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