Range paper lashes at 3A candidate; Hansen strikes back

Bill Hansen

Bill Hansen

The most interesting dynamic in the House 3A special election DFL primary is the competition between a nonferrous mining skeptic in Tofte businessman Bill Hansen and three candidates who generally support copper-nickel mine proposals in the district. Most campaigns in Northeastern Minnesota have been a knock-down drag-out battle to see who supports mining MORE. Now mining opponents, skeptics, supporters and devotees all have an outlet for their very strong opinions.

Sure, there are other issues, but most of the energy expended in arguing about this race will be on the topic of mining and economic diversification. Thus, the question is really “Will Hansen win the DFL primary, or someone else?” (And if someone else, will it be Koochiching County Commissioner and labor favorite Rob Ecklund, Ely City Councilor and Greater MN Cities past-president Heidi Omerza, or International Falls businessman and former GOP nominee Eric Johnson?)

About the most predictable thing about this race was the fact that Hansen would be blasted by the Mesabi Daily News. Though he waited a whole week, editor Bill Hanna obliged with a two-day drumbeat of editorializing and front-page content hitting Hansen on a set of recent comments.

First, from an editorial last Sunday:

House 3A special election DFL candidate Bill Hansen has submarined his campaign to a new low level by degrading the proud men and women of the building trades.

The Tofte preservationist said in a recent public forum that the proposed PolyMet copper/nickel/precious metals project near Hoyt Lakes will bring “crime,” “prostitution,” and “gambling” because of worker “man camps,” that will basically destroy the community fabric of the Iron Range.

A state official with the Local 49 Operating Engineers put those incredibly offensive comments in clear and proper perspective in today’s front page story on the issue when she said: “He degraded working men and women.”

We couldn’t agree more. …

But to go after the men and women who do so much to make this country great and carry on the legacy of those who came before them to build the very foundation of our exceptional way of life with their labor and skills is just plain reprehensible.

What a smug, arrogant and terribly disgusting viewpoint from someone who benefits each and every day from the efforts, sweat and toil of people of the trades.

And, yes, someone who also enjoys a good modern life in great part because of products made possible because of the minerals PolyMet will mine on the Iron Range.

Note that word “preservationist,” — a dog-whistle word used locally against environmentalists — which Hanna also uses in a front page story about the comments:

An Iron Range trades union official said Monday that Bill Hansen, House 3A DFL candidate in the Sept. 29 special primary election, “has degraded our members for his own personal and political gains.”

Mike Syversrud, president of the Iron Range Building and Construction Trades Council, was referring to a Mesabi Daily News Sunday story and a video posted on Hansen’s campaign website that alleges the PolyMet copper/nickel/precious metals would bring crime to the area because of an influx of construction workers.

Syversrud, in a news release, quotes directly from the video in Hansen’s own words.

“Mr. Hansen said: ‘We need the jobs. Jobs are important. But those aren’t the jobs we want. In this modern age, these projects are going to be man camps … that clear out the community, create a lot of crime, prostitution, gambling. All kinds of community problems and tend to drive out other sustainable jobs.’”

Syversrud said Hansen’s remarks were “shocking” to labor.

Today, Hansen struck back with this statement:

I knew going into this race that my willingness to question the wisdom of copper-nickel mining would make me the target of those who want to bring this dangerous form of mining to District 3A.

There’s a lot of money at stake for some very powerful, multinational corporations that have a track record of playing dirty, whether it’s in their treatment of workers or of those who might stand in their way. These companies and their backers in the media think nothing of distorting my comments for their own purposes. Anyone who listens to the full video clip (available at www.hansenforhouse3a.org) that’s been the subject of recent attacks against me, will quickly see I was referring to comments by Frank Ongaro, a vocal PolyMet advocate, who says copper-nickel could become northeastern Minnesota’s “North Dakota.”

From my experience, such a prospect makes most people in District 3A cringe. The well documented social problems associated with the oil boom in North Dakota are a cautionary tale to many of us in District 3A, particularly now that the oil boom has gone bust. If people want our region to be the next North Dakota, they shouldn’t vote for me, because I’ll be working hard to create a diversified and entrepreneurial economy with real staying power.

Let me be absolutely clear on my position. I am a strong supporter of both unions and ferrous mining, and I have repeatedly said that our current mining industry provides sustainable, good paying, union jobs. I will work hard to bring new value-added opportunities to expand employment in the iron mining sector.

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?

That’s one more reason that I am deeply skeptical of the proposed NorthMet sulfide mining project.  This is a different and dangerous form of mining that has routinely left poisoned water, shortchanged workers, and devastated communities in its wake.

