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.

New focus on IRRRB prods Iron Range political structure

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: March 1, 2015 - 4:06 PM

This morning the Star Tribune published an investigative story by Jennifer Bjorhus exploring political connections between the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and the projects under its sway.

Bjorhus paid particular attention to a 2006 IRRRB project funding an Eveleth telemarketing firm that primarily did calls for Democratic-leaning candidates and causes.

For years, prominent Democratic candidates and political groups have used the obscure center tucked among hills and pines to canvass and raise money from small donors. DFL organizations, state and national, have paid the phone bank’s current and former owners about $80 million over the last decade, campaign records show.

The call center relocated to Eveleth in 2006 thanks in part to a $625,000 loan from a unique state agency called the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB). It doles out about $40 million each year, much of it from a tax on taconite, in the name of bolstering and diversifying the Range economy.

In its first incarnation, the call center on the Range failed to meet job targets, but the IRRRB gave the company, Meyer Associates, more time to repay the loan. It shut down anyway last year. The IRRRB let Meyer’s owner walk away and wrote off the $250,000 Meyer owed, records show.

Then a former Meyer executive reopened the phone bank under the name of his new company. The deal allowed him to pay $50,000 for equipment that had been purchased with $500,000 in IRRRB money. The largest political client for the call center remained the same: a group called Dollars for Democrats.

The Meyer deal was approved under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his commissioner Sandy Layman. The reorganization of the deal after Meyers went under occurred under the current DFL administration of Gov. Mark Dayton and former commissioner Tony Sertich.

Iron Range political insiders have been nervously awaiting the result of Bjorhus's work. (I am not certain that she's alone in peeking into the doings of the IRRRB these days; there could be others). While the details of the Meyer story are unlikely to have significant impact here on the Iron Range, they will continue to stoke a very bad perception of the agency to political watchers and partisans outside the Taconite Tax Relief Area. We've already had a number of messy political stories involving Iron Range politicians this year, most of which paint a distinct picture of cronyism and single-industry thinking in our local political structure.

It's entirely possible that Bjorhus will file more stories on the IRRRB and Range politics in the not-so-distant future. Certainly the agency can expect increased scrutiny from all media going forward, and that could be a good thing. I've long advocated that the IRRRB had committed major missteps during its history, including several of the ones Bjorhus mentions. Frankly, a debacle like Excelsior Energy was such a resounding failure that the people involved should have faced far more consequences than they did or probably ever will. I've also said the agency now faces heavy responsibility to modernize its thinking and diversify the Range economy.

Ironically, given the media coverage, the agency has made improvements just recently. During the last four years, under Gov. Mark Dayton, former Commissioner Tony Sertich and now Mark Phillips, the IRRRB enacted significant progress in applying its financial power to the goal of improving education from E-12 up to higher education and workforce development. It also took a step toward ending the dangerous practice of hoarding the Johnson economic development trust in state coffers and moving the funding toward actual support of private sector development in the region. These are important accomplishments that will create observable results in time.

But the agency is still, by design, heavily influenced by politics, too-close connections between developers and board members, and continues to find difficulty in embracing economic diversification because of the power of the mining industry and resulting loyalties. These are factors that have arisen over time, under many administrations, commissioners, and board members. They are not mortal wounds to the purpose of the IRRRB, but they are serious enough to require some metaphorical version of surgery.

My biggest fear here is that these stories will cause shields and swords to be raised up, rather than honest questions and self-assessment. If so, a very miserable year of Iron Range politics will continue down dark holes.

Bakk to Square One: intra-DFL squabble's big impact

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: February 15, 2015 - 1:13 PM

Sometimes the phone rings and you're told that a relative was arrested for a crime -- maybe drunk driving or maybe bank fraud, depending on your brand of family. To be honest it's not surprising news, though the situation spurs family drama, deep uncertainty and consequences. Ultimately this could be a good thing if used as an opportunity to change and heal. Then again, left to fester, the incident could become the harbinger of a long descent into madness and a particularly rough batch of holidays later this year.

Such is my reaction to Thursday's news that Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton blew up at fellow DFLer and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook), a senior member of the Iron Range delegation and top Democrat in the legislature. It wasn't if this high level meltdown among allies was going to happen; it was when. So, here we are. Ahead of schedule, even.

