Old fashioned newspaper fight in 3A special

3A DFL candidates 2015

We reported yesterday on the rising tumult in the race for next Tuesday’s DFL primary in the House 3A special election. Earlier this week the Iron Range’s largest newspaper attacked candidate Bill Hansen on some rather overdramatic accusations that he was speaking against unions in his criticism of copper-nickel mining rhetoric and boom-chasing economics. The next day, establishment Iron Range forces seemed to rally to Hansen’s opponent, labor favorite Rob Ecklund.

Today, Bill Hanna’s Mesabi Daily News is continuing the drumbeat, addressing Hansen’s rebuttal (without really sharing it with readers). Here’s what Hansen said in his response to the first story:

I would urge the voters of 3A to take a look at the track record of the company who would ultimately be calling the shots if the NorthMet mine were to go forward. I’m talking about Glencore, a company with an international reputation as a ruthless violator of workers rights and the environment. But don’t take my word for it. Just ask the Steelworker’s union. Earlier this summer, the national union highlighted what they called Glencore’s “history of broken promises and abuse of workers and communities across the globe.” As the Steelworkers noted, Glencore stands accused of anti-union campaigns against mine workers in South Africa, Colombia, Peru, Australia and elsewhere. If you think this company will be a friend to labor, think again.

The Iron Range Building Trades may have a project labor agreement with PolyMet, but I have doubts that this agreement will ever be honored. If the NorthMet mine goes forward, it will be Glencore that’s in charge and, given their track record, why would anyone believe they’ll live up to any kind of labor agreement signed by a junior partner before they arrived on the scene?

Hanna’s story this morning is based on an email from PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry, who says quite emphatically that PolyMet will honor the project labor agreement with Iron Range building trades. Sounds like a real solid comeback until you read this section near the end:

But Cherry said PolyMet is not tied solely to Glencore.

“We take pride in being an investor-owned company with a diversity of shareholders both large and small, all of whom have a stake in the project being built in an environmentally responsible manner,” Cherry said in his email to the MDN.
The CEO pointed out the Minnesota nature of the project.

“These investment dollars are almost entirely spent in Minnesota to the benefit of Minnesotans. Day-to-day project oversight and management is not performed by investors, but by PolyMet’s Minnesota team,” Cherry said.

That’s high-order poppycock. Sure, day-to-day operations are handled by the people on the ground. Same as with any mine, or Wal-Mart, or Holiday Station Store. But if and when this thing actually happens for real, it will be because some company, probably Glencore, put $1 billion into the project. Who do you think calls the shots in that equation? The well-meaning local developers or the people with $1 billion? Ask the Merritt Brothers how that one turns out.

Hansen is right to focus on Glencore, as should everyone on the Range. We have come to know PolyMet as these kindly people who attend all the local meetings. They seem smart and mean well. And if these people were the ones bringing $1 billion to the ballgame I’d be pretty confident in the labor agreements. But they aren’t. They never were. And chances are they won’t even be around when Glencore pulls the trigger, an event that might take many more years even if the permits come down in 2016. That’s just how these deals work.

THAT is what Hansen is talking about. Don’t get me wrong, Hansen mucked this up big time with how he fed his opponents juicy lines without proper context. Sure, he might lose because of this, and if he wins Hanna will use it every day in every story until the general election is over. But the attack is thin. The most important part of the story is the degree to which mining supporters seem outright panicked about Hansen’s candidacy.

I have concluded that this is really about power and who has a seat at the table when the spoils of a resource-extraction economy are divvied up. Of course, every Iron Range election for 100 years has been just that. We only seem intermittently aware of the fact.

Fittingly, since so much of our early 21st Century Iron Range seems reminiscent of our early 20th Century Iron Range, we have a righteous rebuttal from a rival newspaper. Marshall Helmberger’s Tower Timberjay ran an editorial in this week’s edition that includes these sentiments:

We expect that an occasional unfair attack might be directed at one candidate or another by a political action committee or union backing a rival. That comes with the territory.

But when the unfair attacks start with a newspaper editor, that’s a different story. Newspapers have an obligation to inform their readers, not inflame them with distortions and demagoguery.

Unfortunately, the recent smear campaign by Bill Hanna, executive editor of the Mesabi Daily News, against Bill Hansen, was as predictable as it was unprincipled, and it reflects a pattern with Hanna of falsely impugning anyone who raises questions about copper-nickel mining. …

… This manufactured issue bears no relationship to reality. Hansen has been staunchly pro-labor his entire life, as have other candidates seeking the DFL nod on Tuesday.

To his credit, most of Helmberger’s paper this week was dedicated to fair coverage of all four candidates, including responses in their own words, an informative blow-by-blow of a recent candidate forum, a look at campaign donations, and information on how to vote.

Let’s hope the Mesabi Daily News provides their readers the same kind of balanced coverage in days to come.


  1. In a district as blue as 3A, the most important thing is to elect the boldest, strongest progressive as possible. The state has an imbalance of districts that lean red due to the effective gerrymandering resulting from urban clustering, so DFLers would be shooting themselves in the foot if they elect a centrist in 3A.

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