Since Gov. Mark Dayton came out in favor of a controversial proposal by PolyMet to mine copper, nickel and other precious metals in northeastern Minnesota, he and his allies have said that his support is guided by sound environmental and economic policy — not politics.

But Dayton's decision and its timing showed the shrewd political instincts, as well as the loyalty to the DFL Party, that have helped him win statewide office four times.

By giving his public support to PolyMet he offered an olive branch to the Iron Range, knowing that he could take the political hit from environmentalists since he's not running for re-election next year, and at the same time forge a temporary peace in the ongoing conflict.

"It diminishes PolyMet as an issue going forward. It's one less flash point. That's what a responsible steward of his party would do," said Joe Radinovich, a former DFL state legislator who was U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's 2016 campaign manager.

For some, it came too late. Dayton's DFL has taken heavy losses in legislative districts in greater Minnesota, as Republicans have successfully tied them to Twin Cities environmentalists and other progressives at the expense of economic development in struggling communities.

For years, Dayton stuck to scrupulously neutral talking points, saying repeatedly that he would rely on his administration's agencies to determine if PolyMet could operate the mine safely and in the state's interest.

But politics always lurked in the background, as factions within the DFL fought among themselves about the project while Republicans tried to leverage the conflict to peel away votes from northeastern Minnesota and other regions skeptical of Twin Cities' environmentalism.

The DFL factions hit a breaking point recently when Reid Carron, well-known environmentalist in Ely, made disparaging remarks about miners in a Sunday New York Times Magazine story. "They want somebody to just give them a job so they can all drink beer with their buddies and go four-wheeling and snowmobiling with their buddies, not have to think about anything except punching a clock," he said, before later apologizing.

In the same article, Tom Rukavina, a longtime DFL politician with close ties to the mining side, ridiculed the outdoors and canoeing industry that opposes the new mines. "I don't want to be anybody's Sherpa," he said.

It was yet another divisive incident in an ongoing battle between the DFL's environmentalists, many of them in the Twin Cities, and the mining and building trades unions that have been the guts of the Minnesota labor movement for more than century.

DFL elected officials were quick to denounce Carron's comments, hoping to bridge the divide as the party enters a 2018 election cycle that many view as "existential" — for the first time in nearly half a century, Republicans are nearing full control of state government.

Remembering the party

So Dayton stepped on the fire. Just eight days after publication of the explosive story in the Times, the governor announced in an interview that he favors the PolyMet project if it meets permitting requirements and financial assurances that would protect Minnesota taxpayers in the event of a fiscal or environmental catastrophe.

"He recalls being up there in 1978 when the party melted down and the miners got rid of Wendy Anderson," said Brian Rice, a longtime DFL lobbyist and operative who worked on Dayton's 2010 and 2014 campaigns. Rice was referring to the nasty fight over the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the 1978 DFL electoral bloodbath that ended the career of Anderson, a once-popular governor who had appointed himself to the U.S. Senate.

During a news conference last week, Dayton alluded to the political complexities that have confronted him on PolyMet.

"In one part of the state you have strong views because of the jobs and economic benefits it would provide," he said. "But ... you have a lot of Minnesotans who are going to say, yeah, I'd like to see 350 more jobs up in the Iron Range, but what is the effect going to be on Minnesota's environment and our tax exposure and the like?

"So I think anyone who doesn't take a reasoned and responsible position on either side of the question is going to suffer the consequences and be properly judged to be a poor leader."

Although the reaction from environmentalists was relatively muted, Dayton still faced withering criticism from some who felt betrayed. In a news release, the group Duluth for Clean Water asked: "Does the governor believe Duluth's drinking water is less valuable than drinking water elsewhere in the state?"

Radinovich said that Dayton built credibility by studiously avoiding definitive positions while leaning on the bureaucratic process. "It reassures people in the DFL ... when someone says they believe in the regulatory process, including someone with a strong environmental record like Dayton," he said. "He's refused to take a position for short-term political gain."

By approving PolyMet, Dayton also has more political maneuvering room to oppose a potential project that is even more alarming to his friends in the environmental movement — the possibility of Twin Metals mining for copper and nickel in land adjacent to the Boundary Waters.

Dayton is a political survivor who over four decades has experienced highs and lows. But he didn't wind up as a two-term governor by forgetting the importance of loyalty.

Politics, Rukavina said in an interview, "is remembering who brought you to the dance."

Dayton was a protégé of the late Gov. Rudy Perpich, a legendary Iron Range figure. The Range propelled Dayton to victory in his 2010 DFL primary against then-House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

"He would tell you he wouldn't be governor without voters on the Iron Range," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042