Junkyard Politics in Northern Minnesota

junkyard-wreckerAnother election year has arrived in Northern Minnesota, though this is hardly news. In our country it’s difficult to tell when there isn’t an election. American society has built up a politics tolerance that would require a rigorous treatment program if it were, say, whiskey.

Thus my approach to the 2016 election, so far, has been the same as my approach to whiskey: temperance.

I’ve managed to avoid talking about the presidential race, with one notable exception. I’ve limited my analysis to a few local legislative races. And while I’ve mentioned the race for Congress in Minnesota’s swinging Eighth District, I’ve avoided the daily tit-for-tat. This is for my own good, and mostly likely for yours as well.

But today I’m going to talk a little bit about junkyards in the context of the MN-8 race between DFL Congressman Rick Nolan and his GOP challenger, Stewart Mills.

The 2016 race for Congress in Northern Minnesota could truly be called a junkyard election. Both major party candidates are, to some degree, repurposed from scrap.

Nolan is in the midst of an unlikely second act in his political career after walking away from Congress 35 years ago. Now serving his second term (in this century), Nolan is the old truck on its second engine. Good for running errands, but if it blows a gasket that’s all she wrote.

Mills is also a retread. He was rolled out as a young, upstart challenger to Nolan in the GOP-leaning 2014 election. Despite large investment by outside groups and House Republicans in the race, Mills fell short by two points despite the political winds at his back. In junkyard terminology, he’s the totaled sports car wrapped around a tree by a hotshot teenager. It could be fixed if someone wanted to put a lot of money into it.

Well, it would appear someone does. Mills has carefully crafted a comeback in his second bid for Congress. Gone is the long hair that was all the talk of the 2014 cycle. After an almost certainly made-up story about a “BBQ accident,” Mills chopped the Samsonian locks he’s sported since high school. Also gone are references to the Mills Fleet Farm stores his family has run for generations, because his family sold the business to a big retail corporation since the last campaign.

But fortunately for him, the Mills name remains on his family’s car dealership in Brainerd. And this time he’s focusing on his experience working in the parts department there when he was in high school. Now, it’s not normally news that the scion of the Mills family would work for the family business early in his career. But it’s not just that he worked in the parts department for Mills Ford, he also pulled parts from the local junkyard himself.

That’s the hook of Mills’ debut ad for the 2016 campaign, which implies deep junkyard roots:


Mills’ second ad is even more explicitly junkyard-themed:

Now, from an aesthetic standpoint, these are good ads. In 2014, Democrats successfully branded Stewart Mills III as the rich kid who had everything handed to him. This time, Mills is counting on us forgetting all that (most folks probably have), and seeks to remake his image with this Carhartt-wearing everyman motif.

Normally, I’d ignore this as another machination of our never-ending 21st Century election cycle. But Mills just had to bring up junkyards. That’s a trigger, and longtime readers know where I’m going with this.

I grew up in a trailer house located on a family-owned salvage yard on Minnesota’s Iron Range, in the literal heart of the Eighth Congressional District. My grandfather, Ward Jr., owned the junkyard, and my dad Ward III (Roman numerals even!) was the on-site manager. That’s why we lived there, and why my dad spent a portion of the 1980s wearing a holstered pistol.

My family calls the junkyard years the “Bad Old Days,” soaked with alcohol and terrible business decisions. My family’s junkyard never dealt in enough volume to maintain a profit. A bunch of gear heads, my grandpa, dad and uncles prided themselves on finding unique parts instead of selling lots of fairly common parts, which is how junkyards generally survive.

Tell the truth, it’s damn hard for junkyards to survive anyway, as evidenced by economic pressure on Northern MN/WI junkyards in recent years. With the advance of computers in automotive technology, fixing your own car is a lot harder than it used to be. Fewer people bother to try.

In fact, the junkyard depicted in this ad is surely one of the smarter junkyards who figured out the formula. Most of these places live in symbiotic relationships with big car dealers and repair shops, just like Mills Ford. In fact, Mills Ford is probably one of Shipman’s biggest customers. So, added to the generally anti-government attitudes prevalent on junkyards, it’s no wonder they’d be supportive of Stewart Mills.

Indeed, a 16-year-old Mills might have started in a low level position at the Ford dealership, but there was no risk of him being fired or passed over for a promotion. His name is on the building. It would have been a point of pride for him to pull parts himself. I know, because as a kid I had no interest in cars, but could feel the disappointment when I refused to take part in the manly tasks back at the shop.

A lot of junkyards let people pull parts themselves. In fact, if you get a guy at the desk who’s eating a sandwich or something, he’s almost certainly going to suggest you pull the part yourself. Some places charge you extra to pull the part. They’ll even charge you a restocking fee if it’s not the right one. So a snot-nosed kid from the dealership shows up? Yeah, go pull it you yourself, sonny.

