The issue of nonferrous mining in northeastern Minnesota is a virtual minefield for politicians, especially those within Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer-Labor party, the political home to both pro-mining labor forces and anti-mining environmental forces. The DFL divide over mining is often played up to force political leaders into specific positions, or punish them if they don’t. And there’s no better example than this.
Sunday’s Mesabi Daily News features a front page story, top of the fold, banner headline, pointing out that DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto issued a fundraising appeal after she voted against new mining exploration leases in her role as a member of the state’s Executive Council a few weeks ago. Now, she did do that. I was one of many to get the fundraising e-mail. But the MDN story is built around the idea that this is somehow bad, or that the vote was done solely to raise money. Having been around a few fundraisers here on the Range, I can safely say that lots of money is raised on pro-mining votes as well. Votes are used in fundraising appeals all the time, by politicians of all stripes.
But the message from the devoutly pro-mining largest newspaper on the Iron Range is clear. Those who vote against mining (and the vote passed overwhelmingly by the way; the leases will be issued), have no right to that position, or to petition among people who agree. And statewide politicians have to fall in line with this thinking or be roughed up in Iron Range media — something decidedly inconvenient for DFL politicians hoping to preserve big margins here come November. Rep. Rick Nolan and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken are all coming out pro-mining for this very reason.
But the MDN editorial slant, which also reflects the attitudes found among some Range leaders, is a self-defeating strategy for the Iron Range, especially when anti-mining forces are currently losing the legislative battle. The coalition of moderates and liberals that generally win elections for both Range causes and DFL politicians is fragile. Republican control might loosen up mining regulations, but it will put the Range’s old DFL guard on the outside, looking in. Now, the Mesabi Daily News doesn’t care much about that. But the effect if the Range DFL is neutered is a more liberal DFL party, one that is more likely to legislate restrictions on mining than the one we’ve got now. Even if the Range became a swing region — 50/50 — state population trends would mean that in short order, the new DFL would gain power and pro-mining forces would find a more emboldened opposition. One more likely to reverse the Executive Council decision.
Is that worth the loyalty purges? The reality is most Minnesotans aren’t motivated by this issue alone. Pro-mining forces need to realize that the status quo — general support of mining from both parties — is as good as it can get for them. Disrupting the DFL coalition will only lead to deeper trenches, more immovable positions, and the possibility of pulled permits.
Have I mentioned, we’re still years away from permits? We are.