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 (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.

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.

Canadian mine disaster raises tough questions about Minnesota nonferrous mines

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: August 7, 2014 - 1:04 PM

Sometime in the middle of the night on Monday, Aug. 4, the dam holding together a tailings basin at a British Columbian copper and gold mine gave way, sending 1.3 billion gallons of tainted, sludgy water into local streams and lakes.

Officials tell residents in the closest town, Likely, B.C., not to use the water from several lakes and rivers near the Mount Polley Mine, including a precautionary ban stretching all the way to the well-known Fraser River. (And no, "Likely" is not a made-up name from a ham-handed eco-novel. It's a real town named for an old mining boss named John A. Likely). Mount Polley is operated by Imperial Metals of Vancouver.

The CBC reports that Canadian and provincial officials now assess the full extent of the damage and how something like this even happened. Global News is reporting that Mount Polley Mine employees are saying that tailings pond breaches have happened before, just never to this extent. Meantime, the breach compromises the town's drinking water and sidelines its tourism economy, which had co-existed with mining, for an indeterminate amount of time. Possibly a very long time.

Already, copper mining critics cite this disaster as Exhibit A that these mines threaten local ecosystems. Many here in Minnesota wonder: if this tailings pond breach can happen at an active mine in Canada, where regulations are similarly stringent to U.S. law, how on earth can we be confident in a tailings pond at a proposed nonferrous mine in northern Minnesota? After all, those tailings basins are supposed to last 500 years, according to PolyMet's own Environmental Impact Statement estimates.

That was the very question I posed to LaTisha Gietzen, PolyMet spokesperson, yesterday. How would PolyMet prevent what happened at Mount Polley from happing at a nonferrous mine in the Lake Superior watershed?

Though the specific details of what happened at Mount Polley aren't yet known, Gietzen pointed out several differences between what's known about the Mount Polley mine and PolyMet's proposal in Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota.

"We have a high level of confidence that our tailings impoundment is and will remain safe based on the size, design, location, construction and general nature of the structure," said Gietzen.

Among the observable differences between Mount Polley and PolyMet, Gietzen said the Mount Polley Mine taps into a porphyry deposit in a much hillier location -- two factors that influence the toxicity and water pressure in the pond.

"Porphyry deposits often contain higher sulfide levels and clay," said Gietzen. "The clay tends to keep material in suspension and hamper drainage in tailings. PolyMet plans to mine a low sulfide deposit that does not have appreciable amounts of clay minerals. Therefore the geochemistry of our tailings will be different and the water in our tailings basin will be in the pH neutral range."

The high clay and silt content of the Mount Polley breach would account for the sludgy nature of the spill. Gietzen adds that PolyMet proposes using the outline of LTV Steel's old iron ore tailings pond, one that has been time-tested.

"We already maintain an existing structure that has been there more than 40 years and, to our knowledge, never had a breach," said Gietzen. "The design of that structure is proven and tested and we’ll be applying a similar design to an adjacent tailings structure, but employing some modern techniques.

Among those techniques, PolyMet aims to use existing fill materials from other areas on site in addition to the flotation tailings themselves, buttressing the exterior face of the dam with rock to add stability.

Gietzen adds that underground cutoff walls around more than half of the structure will help manage the overall water management and drainage system. She also says that the lack of seismic activity in Northern Minnesota, along with a very gradual slope and regular DNR inspections will all combine to make the PolyMet tailings basin more secure.

Assurances aside, however, the vocal mining opposition group Mining Truth issued a statement pointing out that the same engineering firm that build the failed dam in British Columbia advised PolyMet and the Minnesota DNR during the ongoing permitting process for PolyMet's NorthMet nonferrous mine project near Hoyt Lakes.

“Minnesotans are being asked to put a lot of faith in these companies that their projects won’t endanger the mine’s workers or the surrounding environment,” said Paul Danicic, Executive Director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. “It’s deeply disturbing that the same firm that designed the collapsed tailings dam was hired by PolyMet and the Minnesota DNR. We’re being asked to trust these companies with Minnesota’s water.”

It's true: engineers are fallible, and it would be wise for every mining operation in the world to take another look at the design of their tailings basins based on this terrible disaster. Responsible companies will learn from this and react appropriately. PolyMet says it will be seeking third-party engineering consultants to confirm the safety of their plans once they are permitted.

Mining the minerals we use in everyday products is inherently risky and, to some degree, inherently necessary. The question for Northern Minnesota is whether the need for and benefit from new nonferrous mining is greater than the risks and costs. Incidentally, this is what mining companies talk about behind boardroom doors. Communities and states should do the same, and lay out the considerations plainly in public view.