One day a long time ago my teenage uncles were screwing around on a dirt bike around the junkyard. Grandpa had brought in trucks and trucks of taconite tailings (waste rock from mining), which held the roads together very well, but were a mess to ride around in at anything faster than a crawl. That made great fun for a dirt bike, which would send the tailings flying like shot pellets.

Anyway, my dad — the oldest — saw this and felt the young ones needed a lesson in how to properly operate a dirt bike. Everyone involved had a good afternoon buzz going. My dad tore the hell out of the back trails of the junkyard as only he could, but had to lay out on a corner, giving himself a wicked case of road rash up his whole body.

A couple hours later a guy showed up looking for a certain car door. So my dad takes him to a wreck back on the lot and starts pulling off the door for him. It’s a real bitch; won’t give up the ghost. So he’s bear hugging this thing, trying to get it off the hinges.

What my dad didn’t know, because this is how my dad is, was that he was bleeding through all that road rash. The more he cranked on that door, the more he bled. When he finally pried loose the car door it was almost entirely covered in my dad’s blood, which also soaked his shirt and pants neck to foot.

“I didn’t want it THAT bad,” the guy said.

And that’s the part in the story where my family laughs and laughs. And then the laughter fades into a sad silence.

At any rate, I love my dad, but I do not believe this qualifies him for Congress.

Now, Mills is the same guy he was last time, with the same positions. The reality of Stewart Mills is probably somewhere in between the image in last cycle’s negative ads and these new ads from his campaign. Rick Nolan will come out with some ads about campaign finance reform and “MedEEEcare,” and this campaign will unfold along a fatalistic path. It’d be nice if it was even remotely related to policy.

Vote for whoever you want, but take this into consideration: There’s junkyard, and then there’s REAL junkyard.


  1. Ande Jarvi says

    I like junk yards, maybe even love junk yards. I was raised in Lavell, not to far from you. I was raised by a very frugal and stubborn finlander that insisted on fixing everything himself. My dad could have afforded a new car, being he was employed at the mines, but he chose not to. He was just cheap. My dad never owned a pickup newer then 1955, until he bought a 2001 dodge diesel just before he finally retired from Utac after working there for 42 years. We lived on a farm, raised cows and pigs and really mean chickens. We used the 1955 ford for hauling hay and firewood, but not much else.

    My dad drove a 1969 ford galaxie 500. It was ugly and, had a giant dent in the door and we actually would haul the calves home in the back seat, so there was manure stains back there. We spent a lot of time fixing his junker cars, driving to your junkyard or up to Koivistos in Palo finding parts for his fords or the 1964 rambler he insisted on driving for several decades. My thing at junkyard was to wander off when my dad was cussing and swearing at some part that he couldnt get loose, and I would dig through the smashed cars to find old 8 track tapes, owners manuals and pocket change. I actually scored quite a bit of booty in my pillaging over the years and attained one impressive collection of 8 track tapes and owners manuals. I’d often buy bubble gum with the change I would find on our way home. I never did hear anyone complain I was taking owners manuals, and I still to this day don’t understand my fascination with them, but I do recall sitting in the garage at home and day dreaming of what it must have been like to drive those nice cars depicted on the front covers of those manuals, instead of that ugly green rambler or that awful smelling dented up ford.

    Ode to junkyards, indeed

    • Great memories, Ande — I spent a lot of time wandering around the junkyard, pretending to drive the old wrecks. I remember how I got in trouble for shooting up some windshields with my BB gun. Those really were my formative years.

  2. The GOP platform, MNGOP platform is to phase out Social Security and put our retirement security in the hands of the stock market. They have similar plans for Medicare and Medicaid to wither away, just different methods. They call it freedom and choice, you betcha.

    The tax plans of all the Republican candidates proposed huge tax cuts to wealthy with chump change for the rest of us while increasing our deficit astronomically, Trump plan increasing deficit $10 trillion over 10 years.

    It’s the same old shell game.

    • David Gray says

      You’d convince more people if you showed just a slight familiarity with GOP positions on the issues. But reading is painful, right?

  3. The platforms of every state and the Republican party, Republican legislator statements on SS/Medicare/Medicaid are available to anyone read as are the tax plans.

  4. I enjoyed reading your story. Don’t tell Mills, but we’ll probably never ever see any of his ads on TV because once the leaves are on the TV, the satellite dish doesn’t work. My friends rarely talk about watching TV, so I wonder about the influence of TV political ads these days.

  5. David Gray says

    I’m afraid there is no shortage of people spending quantity time with their television.

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