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.

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  

The Northern Minnesota political narrative: Real and Imagined

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: June 11, 2014 - 2:15 PM


It’s an election year. Not just that, it’s another year fraught with continuing statewide debate over mining and environmental issues in northern Minnesota. This brings with it a combustable mix of political speculation, hammer-fisted rhetoric and economic obfuscation in a region populated by trees, deer and people (in that order).

I might not be the only political speculator in this state, but I might be the only one who can see two mines, a lake, a dirt road and the outskirts of a national forest from my roof. So off we go.

In the interest of shaking up the conversation, I’m presenting a contrast today: the real Northern Minnesota as contrasted with the imagined one often found in political speeches and media accounts. It’s not just a Cities vs. Up North thing: perceptions can be just as cloudy “up here” as they are “down there.” As we all should know by now, perception is not always reality.

The Imagined

Northern Minnesota is deeply split over copper and nickel mining, with the Iron Range being for it and Duluth against it. The DFL is split over the issue because of its environmental base, so Republicans’ full-throated support of mining threatens to shift this former DFL stronghold to the Republicans this year. After all, that’s what happened in 2010. Rep. Rick Nolan has to balance support from environmentalists and his Iron Range labor base, and there’s no way he can keep that balance with a well-funded opponent in Republican Stewart Mills, scion of the Fleet Farm stores, who backs all forms of mining no matter what.

The Real

A number of longtime Iron Range pro-mining Democrats are indeed very upset over those in the DFL who oppose mining. Some of them will vote with Republicans this fall, some will consider it, and others will begrudgingly vote DFL anyway.

However, this fact in itself does not mean there is a seismic shift occurring in the 8th District. Why? The Range now comprises less than a quarter of the entire district. And while most Iron Range residents probably support nonferrous mining, their passion on the topic varies greatly. So there are a number of votes in play: hundreds, perhaps; no more than a couple thousand. The reason it seems like ubiquitous overwhelming Range support is that the loudest opinion leaders and local officials support nonferrous mining, due partly to the fact that the current political system requires a steady flow of mining revenue.

In a very close congressional race all this could be problematic for Nolan, but even a couple thousand votes wouldn’t have changed the outcome last time. And the 2010 election that saw Republican Chip Cravaack defeat DFL veteran Jim Oberstar had other dynamics: namely, a stronger Republican wave and Oberstar’s huge collapse in the non-Range, non-Duluth central Minnesota part of the district, where both Nolan and Mills are from.

In fact, the reason Nolan beat Cravaack in 2012 was in large part because of Duluth, which has become a liberal DFL fortress. In Duluth, environmental concerns over water and air far outpace support for nonferrous mining. Mills could win the election, but if he does it will have more to do with low DFL turnout in Duluth than mining defections on the Range.

The Imagined

“Unemployment is worse up north. The economy of the 8th District is a disaster. This election matters a great deal as to whether or not these mines happen, and without these mines the Iron Range and 8th District are doomed.”

The Real

The economy of the 8th is troubled; however, this is not because of abnormally high unemployment. The problem is underemployment and a lack of economic diversity in geographically isolated parts of the district. Frankly, our problems go far beyond what a few hundred new mining jobs might solve, or even 1,000.

Unemployment in Duluth is below the state average -- about 5.1 percent -- according to recent estimates. It's higher on the Range, but close to the state average. Duluth has a more diverse economy and is doing quite well. The Range has booming iron mining production this year, more iron leaving the area than any time since WWII. Still, the Range has worse employment numbers than Duluth? Why?

The Iron Range lacks economic diversity. There are fewer professional jobs for spouses. The downtowns struggle because Range towns have been detached from mining activity for half a century. Miners can live in the country and shop online; and many do. I teach at a Range community and technical college. Only two or three of my students in any given section have parents who work in the mine, though many have grandparents who did. My students are gas station clerks, certified nursing assistants and Wal-Mart stockers. That's because those are the kinds of jobs that most Rangers have now.

The service and medical sectors employ most Iron Range residents now because the economic base is an aging population that needs those two things. THAT is our economic problem, and it receives hardly any mention from Mills, Nolan or any other politician.

The Imagined

The reason new mining is so popular is because there are workers waiting to take those jobs.

The Real

Actual, working iron mines are hiring now. In fact, I'd argue that if you're trained to work in the mines, are drug free, and have a good work ethic you could be working in the iron mining industry on the Iron Range almost immediately. The nearly 4,000-member workforce of Range iron miners is retiring by the score, as workers who survived the '80s approach their pensions at the same time.

The Iron Range workforce, while vaunted for its work ethic, isn't ready. People have been arguing about new mines with the hope that shortly after the permits come, so will a job for the underemployed and/or shiftless relative who could use the scratch. The reality is that with new mining and new technology comes new challenges in workforce training. These are technical jobs, now. You need a college education. Pop quiz: does anyone know the stances on workforce development training of the major candidates for office? That's more important than whether they support mining conditionally or unconditionally (because, again, all of Minnesota's major party gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, and CD8 candidates loosely support nonferrous mining in some form).

