MN-GOP redistricting plan offers Iron Range a Trojan horse

As I’ve written before, one of the major cultural barriers we face on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range is the notion that political clout and tradition will “save” the region from an unfolding economic and demographic fate. Not doom, mind you, but a region with a smaller, older population, a greater divide between relative wealth and relative poverty and even less self-determinism than we have now. It is in this context that I consider the redistricting plan now advanced by Minnesota Republicans in control of the state House and Senate.

I still don’t know how much it’s worth fretting about the initial redistricting plan put forth by the GOP. The plan is only reality with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature. Lacking that. the courts would end up drawing the lines as they did 10 years ago. That said, the Republican plan is worth noting and something close to these lines could potentially be affirmed by the Supreme Court, which is significantly more conservative now than in 2002. So I will focus on what these lines mean for northeastern Minnesota and you can draw larger conclusions from there. The full report is here.

Under the guise of offering Iron Range DFL incumbents a chance to keep their seats, state Republicans have drawn lines that will greatly diminish the influence of the Iron Range in all but one House district and one Senate district.

These are the current seats self-identified by the Iron Range delegation:

Current Representative and District: Tom Rukavina (DFL) – District 5A
This House district is currently enjoys the most “pure” (as Rukavina would say) Iron Range precincts and mining activity. It includes the Quad Cities of Virginia, Mt. Iron, Eveleth and Gilbert, east Range towns like Biwabik, Aurora and Hoyt Lakes and surrounding townships.

In the new GOP-drawn district Rukavina is placed in the new 4B, which includes his home in Pike Township outside his hometown of Virginia, but not Virginia. It does not include Mt. Iron or Eveleth. Smaller east Range towns remain, but in place of the big towns Rukavina’s district now includes several eastern Duluth precincts and the “exurban” townships north of Duluth. Duluth city precincts and Range towns have not shared a House district since the first roads were cut. Rukavina is not known for saying warm, fuzzy things about Duluth.

Current Representative and District: David Dill (DFL) 6A
This House district includes the Vermilion Range towns of Ely and Tower, much of northern St. Louis county and the north shore counties of Lake and Cook.

In the new GOP-drawn District 4A Dill keeps Lake and Cook counties, much of northern St. Louis and gains a little jaunt down to Virginia. Dill, a more conservative DFLer, will enjoy a safe seat. However after his eventual retirement this could be a somewhat competitive district that happens to include the strong DFL city of Virginia.

Current Senator and District: Tom Bakk (DFL) — District 6
This Senate district is half Range, half Duluth. Rep. Mary Murphy’s Hermantown and Proctor district is the other half, so Bakk is used to representing both Range and Duluth issues.

The new GOP-drawn District 4 is actually fairly similar for Bakk. He gains Virginia. Safe seat for him.

New District 4: Rukavina, Dill and Bakk favored to win, with new difficulties. District is mostly the same though there are some unnatural breaks for the House districts.

Current Representative and District: Tom Anzelc (DFL) — District 3A
(Major disclaimer: Tom is a friend and I run his campaigns). Since I moved out to the woods of Itasca County I’ve learned a lot about this large, unusual district. It includes the western Mesabi Range towns from Bovey to Keewatin, the northern woods townships of Itasca County, and all of Koochiching and Lake of the Woods counties up along the border. DFL index runs in the mid- to high-50s, mostly because of the Range towns and International Falls.

The GOP-drawn district is the same, except in order to make up for the population shortage some northern Beltrami County precincts, including Lower Red Lake, a tiny sliver of Clearwater and a tiny part of St. Louis County (Nett Lake) are drawn in. This makes for a much larger district but one that is more or less the same in terms of competitiveness. It’s been gently listing more conservative as Range towns shrink, but this district was remarkably left alone. The new Beltrami and Clearwater precincts offer challenges, but mostly in drive time.

Current Representative and District: Carly Melin (DFL) — District 5B
Right now this is Hibbing, Chisholm, Range townships, Floodwood and Duluth exurbs. The new GOP-drawn district, now called 3B, is probably the safest, most Iron Range-y of all the proposed House districts. It adds Mt. Iron, Eveleth and other parts of Rukavina’s district, shedding the more conservative southern townships near Duluth.

Current Senator and District: David Tomassoni (DFL) — District 5
Tomassoni currently enjoys the safest Iron Range DFL district. You couldn’t draw a more Iron Range focused district than the one he has now. The new GOP-drawn District 3 would be half comprised of this Range district, but he has never represented the western half which includes significant amounts of non-Range territory and borderland.