Patrick Condon of the Star Tribune relayed the news, now the predominant talk of the state's political watchers:

Dayton’s rebuke of Bakk at a late afternoon news conference was unusually harsh even for the rough-and-tumble politics of the State Capitol. It raised immediate questions about how a splintered relationship between the two men could affect Dayton’s agenda and the DFL’s fortunes in the legislative session. It came after Bakk, of Cook, led a successful charge on the Senate floor earlier in the day to delay the pay raises until July 1. The raises total $800,000 in additional pay per year to 23 cabinet officers. Dayton said he strongly opposes the delay and will veto the measure if it reaches his desk. He also said Bakk’s maneuver came without warning. “I’m very disappointed because I thought my relationship with Senator Bakk has always been positive and professional,” Dayton said. “I certainly learned a brutal lesson today that I can’t trust him, can’t believe what he says to me, and that he connives behind my back.”

"I can't trust him." "Can't believe what he says." "He connives behind my back."

These are remarkably clear and direct words from the governor, and not the kind of rhetoric washed away by a hand shake and a few dozen miles of new pavement in Northern St. Louis County. One one hand, one enjoys seeing candor, but for DFLers this marks a troubling future for policy goals in the mixed government.

Brewing Battle

First off, we are told this is about the governor's controversial pay raises for high ranking state officials. But, come on. Yes, the governor made a risky political decision to raise commissioner salaries, and yes, Bakk crossed him on that. That might cause a spat under normal conditions, but the brutal, unrestrained nature of Dayton's brushback indicates something more than a one time transgression.

What else has led to this?

Many DFLers I talk to -- especially those outside the Bakk/Range circles -- point to discord over Bakk's decision to sneak through the new Senate office building at the end of the last session. Going into an election with a vulnerable DFL House, while the DFL Senate was not on the ballot, this decision essentially had former Speaker Paul Thissen and House DFLers pay the political price for something that was very much a Tom Bakk/Senate priority. Then, when Gov. Dayton asks for his raises, Bakk -- sensing that his caucus would be on the ballot in the next election -- decides to become a fiscal hawk.

Even that, though, is a fairly petty reason this blew us so big.

Everything about this has to do with the pressures of a changing state, a changing DFL coalition, and two very distinct personalities negotiating those changes on the tail end of their careers.

Sen. Bakk has remained almost totally detached from the governor's political approach to the session, choosing instead to keep the Senate DFL as independent as possible. That's not unusual for a Senate Majority Leader or the Senate in general, but given the dramatic GOP win in the House last election and the sudden need to defend DFL policies in new ways, precious little collaboration has occurred between Bakk and Dayton.

Now, Dayton is operating free of political constraints and quite obviously without a filter. Meanwhile, Bakk --never one to doubt his own self-worth -- continues to see his chief duty leading the Senate as the building and cultivating of power, political might to be used as undisclosed means to some ends that will be announced at a later date.

And it wouldn't surprise me if the successive series of failed power grabs by Bakk's Range DFLers added to Dayton's irritation. Sen. Tom Bakk is a powerfully ambitious man, and he emerges from an Iron Range DFL school taught by former Sen. Doug Johnson, the man who turned the Tax Committee Chairmanship into the voice of Ra the Sun God. This week Iron Range DFLers joined House Republicans to advance a series of bills winnowing the powers of state regulators on mining issues. Bakk and his colleague Sen. Dave Tomassoni hung an embarrassing political distraction around the DFL's neck for the first month of the session. Party fissures over mining were exacerbated by some Rangers who demanded pro-mining purity from party leaders representing DFLers with many different views on the matter.

So much noise. So much lack of discipline or strategy. For what? The Iron Range Bakk emerges from can no longer deliver elections or outcomes as it once did.

Political Implications

Dayton has little to lose since he's run his last race. Losing the Senate in 2016 would render him severely limited from a policy standpoint, but he's endured that environment in the past. It could be argued he acted imprudently in this dust-up, but he held true to the eccentric style that has propelled him through life like a man digging a tunnel just a little bit each night.

