.

Minnesota's 8th Congressional District (only about half of which is north of Moose Lake) is becoming more like a midwestern swing state, not just an arbitrary political district. It has distinct subregions, conflicting coalitions of voter interest groups, and enough land mass to ensure that people who live on one side of the district might never in their whole lives set foot in a town on the other side of the district.

Last week I was talking to a friend who works for a national news organization, turning polling data into interactive web graphics. We were lamenting the fact that polling data is becoming less reliable as people become more sophisticated in their ability to avoid receiving unwanted calls from pollsters. It's reached the point where I am predicting that Nate Silver's wizard-like prognostication skills in the 2012 election might go down as the high water point for aggregate polling in this generation. Until we have a new way to gauge voter intentions, I think we're dealing with an increasingly guess-based business. If we're being honest with ourselves, that's what most political reporting and analysis (including what you're reading right now) has become.

I don't think Franken is really up by double digits in this election. Judging by the campaign activity, it would appear the candidates don't either.  I certainly don't think McFadden is up by double digits on the Iron Range. But man, what a story ... if it were true.

My assessment, based on an aggregate of polls, conversations and economic conditions is as follows: Franken is ahead by a statistically significant margin, but there is an increasing political and cultural wedge between rural and urban Minnesota. The reasons for this include mining, but also much, much more than mining. So much of campaigning these days is the aggressive application of narrow partisan ideology to increasingly complex sociopolitical factors. Northern Minnesota is changing, while also facing economic challenges that aren't present elsewhere. As such, it will behave erratically at the polls because that's what pressure and change does to a region. Or a state. Or a country.

Death by conventional wisdom on Minnesota's Iron Range

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: September 4, 2014 - 11:18 AM

Important words are allergic to adjectives. So it goes with the term “conventional wisdom,” which indicates only the lack of actual wisdom.

Such is the case on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, where conventional wisdom continues to misinform dramatic changes in demographics, economics and culture.

Historian Pam Brunfelt calls the blue collar mining towns of the Iron Range an “industrial frontier,” and if that seems a unique label it’s because this is an unusual region. Geographically isolated, neither urban nor rural, both abundant and foreboding, the Range was a cauldron of immigration, social strife and opportunity just three generations ago. Today, iron mining continues but the old ramparts crumble. Well-worn roads are traveled both ways, originally with bare feet and more recently with minivans. Not just Chryslers. Toyotas. Hondas, even.

This year has been replete with conventional wisdom about the changing Iron Range and its political proclivities. 2014 began with people arguing the merits and dangers of new forms of mining on the East Range and in the surrounding region. That argument spills into politics. Republican challengers for governor, senator and the local seat in Congress, desperate for narrative in a ferociously boring campaign, seek to bend Iron Range votes their way by exploiting internal DFL arguments over mining permits.

Here we enter the realm of conventional thinking. The great steel industry collapse and reorganization of the 1980s and 90s shrunk the overall population, birth rates and school enrollment of Iron Range cities by 30-50 percent. As 2010 census numbers came back, it was clear that what the region needed was an infusion of young professionals.

Recent months, however, have provided new data showing that though overall population losses have had their effect, young professionals are indeed gradually returning to most rural Northern Minnesota counties

Demographics are a complicated measure of the health of community and not all of Northern Minnesota’s trends are bad. What matters more is how people engage with their communities. It is in this truth where we see greater woes in some Range towns — apathy, institutional decay and parochial glad-handing — problems that neither political party seems particularly interested in addressing.

Political campaigns, however, don’t respond to this nuance very well. We know the electorate is changing, but why? Successful campaigns melt down complex issues into blunt sound bites to be used as clubs in rhetorical street fights. That’s what’s been happening in the U.S. Senate race and MN-8 Congressional race, where both Republicans Mike McFadden and Stewart Mills, respectively, have used the longstanding gap between Iron Range unemployment rates and state averages to suggest that A) DFLers like Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Rick Nolan are somehow causing or are complicit in this gap, and B) that new mining, unfettered by the deliberate environmental review process now underway, would eliminate this gap.

This talking point has been debunked, but that didn’t stop the Range’s largest daily newspaper, with its fervent mining company bias, from printing a story that suggested it might be true anyway.

Conventional wisdom about the Iron Range — that it alone controls the fate of MN-8, that it’s all about mining, that it will “flip” MN-8 or the Senate or Governor’s race — is falling apart. Mining is an increasingly automated industry using highly-paid, highly-educated personnel. Its economic impact is real, but it’s ability to address poverty, wages, social problems, or workforce training for the currently unemployed is only partial.

No Democrat or Republican candidate is innocent of bending data to fit a narrative. It’s pretty much the business these days. But those who rely on bad interpretations of data will pay the price. Right now I don’t think any of the major party candidates are connecting with the changing demographics and dynamics of Northern Minnesota. If they were, people would be much more engaged. As it is, I join many of my friends and neighbors up North waiting for the storm to pass so we can enjoy a new season. These new days will come no matter which way the election turns out. Perhaps in coming years more adaptive leadership will emerge in our political process. That's certainly what we need.


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