It all comes back to an old theme of mine; we can scream until we're blue in the face on the topic of mining and politics in MN-8, but only a fuller understanding of our real predicament will bring the conversation where it really needs to go

### Aaron Brown will host his traveling variety program, the Great Northern Radio Show, live from Ely, Minnesota this Saturday, June 14 from 5-7 p.m. on Northern Community Radio. Tune in on the radio across northern Minnesota or online at www.kaxe.org to hear a show that captures the vibrant spirit of northern Minnesota with music, comedy and stories.

Dahlberg's dark horse bid from the north falls short to GOP's McFadden

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: May 31, 2014 - 7:03 PM

Republicans endorsed investment banker Mike McFadden for U.S. Senate at their state convention early Saturday afternoon. With a well-financed campaign and the blessing of national Republicans, McFadden was the candidate many Democrats expected to see running against U.S. Sen. Al Franken this November. But the headline obscures a compelling story that unfolded late last night at the convention hall in Rochester.

Starting with the first ballot and all Friday night, the leader in GOP balloting was neither the well-financed McFadden, nor last year's straw poll winner State Sen. Julianne Ortman who many believed would win the endorsement. St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg of Duluth led the first eight ballots. The grassroots dark horse making his first run for statewide office shocked the establishment in doing so, and quickly talk of a surprise Dahlberg win consumed the late hours of Friday and early Saturday morning.

Unfortunately for Dahlberg, he and his delegates allowed the convention to recess for a few hours sleep. At the time he led McFadden with nearly 54 percent (60 percent is needed to win endorsement).

The few hours of down time allowed the passions of Dahlberg's surprise show of strength to cool. Delegates realized that a contested primary (McFadden had vowed to run anyway) was avoidable if McFadden was endorsed.

Chris Dahlberg had, until then, done everything right for an unknown candidate, having impressed with his speech and groundwork, and vowing to honor the endorsement (a peculiar tradition for both major parties in Minnesota). But those four hours of down time sapped all his momentum and McFadden had him beat in ballots 9 and 10.

Still, Chris Dahlberg's performance bears mentioning. When he announced his bid for Senate last year, few even in northern Minnesota politics gave him much of a chance. My own impression of him was as a friendly, middle-of-the-road, fairly nonpartisan local politico who would struggle to gain attention. Well, he did.

As a liberal, I can't necessarily get inside the head of a Republican delegate. But looking at this from the outside, I'm a little disappointed they didn't stick with Dahlberg. The DFL has thick playbooks ready for McFadden and Ortman. But no one had counted on Dahlberg. His pleasant demeanor and aw-shucks "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" charm would have been a difficult target for mud-hurlers. Sure, he might not have prevailed in an expensive primary, but he would have changed the game. I think for Republicans to have a chance against the favored Franken, they need to disrupt the status quo.

Chris Dahlberg might not have won this time, but his performance and the impression he left with Republican activists have probably earned him another chance at GOP politics in the future.

Ready, Set, BOB: Dylan Days starts today in Hibbing

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Society Updated: May 23, 2014 - 9:35 AM
Bob Dylan by Daniel Kramer

Bob Dylan by Daniel Kramer

For much of Bob Dylan's meteoric career arc, most people in his Iron Range hometown of Hibbing called him Bobby Die-lin and wondered what he was singing about. Some still do, but by now the practice is reserved as a sort of passive-aggressive protest by people who wish they could get paid that much to warble into a microphone.

I was born in Hibbing in 1979, raised nearby. I've edited the city's newspaper and now teach at its community college, all long after Dylan had become a household name across the world. This puts me in the position to say, yes, things have changed. Dylan was quoted saying, "I've been around iron all my life," this year, and he talks more about his Range roots than ever before. Meantime, Hibbing is commemorating its role in the Dylan story in ways the city would not have considered when I started out.

This weekend, May 23-24, 2014 Hibbing, Minnesota, welcomes people from all over the world to join with artists, writers and musicians in celebrating the accomplishments of Bob Dylan and the interesting North Country mining town where he grew up.

It's called Dylan Days and this is my last year organizing the event. From the website:

  • The Friday Dylan Days 2014 Literary Showcase at 3:30 p.m. at Howard Street Booksellers - Featuring winners of the B.J. Rolfzen Dylan Days Creative Writing Contest and David Kinney, author of the acclaimed new book "The Dylanologists."
  • The premeire event for the GRAMMY Museum's traveling exhibit "Daniel Kramer: Photographs of Bob Dylan" at the Paulucci Space Theatre on Highway 169 by Hibbing Community College. Doors open at 5 p.m. Friday with a 6 p.m. reception at the HCC Theater. The exhibit will remain open through the summer, thanks to the city of Hibbing.
  • The Friday night Dylan Days 2014 singer/songwriter contest (spots on the playlist still available)
  • The Saturday morning Dylan Days 2014 bus tour (seats still available)

For the complete list of Dylan Days 2014 events, see the schedule. Souvenir buttons, which cost $5 and serve as our unofficial "tickets," will be available at events. If you have any questions during your stay in Hibbing check in at Howard Street Booksellers, where you can also get your button any time during the event.

