COLUMN: Iron Range political universe to change in 2012

This is my Sunday column for the June 3, 2012 Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Iron Range political universe to change in 2012
By Aaron J. Brown

When my father turned 30 I said, “Dad, you’re eligible to run for the Senate!” My goodness, I was 7. That’s the kind of kid I was. But dad, a mechanic laid off from Cummins Diesel, did not run for the Senate. Instead we moved out to Zim and he helped run the family junkyard. It made no sense to me why a person wouldn’t run for political offices when they were old enough: 21 for the legislature; 25 for Congress; 30 for the Senate; 35 for President.

I’m 32 now and I think I finally get it.

I come from a non-political family that has long lived in the middle of a very political place: northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. The region has always been an economic and political frontier, home to a mix of Teddy Roosevelt progressive Republicanism (with a streak of Eugene Debs socialism) 100 years ago, to the labor DFL bastion it became after WWII, to the oddity it is today.

So much of my life has been lived on an Iron Range that seems never to change, but that’s only an illusion. The change has been building for a long time and we’ll watch the results this year, 100 years after the days of Debs and Roosevelt. Some will point fingers at the redistricting process that changed many of the boundaries of state legislative races, but those changes were foretold by a demographic shift that has been occurring here since the economic catastrophe of the early 1980s.

First, in the race for Congress, voters will determine whether U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8) was a mere fluke after his upset win over longtime Congressman Jim Oberstar in 2010, turning over conventional wisdom that the district was safely DFL. Cravaack will face one of three DFLers running in an Aug. 14 primary – Rick Nolan, Tarryl Clark or Jeff Anderson, each of whom represent some different path for their party.

Perhaps the biggest local change occurred recently with the retirement of State Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Pike Township), who has represented the eastern Iron Range for 26 years, earning a robust reputation as a hard-nosed, happy warrior for the labor movement and his constituents. His seat, now called 6B, is open and three DFLers — labor organizer Jason Metsa, AEOA planning director Lorrie Janatopoulos and construction laborer Dave Meyer, and perhaps more — have announced a run for a Aug. 14 primary. Republican Jesse Colangelo has also filed.

Here in Hibbing, it’d be tempting to say little has changed in the legislative seats. State. Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) is up for re-election in the new district 6, as is freshman State. Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing) in the new 6A. Melin has drawn an opponent in Roger Weber, a Republican from north of Nashwauk, a retired miner and former airport employee.

Familiar faces, but a new dynamic. The Iron Range state senate seat was once wholly located on the central Iron Range has not only expanded down to the gates of Duluth, but also west into Itasca County. This reflects the fact that there will now be only one senator who represents a “majority Range” district from now on.

That has affected the district represented by Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township). The Keewatin native loses his hometown to the new sixth district, along with Nashwauk, Marble and even Effie. He joins freshman State Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick (R-Deer River) in a new district 5B that includes DFL cities like Bovey, Coleraine and Taconite, gains the DFL-leaning but swing city of Grand Rapids and the more conservative cities of western Itasca County. Included is a swath of new territory in Cass County. (Disclosure: Anzelc is a friend of mine and I help him on his campaigns).

State Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids) finds himself in the fifth district with State Sen. John Carlson (R-Bemidji). This might be the first time since the railroads arrived that Bemidji and Grand Rapids have been in the same district. Saxhaug has drawn an unexpected primary challenge from Laverne Pederson of Bemidji, though Pederson has filed without any announcement.

Meantime, to the north, State Sen. Tom Bakk finds himself in a District 3 that stretches from Koochiching County, through the Boundary waters to the North Shore and down into parts of Duluth, Hermantown and Proctor. One needs a truck, a canoe and a country club membership to entirely traverse this massive tract (which, confusingly, is shaped like the Number 7). State Rep. David Dill (DFL-Orr) has the same issue, only without the Hermantown/Proctor section which is similar to the district Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown) has long represented.

The issues are the same: less representation for more northern territory. New alliances and coalitions must be formed. What we do is more important that what was done before.

The filing period closes Tuesday, June 5, so more surprises could be in store. Regardless of voters’ choices this fall, change has already been forged. The people of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range must plan for a future in which our political traditions are steeped less in legend, and more in forethought.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on public stations like 91.7 KAXE. The next show airs Saturday, June 16 from Central Lakes College in Brainerd.


  1. Aaron…As you interview political candidates, ask them if they’ve talked to leaders from North Dakota, Wisconsin, Marvin Windows, 3M, Medtronic and Magnitation. Ask them if they’re truly pro-business, truly pro-jobs, truly pro-working “man”, truly economic growth for the Range..

    “A view from North Dakota: Minnesota can learn from North Dakota’s business model

    My move (from Duluth) to North Dakota and position at the state’s chamber of commerce has allowed me to better understand how and why North Dakota is capturing the nation’s attention with record economic growth and low unemployment rates.
    By: Andy Peterson, for the News Tribune

    Duluth is my hometown. Although I moved away for nearly 20 years, I returned and spent another 14 years living and working in Duluth. I served as director of public policy for the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, and it was a hard decision to leave. Friends, family and history drew me to stay; however, life changes and so do opportunities. Almost two years ago my wife and I moved to North Dakota and I now serve as president and CEO of the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce.

    My move to North Dakota and position at the state’s chamber has allowed me to better understand how and why North Dakota is capturing the nation’s attention with record economic growth and low unemployment rates. While the state’s energy industry garners worldwide attention and is a key contributor to North Dakota’s economic success, only 25 percent of the state’s tax revenue comes from the oil and gas industry. Agriculture remains strong, technology businesses are growing, tourism continues to thrive and North Dakota is a national leader in manufacturing growth.

    Our state leaders get it.

    In early 2012, the North Dakota Office of the Governor and the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce launched the 2020 & Beyond initiative, aimed at gathering input from the state’s business leaders, legislators and residents to map out a 20-year development plan for the state.

    North Dakota’s congressional delegation, governor, legislators and state officials are easily accessible and respond quickly to the concerns and needs of the business community. They work together more often than not to create a regulatory, tax and legal environment where businesses thrive.

    Business regulations are kept to a minimum, and regulators work to get businesses permits in a timely and uncomplicated fashion. Just one example is Marvin Windows and Doors, a Minnesota company that recognized the business-friendly regulatory and tax climate in North Dakota and opened plants in Fargo, West Fargo and Grafton. North Dakota is now home to nearly 1,000 Marvin employees.

    Higher education has become an economic driver for the state, not only educating future employees but also helping to advance industries. Initiatives like the Centers of Excellence, Work Keys, Succeed 2020 and Operation Intern all focus on building a strong work force to support the state’s growing industries.

    North Dakota residents and businesses are benefiting from more than $1 billion in cuts to personal, corporate and property taxes, the most in the state’s history, as a result of the cooperation of our legislators and business leaders. Every North Dakotan will pay nearly 20 percent less in state taxes in 2012 while at the same time the state will enjoy budget surpluses and healthy infrastructure investments.

    North Dakota’s economic success demonstrates the proven benefits of a friendly business climate. There’s no reason why the North Dakota model can’t be duplicated elsewhere. Therefore, now more than ever, the work of the Duluth and Minnesota chambers is essential. I encourage Minnesota businesses to join their efforts to create a more competitive business climate in Minnesota.

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