Notes from the Northern Swing

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Here’s your thought experiment for the day. Go watch some kind of live coverage of Congress. It doesn’t matter what they talk about, just look at them. Ancient partisans, middle aged careerists, twitchy young up-and-comers emit loud nothings into microphones then whispering crucial somethings out of earshot.

Watching Congress in action shows why an unshakeable and overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of their elected national government, currently shared by Republicans who run the House and Democrats who run the Senate. Actual policies are watered down before dying in committee. Arcane rules require impossible majorities to pass anything that historians would regard as important, if Congress had the will to do so, which it doesn’t. One party has come to use obstruction as a first line of defense, the other doing the same with triangulation.

After you’ve absorbed this sight, then view most any map showing Congressional seats that might actually change hands in the Nov. 4, 2014 election. You’ll see that few seats hold even a slight chance of an incumbent losing to a challenger.The vast majority of Americans disapprove of Congress and will nevertheless vote for their incumbent representative. Which party controls Congress rests solely on the outcome of a handful of swing district races.

Luckily, or unluckily it often seems, one such race is happening right here among the pine forests, sky-blue waters, red-tinted hills of ore and rustic industrial charm of Northern Minnesota. U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8) faces a tough challenge from Republican challenger Stewart Mills, conservative scion of a central Minnesota business family.

Nolan, for his part, unseated his predecessor former Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8) just two years ago, two years after Cravaack unseated the late transportation and labor titan Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN8), who had held the seat for Democrats for more than three decades.

National oddsmakers rank Nolan among the most endangered incumbents in the nation. Should Mills prevail, he will quickly assume that same designation. For the average voter, most of anything known about either man comes from TV ads or mailings paid for by people who don’t live in the Eighth District and couldn’t tell you much about it, except for the color it’s shaded on their political maps.

The TV ad-shaped images of Nolan and Mills attempt to spur righteous populist anger against each respective candidate, and warm familiarity for “the right guy.” In this, nothing new under the political sun. We see ads calling Mills out of touch for being heir to an established family name and prominent business, still others blaming Nolan for causing Washington’s problems (which is an impressive feat for a member of the House minority, where members are lucky to cause anyone to look up when they speak). We see Mills talking about his “deer camp doctrine” while Nolan shoots skeet in his ads.

In the press releases, headlines are sought and parsed. Candidates condemn each other for their actions, their supporters’ actions, and anything that vaguely resembles an unrehearsed utterance of the truth.

If this is how it is to be, we may as well vote now. Everyone, go down to the courthouse next week and vote. And be done. Maybe the noise will stop. But this is not how it has to be.

What is the future of Northern Minnesota? How will we fully educate and employ the Northern Minnesotans who can’t or won’t work in mining? They, after all, are the reason why there is a persistent gap between state and regional unemployment here. How will we prepare for the next downturn in mining? How are we generating new opportunities for a diverse, self-generating economy? The kind of economy found in the places our children want to move? How long will the United States be at war? Will the United States ever *not* be at war? What is victory? What is peace?

In these questions we find areas we should explore in the meaningful remainder of this campaign. It’s tempting (believe me) to stick your head in a hole to wait this one out. While the result of this election might not alter the bending arc of history; it can be a more meaningful expression of who we are. You need to do more than wear orange, waive around guns, and talk up mining to represent the wide spectrum of citizens in Northern Minnesota.

Change is happening, with or without politicians. It’d be nice if our candidates, media and, yes, even our electorate pressed for better answers than “preserving our way of life,” whatever that means to whomever says it. Life always finds a way. Is it good? Is it compassionate? Is it smart? Have we applied this litmus to our candidates? Perhaps if we demanded this instead of “nice optics,” our candidates and system would generate substance instead of subterfuge.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Wow…first commenter today!
    Nolan didnt do himself any favors when about the first thing out of his press machine was a complaint about what little of the people’s work congress actually does. We knew that. We were looking for someone with new ideas.

    While I do not count myself among “Stewie’s” friends, others I know are closer. Some will vote for him out of loyalty, some out of party loyalty, some give the impression they’d rather not discuss the issue, but none accuse Mills of having lots of new ideas to solve problems. I dont think forcibly dragging the nation back to 1955 (or 1055, like ISIS wants) cures anything, except maybe giving some another kick at the can.

    In the end, we have little choice, except perhaps to maintain party loyalty. I’m trying to decide whether to vote for Sandman out of spite, or refuse to vote out of apathy.

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