What happened in British Columbia simply must not be allowed to happen in Minnesota; the effects would be culturally and economically devastating. But we should also acknowledge that there is an acceptable amount of risk to take when it comes to mining necessary minerals. The challenge is finding the tipping point.

When you break this debate out of the emotional, culturally-motivated battle between developers and environmentalists you see that we have a question that can probably be answered, if we're willing to use math honestly to determine what the future of Northern Minnesota could and should look like.

MN-8 'toss-up' shows region at the crossroads

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: August 5, 2014 - 3:02 PM

Last week, the non-partisan Cook Political Report moved the race for Minnesota's 8th Congressional District between Democratic incumbent Rick Nolan and Republican Stewart Mills from "Lean Democratic" to "Toss-Up." This news has already attracted attention from most of the state's political writers, so I'm not here to rehash the day-to-day politics. Roll Call still says Nolan is slightly favored, but in any event I had already written that the MN-8 race was looking like a toss-up before Cook adjusted their ratings. Instead I'll offer these thoughts about the shifting sands of MN-8.

The 8th District is usually considered in terms of its historical identity instead of its modern reality. Even today, after two consecutive elections in which the incumbent was defeated, people refer to the 8th District in relation to the Iron Range, labor politics and mining. That's because for most of the 20th Century, Northeastern Minnesota's Congressional seat was dominated by mining and logging interests, and the Duluth-based industrial powers that shipped and processed these products.

From the late 1800s through the onset of the Great Depression, this district (not always numbered "8"), much like the state as a whole, was reliably Republican. Northeastern Minnesota was growing and prosperous. Republican business interests dominated the politics of the region. Since most of the labor came from unskilled immigrants, most of whom couldn't vote and/or feared for their livelihood, Republicans consistently held off Democrats in the early years of Northeastern Minnesota settlement. (Though, the strong performance here of "Bull Moose" Teddy Roosevelt and the socialist Eugene Debs in 1912 shows that the region was more Bob LaFollette than Bob Taft in its Republicanism -- back before political parties demanded strict homogeny).

As immigrants gained the franchise, things changed. Through the Depression this Congressional seat bounced back and forth between the Farmer-Labor Party and Republicans. The Democrats were not much of a factor here yet. In fact, the strength of the Farmer-Labor Party among miners and loggers of the time was part of the reason Democrats forged their alliance with the Farmer-Laborites, giving us today's DFL -- the party label that continues to confound national politicos.

Only after WWII did the district settle in as a DFL stronghold, one that held until 2010. Now, in 2014, people want to know: what changed?

  • The Iron Range and Duluth lost population.
  • Mines and mills became more automated, requiring far fewer union laborers and slightly more higher-educated, higher-income engineers and technicians.
  • After the 1980s, rural parts of the district began to skew much older.
  • The size of the district grew as Minnesota's metro area surged in population. Each new redistricting added more conservative central Minnesota precincts, to the point now that the Minneapolis/St. Paul media market covers as much of the district as Duluth's.

The result is a district that is more politically balanced between conservatives and liberals. We have a city of Duluth that behaves very much like a liberal metropolis (even if it's still on the hunt for 100,000 residents). Duluth's new attitude no longer requires harmony with resource-based, socially-conservative Iron Range leaders, so the northern part of the district will have difficulty uniting behind one candidate. We have an Iron Range where tradition and culture still produces a DFL-leaning electorate, but where fewer people mean fewer raw votes. We have a Brainerd Lakes, central Minnesota and North Metro section of the district where political affiliation follows demographic indexes utterly unrelated to these previously listed factors.

In short, we have a MN-8 district that behaves like a small Midwestern swing state -- full of factions, regions and different opinions.

A particularly talented and dynamic politician might be able to hold the district through its natural swing; most candidates, however, including most of the characters we see these days, will be changed like spark plugs at the speedway.

Northern Minnesota really is a swing district. It's not just swinging between Democrats and Republicans; it's swinging between generations, economic systems and attitudes about the future. Nolan could well survive this election, but I doubt he'll be around much longer than that. If Mills wins he'll immediately become a vulnerable 2016 incumbent. This district might change hands half a dozen times before it establishes a more permanent political identity. Each new member of Congress will represent a lagging indicator of the real change happening below the surface of clumsy political labels and idle punditry.

Is this place a temporary resource colony, retirement home and tourist haven?

Or is this place a site of a future renaissance of technology, education and nature?

That is the real question. The answer could well be built on a mountain of ex-Congresspersons and failed candidates who firmly believed that their dogmatic partisan politics would endure.

Only the people will endure. Just like Ma Joad said. Whether the people are Democrats or Republicans is less important than their willingness to work hard, take risks, plan better communities, welcome new neighbors, and educate themselves and their children. If we're not willing to do these things, it really doesn't matter who wins the elections.

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