Iron Range DFL legislative primary pits Lislegard against Hainey

With so many races in the 2018 Minnesota primary, I’ve not spent much time analyzing the only legislative primary on the Mesabi Iron Range. It’s an interesting contest that will test some of my earlier theories about Iron Range politics in a new more volatile electoral environment.

Shaun Hainey

DFLers in House District 6B head to the polls next Tuesday to choose between DFL endorsed county worker Shaun Hainey and Aurora Mayor David Lislegard, a construction manager. The winner faces Republican Skeeter Tomczak in the Nov. 6 general election.

This seat opened when State Rep. Jason Metsa (DFL-Virginia) announced his campaign for Congress in the 8th District. Metsa will be on the ballot next Tuesday as well, which guarantees plenty of attention by 6B voters.

Hainey works in the St. Louis County assessors office and runs a family hobby farm in Pike Township. When Metsa left the race last spring, Hainey was the only candidate to seek the DFL endorsement. Metsa even introduced him at the local convention.

Soon after, Lislegard entered the race. Lislegard is the labor liaison for a large local construction company and was recently elected mayor of Aurora after a longer stint as a city councilor. Aurora is one of the cities closest to the former LTV mine site where developers have proposed the PolyMet mine. This timing was no doubt planned, because many prominent Iron Range political leaders quickly fell in line with Lislegard.

News coverage of the race shaped differently than previous races. The Mesabi Daily News breathlessly reported every union or public official endorsement in the campaign. As a result, Lislegard’s endorsement advantage turned into 13 front page stories about his campaign. Hainey netted just four such articles. Most recently, the paper has touted Lislegard’s fundraising advantages over Hainey, another thing that the local paper didn’t always pay close attention to until recently.

Dave Lislegard

In this regard, it’s clear that the Iron Range political establishment has gone all in on Lislegard. This group is nominally affiliated with the local DFL, but is much more driven by the political aims of mining companies and developers.

Both Hainey and Lislegard support mining and PolyMet specifically. Thus, this comes down to what I’ve observed before. In the heart of the Iron Range, supporting mining is not enough for the current political class. It’s about loyalty to a mining-first philosophy. Lislegard, a regular on the PolyMet hearing testimony circuit, represents a safe and strident mining voice. Hainey, despite supporting mining, talks about it as part of a broader strategy that includes economic diversification and education.

That might not be fair to Lislegard. He talks about education and economic diversification, too, especially when asked. Perhaps he stands on his own two feet and just happens to be a big supporter of mining who has benefitted from a number of earnest endorsements.

Metsa, for his part, isn’t taking sides.

“I think we have two great candidates for election,” Metsa told me this week. “Winning in this district involves a lot of door knocking and talking to people, and both these guys have shown an ability to do that.”

The Iron Range political theory I’ve published suggests what will happen here. Generally, there are three pillars of Range DFL politics in the taconite era. The first is labor. The second is progressives. The third is any sort of unified effort by local opinion leaders, such as city officials and the consultant class that often bundles money. If two of these groups unify and support one candidate, that candidate generally prevails.

In this case, labor and opinion leaders have lined up behind Lislegard. The progressives seem to support Hainey. Advantage Lislegard.

What’s different since I wrote my original theory is the fact that it was based on an Iron Range that was 75 percent DFL. It’s arguably only 55-60 percent DFL now. Many loose DFL Range voters walked across a bridge of anti-environmentalist resentment to the GOP. A bridge, I might add, that was built by establishment Democrats.

So, either the old theory holds and Lislegard wins or Hainey helps write a new chapter in the book.


  1. I think the MDN’s defense, our new focus on local since the 2016 election has shifted more of our attention on a race that more directly impacts our readers (and even more so than the last DFL primary for this seat in 2012). That focus has been made clear, so I think naturally things like fundraising and endorsements will get covered like the larger campaigns. CD8 candidates could probably say the same about Metsa in our pages (we covered his endorsements heavy until this race kicked into gear), but our endorsement process for all races have or will interview every candidate. For the story disparity, that rests with the campaigns. Everything Hainey’s camp brought to us was covered.

    Not that I’m being sensitive here: just offering a window into our operations.

    • That’s fair, Jerry. I didn’t want to pick on the paper too much. I think the timing of the news releases was more the factor — the coordinated drip-drip of endorsements by connected organizations. It is true, though, that such endorsements have been handled differently in recent years. Perhaps everything is just becoming more sophisticated.

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