From the mineral-rich Mesabi Iron Range to the tourist-clotted Duluth waterfront and down to the more affluent northernmost fringe of the metro area, the Eighth Congressional District is a politically restless place.
VIRGINIA, Minn. – From the mineral-rich Mesabi Iron Range to the tourist-clotted Duluth waterfront and down to the more affluent northernmost fringe of the metro area, the Eighth Congressional District is a politically restless place.
Blue collar, job-hungry miners and the businesses that thrive from them are at odds with environmentalists. A swelling population of exurban voters is turning the southern tip more conservative. The local economy is partly tethered to the wild swings of mining and tourism.
These are the voters who unceremoniously tossed out the state’s longest serving member of Congress, the late Rep. Jim Oberstar, in 2010 for Republican Chip Cravaack. Two years later, the same voters bounced Cravaack to bring back Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democratic House member from the 1970s who gained a new lease on political life.
These at-times fickle voters are also especially critical to the fortunes of all statewide candidates — particularly those for governor and U.S. Senate.
That has DFL state Chair Ken Martin fretting.
“I’m worried about the Eighth,” Martin said. “The rank-and-file union members showing up and supporting the Democratic candidates, I’m worried about environmentalists in Duluth showing up and supporting our candidates. I’m worried about college students throughout this district and young people showing up. We have to win big. We have to run up the score here.”
Miners vs. environmentalists
Increasingly, the Eighth is cleaved by forces difficult for any one party to address. PolyMet Mining Corp.’s plan to extract copper and nickel from the long-closed LTV mine in Hoyt Lakes has pitted out-of-work but union-loyal miners desperate for decent wages against preservationists, who say the mine could damage the watershed and poison the landscape.
Even after loyal DFLer and Aurora City Council Member David Lislegard lost his job at the mine in 2000, he canvassed for DFL candidates, fighting to get fellow miners to the polls.
No more. “The party is starting to change in direction to the point where I don’t know if it necessarily aligns itself with northeast Minnesota anymore,” said Lislegard, 41. “I’m going to support those who support our way of life.”
Former state Rep. Tom Rukavina, who lives here, was more brusque.
“I just wish one day that our good DFL senators, both of them, you know, would tell the environmentalists to quit crying wolf, you can’t be against everything,” he said. “You can’t want a broadband if there is no copper. You can’t want windmills if there is no nickel. You can’t want a medical device industry if there aren’t stents made of copper, nickel and stainless steel. So cut the crap and grow up.”
Quotes like these are gold for Republicans, who see the chance to change the hue in northern Minnesota. While DFLers must maintain an increasingly fragile coalition of urban environmentalists and northern union workers, Republicans have taken advantage of this tension to tout their support of mining.
“I’m going to be a champion for using the resources God has given this state to actually create good jobs,” GOP gubernatorial endorsee Jeff Johnson said recently on a swing through the district. “There is no better example of that than here in northern Minnesota and the mines.”
Lislegard still favors Nolan in the upcoming election, but he is wavering on whether to support Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken’s re-election bids. He senses that the DFL has taken his and other blue-collar votes for granted, and he is particularly disgusted with the carefully parsed answers he hears about the idled mine that once was his livelihood.
Mindful of the different factions, both politicians are careful when talking about PolyMet.
“What they [miners] want is sustainable mining, that’s what they always wanted,” Franken said. “That’s what we’re doing with the process, and I think the process has improved the project considerably. … There is never anything without risk, but we have to make sure the risk is as minimal as possible.”