Bakk has a lot to lose, as does the DFL prospects in the next two or three elections. While he enjoys the full-throated support of his home paper, the Mesabi Daily News (evidenced by this morning's editorial arguing that he should "sharpen more knives"), that will only get him so far. 

In recent weeks we've read stories about the cost of the Senate office building, Gov. Dayton wanting a new plane, the raising of commissioner salaries and, for added measure, a senior DFL senator trying to work for a lobbying organization while serving in office. The Minnesota economy is surging, thanks in part to DFL policies for the past two years. But DFL political malpractice like we've just seen might well ensure that we don't see new DFL policies for a lot longer than two years.

I can now *imagine* a world in which Republicans keep the House in 2016, and perhaps even make a run at the Senate. There's no Klobuchar, Dayton or Franken blowout at the top of the ticket to help DFLers down ballot. Unless the DFL can circle back to issues people actually care about, they'll need big, big help from a strong Democratic presidential candidate running against a weak Republican to break this cycle.

Meantime, up here in the sticks, well, my Iron Range friends don't like to hear it, but the days of looking to legislators to single-handedly "fix" what's wrong with the region's economy and stagnant demographics are plainly over. Bakk's behavior is indicative of someone trying to hold power, not someone trying to use it wisely. Our Iron Range political power has already waned tremendously. After 2022 there will likely be only one senator and perhaps three state representatives who live in the Taconite Tax Relief Area. No project or initiative can reverse this coming reality. So, the problem isn't having enough hope, but enough foresight to develop a new strategy.

For DFLers, this drama might be a cue to try a new direction. For Republicans, I sure don't have to tell you what to do. Just pop some popcorn and watch the show.

New bills would aid mines, check power of state regulators

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: February 10, 2015 - 2:55 PM

When Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) announced the formation of the Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy Committee, and then stacked it with GOPers and mining-focused Iron Range DFLers it was plain Republicans had plans to advance pro-mining legislation this session.

We got our first taste of some of the proposed new rules this week.

Yesterday, Republicans and Iron Range DFLers in the GOP-controlled Minnesota House introduced HF 616, a bill to require an economic assessment of water quality standards, along with a companion bill, HF 617, that would require an independent study to verify MPCA water standards. Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau) is the chief author.

Though not word-for-word, HF 616 in particular seems to bear striking resemblance to a 2012 policy proposal by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). During the last session under a DFL majority, Range lawmakers and Republicans floated another ALEC-inspired bill nullifying the authority of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which quickly fizzled out.

Essentially, HF 616 and 617 limit the power of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The agency couldn't implement water standards without completing an economic impact study. Further, the PCA couldn't base standards on data that hasn't been verified from an independent source. In other words, conflicting research from industry scientists could be used to discredit current water standards.

That's relevant, because the wild rice sulfate standard at the heart of many water quality debates in both nonferrous mining and taconite mining on the Iron Range is subject to such disagreement. The current wild rice standard, recommended by the PCA and supported by environmental groups and Ojibwa leaders, suggests no more than 10 sulfate parts per million will allow wild rice to grow healthily. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study suggesting the real number was closer to 1,600 parts per million. (Other research suggests appropriate amounts in between those two numbers, but far closer to the lower one; additionally, sulfate isn't harmful but can become sulfide due to environmental conditions, which is harmful).

Given the political makeup of the bills' authorship, this legislation will have a clear path through the Mining & Recreation committee. After sailing through the House, they'll have some chance of being reconciled in the State Senate, led by DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk, himself an Iron Range delegation member. From there, to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who has strongly suggested he doesn't want to alter regulations without firm evidence and some sense of what emerges from the ongoing PolyMet Environmental Impact Study process.

At this point, I would argue that if you support mining what you want is to send trucks full of pizzas and coffee to the office workers in the PCA and Minnesota DNR as they tabulate and prepare the amended EIS for its final release this spring. (NOTE: That's probably illegal; I'm speaking rhetorically).

Only this document, prepared properly in a way that is scientifically defensible, will allow projects like PolyMet to go forward without getting ensnared in endless litigation. PolyMet and its opponents will end up in court either way, but a well-composed EIS could allow permits to be rendered much sooner. Or, it could produce questions the companies don't want to answer. That's where reserving the option of flat-out changing the wild rice standard after the fact could be seen as the ultimate option for mining allies.

