It was just a primary to replace the late Rep. David Dill, but it felt like more than that.
Last week’s DFL primary, in which Koochiching County Commissioner Rob Ecklund beat three foes, seemed to carry extra weight as northeast Minnesota grapples with the latest mining downturn, said Aaron Brown, who hosts a radio show and blogs about northern Minnesota at Minnesotabrown.com.
“With steady population loss, loss of political clout and now this mining downturn, there’s a sense that it’s all closing in,” he said.
As a result, elections can take on more significance: “These elections become public statements of hope, of fear, of anger, of trepidation,” Brown said. “All the ills of whatever we have wrong in northern Minnesota get piled into these legislative races.”
At the center of the existential angst: mining. The DFL primary became a proxy fight over controversial copper-nickel mining projects currently wending their way through the regulatory process.
Bill Hansen, who opposes the projects, seemed poised to strike a blow for environmentalists against the mining proposals, which they say would foul sensitive watersheds. A Hansen victory would have signaled to Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration that the people of the region are skeptical.
Instead, organized labor, which supports the projects, stepped up big for Ecklund late in the game with money and boots on the ground and pushed him over the top by more than 6 percentage points.
“In the last week of the primary you heard this primal yell from deep within the Iron Range psyche,” said Brown.
Ecklund didn’t put it exactly that way, but he said the race was a statement about the primacy of traditional industries of mining and timber in northeastern Minnesota’s future.
“I think we’re saying we need to concentrate more on industry and higher wage jobs, versus tourism. Though that’s also vital, it’s seasonal,” said Ecklund.
Ecklund, who now will face independent Kelsey Johnson and Republican Roger Skraba in the December general election, said the results also affirmed the continued importance of organized labor.
But while the northeastern Minnesota DFL establishment prevailed, Brown said hints of a new conversation about the region are evident.
Johnson, who has been a food industry lobbyist at the Capitol for six years, didn’t cite mining in an interview, mentioning instead help for small businesses and young families who want to stay in the region. (Skraba did not return a call.)
And, Ecklund offered up two areas of potential diversification: “I spent a lot of time talking to voters about technology and transportation,” he said, calling on the state to build infrastructure and expand rural broadband service.
Even as Ecklund was supported by traditional industry and unions and will no doubt return the favor in St. Paul, he seemed to suggest the region must change: “I truly believe technology’s the new economy for northern Minnesota.”