New District 3: Anzelc, Melin and Tomassoni. Anzelc and Melin would be favored to hold districts similar to their current environs. Tomassoni is also favored but would have to work very hard in new territory.

Current Representative and District: Carolyn McElfatrick (R) — District 3B
McElfatrick picked off her western Itasca and Aitikin County seat from the DFL in 2010. Anchored by Grand Rapids, the current 3B is the most competitive district in the Range sphere of influence. The new GOP-drawn District 6A would be similarly competitive, though it adds a couple of right-leaning Itasca Co. townships, ceding some of Aitkin Co. and picking up DFL-leaning Coleraine, the western-most Mesabi Range city.

Current Senator and District: Tom Saxhaug (DFL) — District 3
Saxhaug’s current district includes Lake of the Woods, Koochiching, Itasca and Aitkin counties. It’s a huge district, DFL-leaning, with Saxhaug outperforming the index mostly on account of weak opponents. His new GOP-drawn District 6 would be dramatically different. He’d lose all of 3A and gain new, much more conservative territory to the south.

New District 6: Very competitive. McElfatrick in a toss-up, Saxhaug potentially in trouble.

Random notes:

  • I didn’t talk about Duluth (new District 8) or what could happen in the new District 6B. I have to learn some new counties.
  • This plan missed some obvious Range-area continuity issues. The Quad Cities, now in one district, are divvied up into three House districts. That’s a huge disservice. Similarly, Bovey and Coleraine are split up.

Ultimately, spending this much time breaking down the districts for this initial plan was probably a bad idea. I doubt the DFL will sign on to this plan. However, the Republican strategy seems to be to offer Range lawmakers a chance to compete for re-election without being paired together. The long term price to pay is the cost of these somewhat unusual, less Range-centric districts that could quickly become competitive under the right circumstances. Range pols will have to choose between these Trojan horse districts or a more logical plan that would cost some of them their seats right away.

I’m not saying the Republicans necessarily did anything out of line. In this redistricting business it seems you have to choose between drawing lines dedicated to population balance and defending potential legal challenges or “perfect world” districts that might pit three incumbents against each other. Republicans chose the former but would be criticized either way. Is redistricting political? Yes, it is.

Range voters should certainly get involved in this discussion. Review the maps and chime in with the public comments. Our state legislative districts are important. But don’t forget the more important fact: You are more important.


  1. The plan would reunite more of the Cuyuna Range in 12A. Right now a portion of it is in 12B which extends all the way down to Little Falls in Morrison County.

  2. The future success (economic and otherwise) of the Iron Range or the whole state does not depend on where the lines are drawn for the districts.


  3. Very true, C.O. That’s kind of why I’d rather see some logical compact, contiguous districts and let the incumbents sort out the mess afterward. As Henry Blake said “There is poison in the standing water.”

  4. So, Aaron, nothing yet about Cravaack’s co-sponsoring a bill,if passed, that could possibly result in closing the Hibbing airport? He is a real peach.

  5. I saw something on that. I haven’t gotten into the day-to-day Cravaack policy position commentary, just as I’ve largely held back on timely legislative coverage. I try to hold a view of the big picture. I have a certain amount of time each day and it’s too easy to let other things slip if I go down that road. This post here was already a deeply imprudent use of time. But yes, that is a real thing, something to watch.

  6. I would not call the new 6A a toss-up. Removing southern parts of Aitkin County and adding in some of the Greenway School District will only help the next DFL candidate, especially in a presidential year where turnout is better. And, by having Coleraine in the new district, it would legitimize it as more of a Range district. Thanks GOP!

  7. If I lived in district 5A I’d hope for a redistricting!!!! Those poor folks who live there have been hit so hard the past 15-20 years any change would be better. If 5A is a “pure” district give me impure please.

    I love when the GOP makes redistricting an issue it’s a problem and when the DFL does it’s called balancing the districts. I guess it truly does depend on which side of the fence your on.

  8. @KE, when I say “pure” I mean quite literally cities on the iron formation. The Iron Range’s history and culture is centered in these cities. As you go out into the townships, up into Lake Vermilion, Cook or Grand Rapids, other factors create a slightly different culture. I’m not putting a value on this reality; merely pointing out its existence. Breaking up the quad cities isn’t good for the quad cities.
    @Joe, I think it stays competitive with a GOP incumbent. They’ll invest in her. You’re right that those changes would help the DFL challenger.

    Anyway, these won’t be the maps. Merely an opening of the discussion.

  9. Definitely an opening of the discussion with more maps and politics to come. Thanks for putting some time into this topic. The “mainstream” local media should be doing more with it.

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