Census, redistricting will reshape Minnesota’s balance of power

This graphic from the Minnesota Legislature’s Geographic Information Services shows the estimated population swings in the state’s House districts. Dark and light green indicates legislative seats that are underpopulated; dark brown and light brown show overpopulated districts.

I’ve seen a map that spells the end of the political balance most of us grew up knowing. Trends of the past 30 years will soon accelerate. A new future is nigh.

The map details a recent state estimate of population trends within Minnesota’s legislative districts. Next year’s census will show little to no population growth in Northeastern Minnesota. Thus, two years later this region will again lose even more legislative seats. Nearly all of the political clout that once defined the land of Rudy Perpich and Jim Oberstar will fade away. The remaining districts shall become true swing seats, requiring heightened political skill for any given candidate or party to keep for long.

The political gamesmanship of this matters less than the policies our leaders must enact. Because a bigger problem will be filling open jobs as baby boomers retire, providing education that prepares people for complex modern life, and maintaining older infrastructure as money gets tight. We won’t be able to count on political patronage to fix all of this.

Relax. There’s nothing you can do to stop this coming change. But there is a lot we can do collectively to prepare for what comes next. Doing so will bring about a prosperous and exciting future for the towns of the Iron Range and the entire surrounding region. Failure to do so will only ensure a more difficult transition and missed opportunities.

The crux of this, as with any discussion of population, is people.

As we know, the last several censuses revealed a stagnant or declining population in Northern Minnesota. Meantime, suburban and exurban areas around the Twin Cities metro area enjoyed corresponding population increases. We’ve seen this manifest in the large influence of the suburbs on recent elections. As formerly DFL rural Minnesota has trended more conservative, the suburbs — once bastions of the GOP — now lean light blue.

Recent trends, however, suggest change is ahead. Once considered stagnant, the urban core of the Twin Cities — especially Minneapolis — exploded in population in the last ten years. Based on the state’s pre-census estimates, the heart of Minneapolis is set to increase by an entire legislative seat. And the map makes clear where that seat will come from: the vast swath of land above the merger of northbound I-35E and I-35W.

These last few years I’ve seen a spike in what we could call “Iron Range nationalism.” This would be a sentiment beyond simple pride in our beloved homeland, but rather a contempt for every other place. The Twin Cities have long been the whipping boys in local political rhetoric, often for good reason. But there’s reason to hold back on some of these impulses, especially when it comes to people.

For one thing, you don’t need a population map to know that many of the people who once lived in places like Hibbing and Chisholm now live in places like Andover and Apple Valley. Or, for that matter, downtown St. Paul or Minneapolis. Most of us can name relatives, often from our immediate families, who have made that move.

Furthermore, the reason the Twin Cities didn’t just grow because your kid or your buddy moved there. It’s because of a large influx of people from other parts of the country and immigrants from overseas.

What if I told you that we could get people from the Twin Cities metro area to live here? To start businesses? To enroll children in our schools? In fact, this might well be our best and most stable solution to economic sustainability in this region.

We need people. Northern Minnesota needs all kinds of people to do all kinds of things. That’s not to dismiss the people we have, but to highlight a philosophy this region needs to embrace. People are good. No matter what they look like or where they’re from.

In other words, our policy must become attraction. The Iron Range must become what it was for many of our ancestors: a canvas to paint a life upon. Contrary to the company line, immigrants didn’t come because they loved mining. They came to provide a better life for the next generation, to set them free in body and mind.

We must resist biased notions about outsiders. We don’t need to call people “packsackers” anymore, not if we are to prosper. Attempts to control this attraction of new people will result in people not coming. And that is bad.

Our biggest difficulty will be overcoming the emotions of change. The actual process of attracting people might prove frightfully easy. Both now, and especially in the future, people will look for places like ours — naturally beautiful, temperate, with low cost of living. Accepting the change they might bring is a greater challenge.

An ad in the men’s room of the local movie theater showed a commercial building in downtown Nashwauk selling for $39,000 — less than we paid for my first house in Hibbing twenty years ago. It no doubt needs repairs. The whole region was built around the same time, so everything’s wearing out simultaneously. But the cost of commercial entry is staggeringly low.

Last year I went to the San Francisco bay area to do research. That same Nashwauk building would cost $20 million there, even with pigeons. Despite the cost, people still seem enamored with the big cities. Unless, of course, we provide them a reason to consider the lower cost and better living right here.

There’s an old saying, “demographics is destiny.” One contemporary phrase might be “climate is destiny.” Both support an older wisdom from Ecclesiastes 3, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

A new season for the Iron Range will come, and soon. What will we make of it?

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 16, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Veda H Zuponcic says

    This is a brilliant column. I’ve been talking about reverse immigration to the Range for years….”people aren’t ready.” Maybe they’ll get ready once they see the wonderful progress that can happen once new, talented people are working in our little towns. How often have our mayors paid a visit to the business councils of the various immigrant groups in the Twin Cities? Twenty Korean families in the town of Aurora would provide grocers, dentists, produce distributors, florists, pharmacists and manicurists, and smart kids who work hard, rebuild orchestra programs, and raise our academic profiles in two years. How long would they stay? Don’t know, but the world is on the move. Better embrace those who are coming, and actively find the ones you need the most.