Even proponents who say it can be done safely admit it will take 500 years of water treatment once the mines close in order to mitigate the damage to our environment. Does anyone actually believe that Glencore will live up to a 500-year promise? If you don’t, then join me in taking a much more critical look at this dangerous and destructive proposal. Join me in building an economy for our region that respects our workers, our communities, and our environment.

Mining backers would love a fight that doesn’t talk about the vital need for Iron Range economic diversification or the economic realities of the global commodities markets. What Hanna is giving them is a fight about whether its OK to insult good, clean, salt-of-the-earth working men and women. Time will tell whether Hansen successfully navigates that particularly disadvantageous headwind.

This is only the opening salvo of what I expect will be a rough-and-tumble campaign sprint to the Sept. 29 primary and Dec. 8 general election, where Republican (and former DFL and Independence Party candidate) Roger Skraba and independent Kelsey Johnson await the DFL nominee.


  1. Staci Drouillard says

    At the root of all this, is the old DFL guard trying to muzzle the progressives from the same party. I have been making calls in support of Bill Hansen and what I am hearing, based on the location and the age, is fear and desperation and frankly, ignorance. It is not the fault of the third generation mining families that comments taken out of context and mining skepticism are inflaming some people in District 3A. It is the fault of the politicians who are bought and paid for by the multi-national mining companies and their powerful lobbies. My grandfather worked for the mining company and so did my uncle. My dad worked at Erie Mining for most of my childhood. He hurt himself badly on the job twice, worked midnight shifts and was laid off multiple times, all at the will of the company. When Bill Hansen talks about diversifying the economy, he is talking about making things better for all of the people in 3A. We are a district of hard-working people who deserve better than to be pawns in a political game, or shills for a multi-national company that only wants to make money and damn the environment, and damn the communities. They don’t really care about the people. So the Mesabi Daily News is not telling the truth. What they should be doing is working for the people and enlightening their readers that sometimes the old ways die hard in order for a new, better way to grow and thrive. That’s what I believe, and I know that’s what Bill Hansen believes too. They are making people afraid and trying to divide the DFL party for political gain. And the people deserve better.

  2. I think we need a candidate who is willing to call for no new mining operations and to work on closing the existing mining operations. We could surely replace those lost jobs with just as many new ones in the tourism industry if we only try. I met a guy who knows a guy who told him that his job selling hot chocolate at the local hiking trails paid $95,000/year with great medical and retirement benefits. The best part is we can have all of that mining done by someone else in a third world country so I can become as oblivious to where the steel in my new Toyota comes from as I am about how the meat for my Chipotle burrito gets in there.

  3. i hope Mr. Hansen continues to speak his mind regardless of the antiquated Range unions. What he says is not far from reality and we need Polymet like a hole in our heads. We need diversification in jobs and not the possible poisoning of the Boundary Waters. It’s not the 1950s anymore!

  4. You’ve got quite a anti-business following Aaron. I’m sure glad this attitude wasn’t around during our parents/grandparents generation. The Range schools would not only not have had swimming pools, they wouldn’t have ever been built. Just think…no Range hockey history, no union strife, no cities kids wishing to be Rangers, no Da Range. Just a handful of loggers, fishing guides, a few resort owners with their kids pumping gas. Maybe one junior college at most..

  5. Consistent Ranger, stuck in a time warp, believing we can still follow the playbook from 70 plus years ago as if time and circumstances have stood still.

  6. My, what a romantic vision of the past, coupled with the rhetorical equivalent of complimenting the titanic for its ability to withstand icebergs while declaring the passengers who claim it is sinking as “storm crows”. Next, you will compliment the local planners of 25 years ago for their foresight in economic diversification and the opportunities abounding in empty store fronts. No hair frosted to the wall, no lice, men dying when the cable from the steam donkey snapped. No demolishing an entire ecosystem, the wealth extracted and a fire ridden, burnt landscape that required the CCC and millions of trees to reforest. No entire ethnicity blacklisted, no immigrants toiling in death and misery and finally obtaining the 8 hour day under Roosevelt. No giant subsidy and financial giveaway under the production tax. No countless millions misspent in the boom while more than half the employees slept their shift if not stealing or destroying equipment. No entire watershed physically altered with no coast to the owners. No cities in complete and utter decline, drug and alcohol ridden while aging baby boomers still extract the cream off of the IRRRB funds like so many fat hogs. None of this happened or is happening. Why, all things are wonderful and gold will fall from the sky if we just trust Glencore and international executives who promis to pay us 20 an hour for driving trucks. My father, in describing the morning he turned left out of the Douglas mine and never went back, said “They could be sitting on a 100 square foot island with their house surrounded by a giant polluted hole and they would look around say ‘Ain’t it pretty’, as long as they had their pickup and four-wheeler.”

