A DFL primary election in northeast Minnesota to succeed the late Rep. David Dill has become a fiercely contested proxy battle in the yearslong fight between environmentalists and labor unions and their business allies over copper-nickel mining such as that proposed by PolyMet and Twin Metals.

Primary voting is Tuesday. The general election, which also features a Republican and an independent, is in December. The district is Minnesota's largest by area, roughly the size of Rhode Island.

The election to replace Dill, who was a strong ally of copper-nickel mining, is a symbolic battle as state government decides the fate of the industry by way of the long and rigorous process of regulatory approval.

Bill Hansen, Tofte owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters and the race's sole opponent of the proposed new mines, is critical of copper sulfide mining for its environmental effects but also as an economic development tool, saying the industry will not be sustainable.

"Those aren't the kinds of jobs we want," he said. In a video posted on YouTube, he can be viewed at a campaign event scoffing at boom-and-bust economies like the oil industry in places like Williston, N.D., with their "man camps" of crime and prostitution.

That has run him afoul of organized labor, a powerful player in northeast Minnesota politics.

Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson issued a statement last week demanding Hansen apologize to construction workers.

Hansen said in an interview he is a strong supporter of labor and that his words have been distorted.

The managing editor of the Mesabi Daily News wrote a scathing editorial attacking Hansen for his portrayal of Williston and any parallel to the communities around the proposed PolyMet mine.

Hansen, who has successfully consolidated support of environmentalists and raised more than $32,000 for his campaign, hit back with a statement: "There's a lot of money at stake for some very powerful, multinational corporations that have a track record of playing dirty, whether it's in their treatment of workers or of those who might stand in their way."

Rob Ecklund, a Koochiching County commissioner with roots in the Iron Range labor movement, received a cash infusion of at least $10,000 during the past week or so, in $1,000 increments, including $4,000 from labor unions that favor the new mining projects. Influential Iron Range lobbyist Gary Cerkvenik has also contributed to the campaign.

Eric Johnson, who owns a dental supply manufacturer and a canoe outfitter, is another candidate. He ran as a Republican against Dill last year and lost by more than 2-to-1.

Heidi Omerza, past president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and a member of Ely City Council, is yet another DFL candidate.

"They're worried I'm going to win," Hansen said of the mines' advocates. "I may or may not. We'll find out [Tuesday]."

The Republican candidate in the December general election will be Roger Skraba, who once was a DFLer. Kelsey Johnson, a food manufacturing lobbyist, is running as an independent.

Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042