  2. Karin Schultz says

    It is NOT cheaper to live in the Range…I lived in Hutchinson for 4.5 years and would have stayed there the rest of my life if we had been able to find jobs after we lost our jobs! I literally sob every time I visit Hutchinson and have to head back to my hometown of Grand Rapids; where we are living now! Sadly we moved here because my husband was hired on at Magnetation and we all know how that story turned out! I lived in Gheen for 25 years and when we left there it was 125.00 a month just to have the electricity available in our home there…that is without LIVING there! Everything was disconnected and there was no electricity being used at all….while in Hutchinson, my monthly bill was approximately 40 dollars a month! Here in Rapids Public Utilities is way more expensive than it was in Hutchinson and Gas in Hutchinson was ALWAYS at least .20 cents or more, less than Cook or Orr AND HIbbing which is a lot less than anywhere else up here….And don’t even get me started on the price of Gas in Grand Rapids!!! I drive all the way to Hibbing for Gas or Floodwood or Aitkin because I refuse to pay higher prices for Gas in Grand Rapids!….Also while living in Gheen you had to drive to Hibbing or Virgina to buy clothes and we had to travel 45 miles minimum to get anything…as well as some groceries…AND everything was MORE expensive, and it is worse now! I have NO plans on moving ANY further north or back to Gheen, ever again, and if I ever get the opportunity to move back to Hutchinson I will….We lived on less income but had more money than we EVER had while living on the Range! It is no wonder that people and especially young people leave! WHY would anyone WANT to live here when it is extremely expensive to do so…Housing in Hutchinson is also cheaper! When I moved here to Rapids, we noticed that to buy a home was about 1/3 more expensive than Hutchinson for the exact same kind of home! I get frustrated that nothing is done to make it more affordable to live here. MY husband worked at L&M after Magnetation closed and with 33 years of warehousing experience they started him working at 11.60 an hour and he ended up getting paid 13.10 before he quit and took a better paying job in Hibbing! When he first started at L&M we qualified for MNCare but the next year L&M offered my husband free insurance but to put me on his insurance cost us 400.00 a month with a 3000 dollar deductible! Then to top that all off, his unemployment compensation from the closure of Magnetation ended in May of 2018 and so that was 500 less a month…by August of 2018 we were taking 350.00 out of saving every month just to pay our basic bills! He was basically paying L&M 350.00 a month to work there…My hubby HAD to quit or we would have been homeless…

    So if wages don’t improve here, people will NOT stay here! And the costs of things has to be comparable to the cities or the migration will continue…and I for one don’t blame them for a second!

    • you’re right Karen, consumables are over-priced for the local because the store owner needs to capitalize on getting the weekend visitor’s money otherwise that store can’t stay in business. Mining is needed obviously, but there needs to be other “exports” of value to bring in money to the region. Maybe that’s tourism (the export is memories, relaxation, and fun) but that requires a good overall economy.

      I am strapped for cash as a young parent and I would love to go up north more often and help invest in the region through spending my tourism dollars, but the drive is too far for my kids to be worth the hassle, and I would need 2-3 extra days off to even consider it, but that is time I don’t have because I need to work overtime to meet our family’s saving & investment goals. I know I’m not the only one. My parents are getting too old (boomers) to do the active Up North every other weekend lifestyle anymore, and I know they aren’t the only ones either. That’s the rub. Demographics are hurting the MN tourism economy. So there needs to be other sources to bring in outside investment.

      Getting fiber everywhere would help, then Northern MN could position itself like Finland, a hub of Data Centers due to it’s passive cooling and access to recreation for it’s workers. Or even kick out the environmentalists so that more forestry can happen… Maybe even create a business-friendly tax environment so “green” startups would move to MN and setup shop here versus getting their “sustainable” products from across the globe and shipping it to a plant somewhere with lower taxes than here.

      The politicians don’t care… why? because they are comfortable in the 6-figure salaries that can fund their lake home and with those 29 paid days of vacation they can easily enjoy that lake home. Their voting bloc(s) in rural Minnesota haven’t wised up yet to throwing off that DFL allegiance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pro-environment, and I’m no big business Repub/conservative/whatever-you-wanna-call-them-these-days, I just know that if you want a certain behavior or result, you have to incentivize it, and incentivize it to the point that NOT doing it becomes an obvious problem.

  3. Anne Bier says

    We have lived here for 18 years and are still called Packsackers. I was never as hated as a newcomer in past places. Almost none of our kids’ friends have stayed here, there is no work for them. Who do the locals think will be the population here? I can’t imagine how it would be if I were brown or black or Muslim or immigrant.

  4. Paul Ojanen says

    I don’t know when it happened, but at sometime many of those remaining began believing nothing could, should or would change. Perhaps it is very simple; the open minded choose to leave for multiple reasons and many of those remaining have a more rigid, fearful personality. My father’s generation, and I’ve spoken to others near the same age, experienced the end of the hematite mines, and for multiple reasons saw education as a benefit. It wasn’t just desperation, but genuine ambition. I think perhaps the taconite industry changed that dynamic as for 15 years there was a boom, followed by slowly shrinking jobs and greater instability. I come from a huge family and the vast majority left either out of preference or necessity. But what drives everyone who left crazy isn’t just opportunity…it’s the “small mindedness” of the society that remains. A friend once described it with a local saying ” don’t get too smart for the mines.” Observing how local officials have tripled down on mining including attacking anyone who merely questions the idea of environmental responsibility has hurt the possible futures. I see it with some of those who are decent, ambitious positive people also; they can’t see their way past what they know and a much slighter resentment is present. It might simply require those pushing the same old line dying off before anything can change.

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