  7. Aaron
    You’ve found your poster boy for your next #Rangelivesmatter rally..

  8. With less sarcasm and hyperbole, I will critique and clarify. Ranger….
    The past you speak of never existed. There was one period, approximately from about 1964 to 1981, where economic life was good on the range. Before that, right up until the vote to convert to the production tax, opportunity meant moving on. It is odd you romanticize Union fights, as ideologically it is obvious you would be against them, but having known people who were organizers and what they went through, it was out of sheer desperation. Ordinary working people were treated like expendable pack animals. Roosevelt, in an effort to save capitalism, pushed through the political reforms and then used the wartime tax policies to create the middle class between 1942 to 1945. But, mine work on the range still meant a layoff – work pattern. Even then, the attitudes of workers towards the the mines was not one of happy compliance. It was still dangerous, and my father described numerous incidents of Euclids being driven on one side to be flipped for a day off. The state, in a desperate effort to continue mining, developed the entire process for taconite, then altered the tax system in a bargain with the corporations. This was the one period of economic stability, from about 1964 to 1981. It is what older baby boomers remember, thus the misperception of what life was like. Due mostly to federal tax policies and lack of outside of U.S. supplies, the taconite plants were built and run at three percent cost plus and not market rates. Thus the feather bedded workforces and now never mentioned rampant theft went on for over a decade, with general managers employing labor crews at private residences, or the kickback system between mine purchasing agents and local businesses. The mines planned on a theft – loss rate of fifteen percent per year per employee. The local elite, now co-opted into the system, ignored any warnings. It was a completely false economic boom, and when Reagan changed policies and Brazilian ore became available, the 80’s happened. It wasn’t environmentalists or other evil dogooders who drove the range down. It was good old capitalism, with its predatory relationship between people, resources and profits. The range system, built on a devils deal of compliant state and local officials and the ever shrinking numbers of union workers benefitting, was always well known for corruption outside of the area, and still is. The unions, especially the trade unions, unfortunately long ago gave up the pretense of being a social movement and now merely seek to lick the cream from the bucket for their aging white membership. I have even heard local politicos complain of the steel workers union participation in the blue-green alliance and not throwing all their support to Polymet…that is how co-opted they are. It is an almost perfect example of inverted totalitarianism, where all interests are submissive to mining and opposition is punished, witness the name calling and terms you and others use so often. You, and others, claim independence of thought, but you are so fully co-opted and mobilized that you serve as a social enforcer, adopting the language and outlook of the corporations, despite the predatory relationship. You, and the the other supporters are merely a mobilized constituency of the corporate state, having long since been beholden to the bargaim, who now parrot the company line. The people of 50 years ago you so romanticize would not even recognize the populace, especially if they observed the closed store fronts and other community conditions. They would scoff at the rebate system, the constant giveaways and the attempts at softening regulations. Don’t claim them …they wouldn’t want a damned thing to do with you.

  9. The future of the Range extraction economy is not determined in the state legislature, which actually has no role in the permitting or regulation process as things stand, so the heated discussion about this election is of little significance for that future. That future will be primarily determined in the real world of finance and economics, and out in that real world financial analysts warned this morning that Glencore, the man behind the curtain in the PolyMet effort, is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy due to “exuberant” borrowing at low rates during the commodity downturn coupled with low metal prices preventing them from bringing mines on line.

    This will have way more impact on the future of non-ferrous mining than any election for state legislature.

    If Glencore collapses, or even if it ends up in severely straightened financial condition, that will cut off the flow of cash that PolyMet is counting on to actually bring the mine into production if and when they secure permits after the upcoming federal court cases. Eventually someday someone will probably come forward with the hundreds of millions needed, but that will have to await a return to higher metal prices that can justify investment in mining operations that will produce the most expensive ore in the world market, something that may take many years to occur.

    • I would suggest an earlier date on the boom times, Paul. When Reserve Mining Company started. In the early 1950’s the town of Babbitt was created to serve a company. The first productive commercial taconite plant anywhere(plant in Silver Bay). I believe the longest running mining enterprise consistently employing many for a little over thirty years(at the time, into the 1980’s) then bankrupt.

    • Things are getting worse for Glencore. It dropped an additional 30% of its stock value after the initial drop of 10%, and is now trading at a record low, with new depths likely to follow.

      Turns out that a lot of Glencore’s problems are based on stunts played by management prior to its IPO in order to pump up the value of their own large holdings and make them all billionaires (Surprise! Glencore’s leadership are corrupt self-dealers who have plundered their own company. And we’re counting on them to do right by us with their new mine.)

      Having peeled off several billion in value in two days and having another $30 billion in debt they cannot cover at current metal and coal prices, this means that PolyMet will be scrambling for operating cash during any start up period, cash that will be very hard to come by with current metal prices. Concerns over permitting become moot if the company cannot actually operate.

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