It bears mentioning that funding to support more robust, clearer and scientifically grounded data is not part of these new bills. Only the demand that such data be produced, somehow.

Tomassoni resigns from RAMS

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: February 6, 2015 - 11:46 AM

This morning State Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) announced that he would decline the position of Executive Director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools amid the continuing controversy over potential conflicts of interest.

Sen. Tomassoni issued this statement:

“Today the Campaign Finance Board issued the advisory opinion I requested relating to my role at RAMS. I am pleased that the opinion finds I do not have a conflict of interest in accepting this position,” Tomassoni said. “However, after further consideration of how best to represent my constituents and the Iron Range, I have decided to decline the role of Executive Director for RAMS.”

“I would like to express my sincere appreciation of the support from my constituents, colleagues, and RAMS Board during this process,” Tomassoni said.

There were two favorable outcomes to this story in my mind, and one necessary goal. Either Tomassoni would need to resign his seat in the Senate to serve as RAMS director, or he would need to back off the RAMS job to focus on the Senate. We now have one of those outcomes. For this positive outcome, I commend Sen. Tomassoni for making a good decision that solidifies his role as a representative of the people of the Iron Range.

From this outcome, however, I see a goal -- one that I hope others share. We, the people of the Iron Range, need to continuously demand better, not just of our elected officials, but of ourselves. Whether you're a DFLer, a Republican or independent, you have a role to play in making the Iron Range a more vibrant, economically diverse and culturally tolerant place -- the kind of place that my parents, David Tomassoni's parents and some of your parents wanted for us, and that we want for our children. This was my whole motivation in pressing this matter (often with more zeal than seemed necessary to some). This news is welcome, but not a cause for celebration. Rather today is just part of a deep, vital call to service and self-reflection for the people of the Iron Range -- of present, and future.

To quote Bob Dylan, "You Gotta Serve Somebody." Let's all serve the goal of a stronger Iron Range.

RAMS board presses for reforms, but no action yet

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: February 5, 2015 - 4:09 PM

The Range Association of Municipalities and Schools board held a special meeting last night to reorganize and discuss its appointment of Sen. David Tomassoni as executive director. RAMS is a lobbying organization that advocates for units of local government on Northern Minnesota's Iron Range. Many at the Capitol and in the media, including me, have been highly critical of the move, citing a conflict of interest and unethical practice in having a sitting senator serve the bidding of a lobbying group.

The RAMS board, according to this Bill Hanna story in the Mesabi Daily News, did entertain the notion that reform of the organization might be necessary, but took few, if any, specific steps at this time. I had reported last week of rumors that a major motion to alter the organization's focus might come; it would appear that motion was morphed into this more general sentiment left hanging by the board.

... former Executive Director Ron Dicklich tried to take the meeting in a different direction, saying lobbyists are needed to bring back the most money possible to cities and schools. He also praised his own tenure at RAMS.

But Lislegard and Baribeau continually refocused the meeting. Lislegard at one point calmly said to Dicklich, “Ron, I think you’re taking this too personally.”

They said the issue at hand is the credibility of RAMS.

“This has nothing to do with lobbying. This is about a great opportunity we now have to bring people together ... that’s our hope,” Lislegard said.

Herb Sellers of Great Scott Township agreed.

“An ill wind blows no good. This can make us stronger because of the problem,” he said.

It remains to be seen what RAMS decides to do in the year ahead, though it's clear that they are not digging trenches to defend all aspects of the status quo.

Meantime, I've called for Tomassoni's resignation from the Senate, though after seeing this Nick Minock story from Northland's NewsCenter (Duluth's CBS and NBC affiliate) last night, I am not holding my breath. You can watch the story, which is a solid summary of where we're at, here:

Meantime, the state Campaign Finance Board had to reschedule a meeting due to a lack of quorum earlier in the week. They meet Friday to vote on a draft opinion prepared by staff that shows that Tomassoni taking a job, in and of itself, is not a conflict of interest. That was the question Tomassoni asked the board at the behest of his Range ally and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, and it will likely be answered the way those two had planned all along.

