The drumbeat of news from the Iron Range about divisive plans to mine sulfide ores — and, more recently, a palace coup that toppled Ranger strongman Tom Bakk as the DFL’s Senate leader — is punching holes in the party’s once-deep reservoir of support.
The event du jour that’s unraveling the party is nonferrous mining, pitting urban DFLers against job-touting Rangers who see copper-nickel extraction as existential. But in reality, the divide has been apparent for years over issues like dumping taconite waste into Lake Superior, hunting wolves, wilderness designation and gun control.
Regardless, it’s a political transformation that few now living ever expected from rugged, hard-rock union miners, who grew up as unswerving Democrats.
And the DFL appears hard-pressed to stem a slide as unyielding as ancient glaciers that scoured bare the great iron seams that, once discovered, attracted droves of destitute immigrants seeking better lives in the dangerous mines. The eclectic mix from the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Finland worked hours in perilous conditions to help make America an industrial power. In the process, they fashioned a tight-knit culture along with blended ethnic food and lively celebrations.
Led by activist Finns, Rangers fought bitterly in the early 1900s against absentee mine owners to form unions that won lasting pay and living improvements. Unions were a natural for the DFL, with “Labor” in its name.
The demotion of Bakk, of Cook, shows how serious the party’s morass has become. After hours of wrangling on Saturday, Bakk was replaced as Senate minority leader by Susan Kent of Woodbury.
Rangers have long held sway in DFL politics. Those who displeased Rangers paid a price, like U.S. Rep. Don Fraser, who faced a Range-led rebellion in 1978, ending his quest for the U.S. Senate. Fraser favored wilderness for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, something Rangers considered a “resource lockup” by meddling urbanites.
In the 1970s, Rangers pushed then-Gov. Wendell Anderson to fire his energetic environmental director, Grant Merritt, who effectively challenged the dumping of taconite tailings into Lake Superior at Silver Bay. In 2015, Rangers gathered in a late-night huddle at the Legislature to trim the power of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and state auditor as a blunt-force warning to any who oppose copper-nickel mining.
Ranger legislators have regularly met evenings during sessions to plan how to deal with bills they didn’t like, seldom losing. But a series of election setbacks has deflated both their number and power leverage.
Rangers are intensely territorial, pro-union and socially conservative. They are suspicious of anyone in the Twin Cities metro area (often Duluth, even); they love hockey; they fish and hunt in “their” outdoors; and they are all about jobs in a bedeviling boom-bust mining economy.
Within the DFL there’s divide over hunting wolves, permitting the first sulfide ore mine near Babbitt and gun control. The GOP has openly sought to capitalize by expressing dislike for wolf-protection rules, and more recently by staging a legislative hearing on guns in Hibbing to showcase a hands-off approach favored by Rangers.
Also, the GOP supports copper-nickel mining, an issue that’s splitting the DFL. Some, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, pledge neutrality while quietly working on ways to support mining. Urban DFLers mostly oppose mining and its by-product, environmentally deadly acids. Understandably, DFL Gov. Tim Walz worries how the issue affects his One Minnesota theme (hint: It’s not good).
In 2016, Rangers displayed their growing angst with the DFL by voting in droves for President Donald Trump, who went to Duluth in 2018 to support Republican Pete Stauber’s successful bid for a congressional seat once owned by the DFL.
While stumping for Stauber, Trump praised steel tariffs that, he bragged, would stimulate miner jobs. While tariffs actually made domestic production worse, Rangers liked what they heard from Trump, including his anti-regulation bent and other actions they see as clearing pathways for mining.
If, as is likely, Stauber wins re-election in November and if Trump expands his support, the DFL’s remarkable and historic slide would gain momentum in a land once the truest hue of blue.
Ron Way lives in Edina. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.