Starting a new conversation about MN-8 and mining politics

Tracks leading to the crushing plant at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park.

Tracks leading to the crushing plant at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park.

I filed a post at my Up North blog at the Star Tribune this morning that you may wish to check out. The theme is contrasting the widely-circulated “narrative” about northern Minnesota mining politics (that mining will dictate the outcome of the Nolan/Mills race, or shape the outcome of statewide races) with what I see as practical reality:

The Iron Range lacks economic diversity. There are fewer professional jobs for spouses. The downtowns struggle because Range towns have been detached from mining activity for half a century. Miners can live in the country and shop online; and many do. I teach at a Range community and technical college. Only two or three of my students in any given section have parents who work in the mine, though many have grandparents who did. My students are gas station clerks, certified nursing assistants and Wal-Mart stockers. That’s because those are the kinds of jobs that most Rangers have now.

In the study of physics, scientists talk about matter and “anti-matter” and “dark energy,” unknown forces that represents what we don’t know about how the universe works. In MN-8, we have mining and something else: an unknown force that represents the real demographic and attitudinal shifts that began when Butler Taconite closed in 1983 and has continued until this day.

Read the full post at and join in the conversation.


  1. Sorting out narratives versus reality and truth usually involves evidence and facts. You have laid out your own version of a narrative here– one that directly conflicts with simple facts (particularly elections results) , polling by the very paper that published your post, and the experience of the people who live closest to this issue. It is offensive to see this presented, “reported” as “reality” by someone who presents himself as the voice of NE MN to a statewide audience. Do your research before you speak for thousands.

    • Sure, one guy’s reality might be another guy’s imagination. I get that. I did base my assertions at least on what I thought were credible estimates. For instance, when I saw a few hundred to a few thousand, I’m referring to DFL voters who would change their votes in this election over the issue of mining. I think there is strong support for mining on the Iron Range proper (less so as you get away from Range towns) but that only changes votes in situations where mining is the only issue of distinction between candidates. In a general election, I’m looking at Ely’s midterm take of 1600 votes total, with less each in Hoyt Lakes, Biwabik and Aurora. These are volatile areas, to be sure, and we can imagine hundreds of votes switching IF people decide that a pro-mining congressman isn’t pro-mining enough at the expense of other DFL issues that those same voters had previously supported. But a whole scale abandonment of the DFL in this area and the areas in the central and western Mesabi would require more than just nuances like whether or not they’ve condemned environmentalists to the hellfires of Hades or merely suggested that mining is hunky dory.

      I point out in the story, and will elaborate here, that Nolan’s bigger problem might be liberals and environmentalists staying home or not voting for him. He might lose just as many votes in this manner, and if it cost him the election people could easily confuse that for Mills (or McFadden or whoever) nabbing mining votes.

      I’ve not seen good polling of the 8th District, certainly not by region. No one exit polls. No one really seems to understand this district in a quantifiable way. So I do use some barstool estimation and qualitative tea leaf reading in these pieces, but only with great sincerity and a basis in something I can prove (The share of Range votes, the loss of population and aging demographics).

      I might not live in Ely or Hoyt Lakes, but I know those areas very well. I’ve lived in Eveleth, Hibbing, Zim and near Nashwauk and Grand Rapids. I was working at the Job Training Office in Virginia the day after LTV announced it was closing. I feel what’s going on. I get it. And I’m not dismissing people’s ability to vote how they want and that those votes will matter. I am trying to suggest that this notion that the 8th District is jerked by the horns by the Iron Range alone is statistically false. We’ve got a Brainerd area congressman and we’ll have a Brainerd area congressman next year no matter what. It might be a good long time before we get a Range member of Congress again. This is a reality of demographics. I may have dressed this fact up with my literary trimmings, but it *is* reality. Again, if my assumptions are wrong, I’d love to read contrary assertions. It’d be good for me to see, to help me better understand.

  2. What are you referring to? My piece is a commentary, and as such is clearly labeled as opinion. Is there a factual error or do you merely disagree?

  3. I disagree with the presentation of “narrative” versus “reality,” opinion piece or not. With no evidence, no backing conversation, yours is no more a Truth than any other narrative and it is narrowly informed, perhaps wrong. I mainly take issue with this framework, and with the tone that minimizes the voices of the people for whom this so-called false narrative is both real and the result of work and organizing to bring it to the forefront of political conversation.

    However, if the framework is a conversation of perception/facts, then, yes, the statements can be evaluated on a factual basis and I would take issue with some of your “facts.” Your citation if hundreds, maybe thousands of votes at stake in this issue is, arguably wrong– though I do not have accurate, properly broken-down polling to do anything more than a political science hackjob, so I will not say Wrong. For the sale if one example, though, hust the towns of Aurora and Hoyt Lakes make up the high side of that number, and a quick glance through elections results and a longer conversation with residents of these communities, for whom this is no distant, generationally-removed issue, but a bitter present reality, would demonstrate both its importance and the reality of why mining continues to be an issue that dominates political speech and, yes, influence elections.

    Your statement in your closing is one we can all agree on, that there are other issues and other influences that also deserve attention, but to ignore the importance of this one being in the limelight does a disservice to so many people and communities.

  4. Holy spelling errors… I am on my phone, I hope that those are decipherable, sorry!

  5. Gerald S. says


    Let me congratulate you on a very thoughtful and useful piece — as usual, I might add.

    My Dad used to say that people who try to walk down the middle of the road often are hit by trucks going both ways. I am certain that there would be people on the environmental side of the non-ferrous mining issue who are as upset about your comments as A.M.

    Nonetheless, you make two very important and clearly correct points. First, the future of the Range rests not in its ability to open one more — or 20 more — mining projects, but rather on developing an educated and trained workforce that is capable of staffing projects that do arrive in the area and of luring employers from elsewhere looking for quality workers who can add value and consequently command good pay. Second, the non-ferrous mining issue is going to end up being fought out in the courts, a fact that the powers on both sides understand. What the outcome of that litigation turns out to be is not as clear, including, as you note, potential impact on keeping or waiving existing regulations, monitoring and enforcing those regulations, and on whether the companies or the taxpayers will be responsible for any unforeseen damages.

    Well done. Keep up the excellent work.

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