I've argued that this question was a false front. The real question is whether Tomassoni's job duties, which include tasks that sound a lot like lobbying, constitute de facto lobbying. Tomassoni and the RAMS board thought they had immunized themselves from these criticisms because they had placed a sentence in the contract declaring that Tomassoni would not be a lobbyist. But that sentence is contradicted by the plain fact that the only reason this job exists is to influence the opinion of elected leaders for the benefit of clients, in this case other government units. The rest of the job duties show this clearly.

It'd be a little like saying saying Bill Belachek wasn't the "coach" of the New England Patriots, he's just an administrator who sees to the details of operating a football team. Sure, he's "on the sidelines calling plays," but don't read too much into that, OK? You're overreacting.

"Overreacting." That's my trigger word today. In the Northland News Center story, Tomassoni said he is "aghast at the overreaction" to this matter. He also said that "'unethical' is the last word people would use to describe me," which, for the record, is a really weird sentence structure to use for a personal ethos.

Since the dawn of this controversy in mid-January, I've spent many a reflective moment wondering why something that seems so clearly out of line to me is considered barely worth mentioning by several local and legislative elected officials. Is it me? Am I "overreacting," as Tomassoni alleges in the interview above?

I've plumbed the depths of this question, analyzing in particular my own ego and ambitions. I would tell you in this very moment if I felt I was pushing too hard or for the wrong reasons. I have concluded that, while I remain a flawed vessel, I am not overreacting. The resistance to these allegations by some in RAMS and among the local political power structure is not because they are right, but because they are protecting a broken system, of which this story is but one small part.

Here are the concerns this story raises in my mind:

  • First, to be clear, Iron Range political relationships are deeply personal. These people spend time together, they coordinate campaigns together, they have the same friends, those friends are often powerful people (by local standards). This personal "my friends and I stand together for the people of the Iron Range" is deeply engrained in this area's political tradition. What I'm arguing is that, over the last 30 years, lawmakers have lost track of what actual people on the Iron Range do to survive; that most people, especially the poorest people, don't have anything to do with the mines and are being failed every day by shrinking schools, rampant drug and alcohol addiction, and aging, apathetic communities.
  • As I've said, ever Range state senator has become a lobbyist immediately after serving in office. I have argued that Tomassoni didn't even bother waiting. Clearly, there is a culture of cashing out years of public service at the end of one's career. This is totally legal. The fact that our Iron Range structure has little precedent for former lawmakers just "going back to normal" -- teaching, mining, running a business or practicing a trade -- shows how disconnected our political world is from the real one. In observing former public officials, I'd say that there is almost a sort of culture shock that occurs when they leave office, like what Red faces when he gets let out of Shawshank Prison. It's really not all that different when they're in office, except that regular people treat them with reverence, which I'd argue is why Tomassoni wants to keep both jobs so badly despite all the hard feelings.
  • Local officials are rightly concerned about local issues. They want what's best for their city or school district. In an environment like RAMS, there is a real worry that sticking your neck out for reform or in any way that would anger local legislators (who are also IRRRB board members) would jeopardize funding for your city or schools. There is real financial benefit for keeping your mouth shut, even if your conscience disagrees with what's going on. I'd argue that Dicklich's comments in the Hanna story above show how this gets so personal, so quickly. For the most part we are dealing with average people, not great ones. People mean well, but their fear and pride gets in the way. Human nature is the primary driver of what's gone on, and the reason change is so hard without some kind of populist force applying pressure.

The only person that can ask for further review of the ethical considerations for the RAMS job is Sen. Tomassoni. He could ask the CFB a more involved question, such as whether his contract constitutes lobbying. He could ask the Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Practices for a ruling on whether this job constitutes a conflict of interest. Tomassoni won't do these things, though, because I strongly suspect they'd call his new job into serious question.

The only outside action would be if the Senate were to censure Sen. Tomassoni. But a Bakk-led Senate is deeply unlikely to do that, unless there's a DFL palace revolt against Bakk. Sure, DFL votes might be raised for that cause, but crossing over to support a GOP-led censure measure would result in punitive actions by Bakk -- again, unless Bakk's leadership were questioned, and I haven't heard anything of the sort, yet.

So, unless something truly unusual happens at the CFB meeting on Friday, that leaves only one recourse. The people back home, to whom I addressed my weekly newspaper column this past Sunday. This is truly your world, and your future to determine.

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