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.

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.

Sigh of relief as major Iron Range project finds funding

Posted by: Aaron Brown Updated: May 9, 2014 - 8:17 AM

The Star Tribune's Dee Depass reports that Essar Steel has secured $450 million in new private financing, and is injecting $300 million of its own money into finishing its long-awaited Nashwauk taconite plant.

Essar Steel has secured $450 million in new private financing, and is injecting $300 million of its own money into finishing its long-awaited Nashwauk taconite plant.

Here on the ground north of Nashwauk, the project has been a source of local hopes, fears and loathing. The odd start-and-stop nature of Essar's construction plans has periodically left contractors in the lurch and townsfolk wondering if the project was *really* going to happen, even with a massive concrete spire visible for miles around.

The issue: financing. India-based Essar has figurative and often literal irons in the fire all over the world. They've cited slow availability of loans as the reason for the unusual delays and erratic construction pace.

There are more questions ahead. As this section from the story shows, the original goal for this project -- making steel on the Iron Range -- has pretty much slipped away.

The financing problems associated with the taconite factory have tempered expectations that Essar eventually would create a three-pronged steel production facility. Back in 2008, Essar unveiled a plan for a fully-integrated operation that would mine iron ore, reduce it into iron pellets and use special furnaces to produce finished steel slabs, all on the same site.

If the larger game plan comes to fruition, the operation would be the first to do so in Minnesota, state officials said.

Many of the company's Iron Range and state grants were predicated on the idea that this would be a value-added iron mining project. If that doesn't happen, there could be financial repercussions.

Still, after a winter of discontent, the fact that this project is moving ahead is a welcome positive development. As with all mining projects, the market will dictate much about what actually transpires.

Chasing Jim Oberstar

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics, Transportation Updated: May 4, 2014 - 11:49 AM

Earlier, I shared my personal and political analysis of the loss of former Rep. Jim Oberstar, the lion of northern Minnesota politics for almost four decades. Oberstar, 79, died in his sleep at his home in Maryland on May 3, 2014.

Here on the Iron Range, people's memories of Jim have been flowing in ever-growing streams since the news arrived Saturday morning. I'm fortunate enough to have a few, but there's one story I haven't put in writing yet.

In 2004, a friend and I joined Jim Oberstar's annual Mesabi Trail bike tour. An avid bicyclist who dedicated a great deal of his political capital to building bike paths, Oberstar liked to show off different stretches of his beloved hometown trail to media and constitutents. I was 24 and probably in the best shape of my life (not that this means much, but is nevertheless relevent to the story).

My friend and I showed up early to partake in the free snacks and sports drinks. We were dressed in shorts and t-shirts; prepared for a day of riding bike with a man pushing 70. Then Jim Oberstar showed up. Dressed head to toe in red, white and blue spandex and matching helmet, he smiled, shook hands and greeted the small crowd of bicyclists. We all saddled up on our bikes; mine with a rack on the back for carrying a cooler or novel, Oberstar's a 2,000-piece triumph of European design. And we were off. 

The first mile consisted of Oberstar pedaling leisurly, chatting with various people along the way. Frankly, it was a slow pace, so my friend and I took off. We would catch them at the after party, we thought.

The afternoon wore on. We rode as hard as we could. As the wind and hills near Buhl slowed us down, we took a short rest. And though we hadn't seen Oberstar for miles, suddenly there he was. "Hello, gentlemen," said the septuagenarian. We jumped back on our bikes. We really had planned to finish first.

For the last stretch of the ride, about two miles, we watched as Jim Oberstar became smaller, not larger, on the horizon. We chased him with all our might; to no avail. As we were greeted at the finish, my friend and I muttered about Oberstar's superior bike; but the reality that two men in their physical prime had been stone cold whipped by a very old congressman was an immovable burden on our sweating egos.

I had thought that Jim Oberstar would live to be 100; he was just so healthy, not just for a man his age, but for anyone, really. But just as we don't get to decide when voters are going to change their minds, we don't decide our lifespans either. What we can control, though, is the sharing of memories like this, and the legecy of a man who always remembered where he was from, as he shaped a larger world. 

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