The Kramer exhibit will be on display all summer in 2014, and it is a must-see event for any Dylan fan looking for a Hibbing experience. The Times are a' changing' in Bob Dylan's hometown.

With the closure of the iconic Zimmy's Restaurant in Hibbing, this year's Dylan Days will take on new look. That same closure is causing the Dylan Days organization to plan a hiatus until new organizers with a modified mission step forward to keep the event going. Personally, I've been trying to interest area musicians in throwing a music festival during the same weekend next year. If you have any ideas or interest, let me know.

(PHOTO: Daniel Kramer, for promotional use with GRAMMY Museum exhibit "Daniel Kramer: Photographs of Bob Dylan," on display in Hibbing through Aug. 23).

Medical marijuana win hinged on Range family, lawmaker

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: May 16, 2014 - 12:23 PM

Yesterday, House and Senate leaders announced they had a deal to allow medical marijuana in Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton announced he would sign the bill, which allows for two major medical marijuana producers to be created in Minnesota, and eight locations to serve as dispensaries. The commissioner of health has new leverage in issuing eligibility requirements. The bill includes pills, liquids and vaporized marijuana, nothing that can be smoked. As the Star Tribune indicates, it legalizes forms of cannabis but would be the strictest medical marijuana law in the country.

At the forefront of this debate were three figures: Gov. Dayton, who previously opposed any marijuana bill, State Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) and State Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing). Earlier versions of the bill were much more permissive, allowing patients more flexibility in how they got their prescriptions. Dayton wanted nothing to do with those bills, as the law enforcement lobby was strongly opposed and he bases his position on what will work for law enforcement. The issue was almost left for dead, until the relentless lobbying of families who believed their sick or disabled children would benefit from medical cannabis reinvigorated the issue. Dibble's Senate bill was considered the most favorable one for pro-cannabis advocates, but it was Melin's that was crafted most specifically to win the governor's signature.

Melin was in the crucible for most of the debate because she was the one seeking the deal that would pass into law. Gov. Dayton has a reputation for being a moving target on this issue, so the challenge was significant. The Star Tribune detailed some of this in a recent profile of Melin. It's worth a read.

I've refrained from covering the marijuana issue for a few reasons. One, I'm not as informed on it as I should be. I had mixed feelings on the topic coming from a family that has faced significant drug and alcohol addiction. And one of the families that were most vocal on the issue included Josh and Angie Weaver from Hibbing, whose daughter Amelia would qualify for a medical marijuana treatment that could ease her crippling seizures from a rare condition. I work with Josh at Hibbing Community College and know the family. To be frank, I wanted to avoid the conflict of interest, though I privately empathized with the Weavers.

Knowing the situation as I do, what the Weavers did was absolutely amazing. Despite the crushing difficulty of all the driving between Hibbing and St. Paul, they maintained rigorous pressure on lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Believe me, these are not political people. They did this on their own. This Iron Range family, and their state representative Carly Melin, are among the key reasons this bill passed, which is a rather unexpected entry in the log of Range political history.

This video from The Uptake shows the press conference unveiling the compromise bill and Gov. Dayton's announcement he'll sign it.

Not everyone regards this outcome as a victory. Many in law enforcement and most prohibitionists believe medical marijuana opens a floodgate of potential problems. Further, many pro-marijuana advocates regard this law as hollow and cumbersome for people who actually need access to medical marijuana. Melin, in particular, drew a surprising amount of scorn from liberals over her willingness to cut a deal to pass something out of this session.

Here are my thoughts as someone who started out pretty agnostic on the marijuana issue (never smoked it, don't need it, didn't have an opinion until recently). What became evident early in the session was that Carly Melin was advocating the bill very specifically for families like the Weavers. It was personal for her, and held no particular political value in her Iron Range district, except to those who know the struggles the Weavers have faced. Some say that her championing of the issue was part of her long term statewide political ambition, but I don't know that she made many new friends in this process, so I discount that.

Carly Melin's strength is tenaciousness and her weakness is defensiveness. Both of those traits came out in the closing days of the marijuana debate, evidenced here, and that caused her to become the top target from dissatisfied people on both sides of the issue. In essence, Melin was simply approaching her job as she normally does, with a lawyer's mindset, as though a bill was a legal argument. Now, a bill is not exactly a legal argument. Politics encompasses more than that. Still, if anyone was upset about Melin's maneuvering during the closing days of the debate, no one should have been surprised. She methodically adjusted tactics to achieve a strategic goal: which, again, was quite simply to help as many patients as she could, the family from her district specifically, without triggering a veto from Gov. Dayton.

So we got a very strict law, but it won't be overturned. Some patients got screwed, but some got help. In coming sessions, the law will be loosened as the state and country's attitudes about marijuana laws relax. The screaming and yelling now will subside. Melin's argument is going to be that she did the best she could in the circumstances. That's probably true. For medical marijuana supporters, Dibble's Senate bill was certainly better but would have been vetoed. And a veto would be a very different story this morning.

For more session news, see how many northern Minnesota projects survived in the bonding bill deal.


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