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Continued: Hot issues, uneven growth have 8th District voters restless

  • Article by: ALLISON SHERRY , Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 7, 2014 - 10:44 PM

Dayton makes no apologies for staying neutral until more is known about one of the most environmentally sensitive projects the state has embarked upon.

“I’ve said before and I’ll say again, my position is I’m not going to take a position,” Dayton said. “I’m going to remain intentionally neutral until all the reports are done, all the comments have been made and filed and responded to, until there is final information. When that will be, I’m not entirely certain. Some people jumped in already pandering to one group or another … before the final analysis came in. I think that’s irresponsible.”

Stewart Mills, the Republican trying to unseat Nolan, said the issues go deeper than that. Voters throughout the district are depressed about their lack of opportunities.

“Jobs and the economy are things people talk about quite a bit,” said Mills, a scion and current executive of the Mills Fleet Farm enterprise. Projects like PolyMet, he said, could “cause this part of Minnesota to have an economic boom.”

Nolan agrees, calling PolyMet “a global standard for environmental stewardship.”

A deeper divide

There are actually other, less obvious, forces at play in the Eighth that are not as easy to corner for politicians.

In 10 years, the region has rapidly changed. While Iron Range miners flex substantial and hard-to-ignore political muscle, their actual numbers are dwindling. In the seven counties that span the Range, the top employment sectors are health care, retail trade and tourism. Once a powerhouse, mining now straggles in at 11th.

The district’s growth is arriving in two forceful blows: one conservative and one liberal. More conservative exurban Twin Cities sprawl is gently edging into Chisago County, which shares a border with the Sixth Congressional District, a GOP powerhouse. The state’s overall economic health has meant nicer homes on bigger sprawls in places like Brainerd.

At the same time, Duluth’s downtown liberal bastion is relishing a miniature boom with health care and education jobs — something St. Louis County lobbyist John Ongaro says was born out of severely desperate times in the 1980s.

“There was a billboard here that said, ‘Will the last person leaving Duluth please turn out the lights?’” Ongaro said. “It was really destitute. The unemployment rate was 30 percent. It was terrible. But since then it’s pulled itself up through colleges, medical jobs and Canal Park tourism.”

Now, Duluth’s non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 5.1 percent, within sight of the statewide rate of 4.5 percent.

All that may be good for Duluth’s tax base, but politicians say these newcomers are never the most reliable voters. They are generally less loyal to the area and its particular issues than those rooted here for several generations. And without a presidential candidate on the ticket, it’s often hard to get them to pay attention until the last minute, which means they can sway depending on national mood.

“A large number of people are apolitical,” said Aaron Brown, a Grand Rapids radio show host and blogger who occasionally writes for the Star Tribune. “They may put down Democrat out of reflex. If they don’t, they’ll put down independent. But they don’t engage in politics except when it’s very specifically affecting them in some way.”


Allison Sherry • 202-383-6120


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