Emblematic of his era, Iron Range lawmaker Joe Begich dies

Joe Begich celebrates the re-naming of Highway 101 with St. Louis County commissioners in 2017. (PHOTO: St. Louis County)

I met Joe Begich in the late 1990s, five years after he had retired from the state legislature. He was a senior statesman of sorts, an uncle at the Iron Range DFL reunion who could offer either useful context or long-winded tangents.

Begich was, of course, a dedicated laborite and fierce Iron Range advocate. He died Saturday, Aug. 10.

Most in Range politics have some kind of story about Begich’s audacious political style. The most memorable was the “Little Black Pill” speech.

I did not witness the speech, but three Iron Range political insiders relayed the story to me at different times.

As the story goes, DFLers were campaigning across the Range during an election year. The group ended up at a nursing home.

Now, speaking from my own experience as a writer and lecturer, nursing homes are tricky gigs. Your audience is captive but not necessarily present. People are glad to have something to look at, but you might as well be a clown or a insurance salesman. (I suppose politicians are a little of both).

Anyway, the story goes that the politicians were all making their speeches, each lambasting Republicans and arguing for the DFL cause. But Begich took it a step further. At one point he said that if Republicans were elected, they would come to nursing homes like this one with “little black pills” to dispose of the surplus population.

Apparently this caused a stir as no one could quite determine if Joe was kidding or not. Afterward, allies reminded him that this wasn’t good fodder for the stump speech and, to my knowledge, it only happened once.

Begich was nice to me, a young volunteer and political aspirant. He had drank with my grandpa who once spent a night on Joe’s couch. And he worked with my other grandpa at Erie, probably drank with him too, though we weren’t sure.

In addition to being a miner and veteran, Begich was a longtime mayor of Eveleth and represented the east central Mesabi in the legislature from 1974 to 1993.

In other words, Begich entered office during what appeared to be a great recovery in the Iron Range economy and left after its second-greatest collapse. Like my grandpas, he came of age just after WWII, serving in the military during the Korean War. The post-war taconite boom and the high water mark of United Steelworker political strength made his era arguably the golden age of the Iron Range.

But the consolidation and automation of the steel industry, coupled with a weakening labor movement, would change all this. Like it or not, that is the era we live in now. Joe sure didn’t. And he fought it.

Begich’s passing at 89 is a reminder of an Iron Range political universe that keeps slipping away. That was always inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing for those who experienced the prosperity promised by a strong middle class workforce.

And it is an aspiration for a new political era that could be on the horizon. If we want it.


  1. Nancy Peterson says

    “That…doesn’t make it any less disappointing for those who experienced the prosperity promised by a strong middle class workforce.” So true, Aaron Brown. I absolutely trusted that my generation was doing better than our parents (and, especially, our grandparents), and that our kids and grandkids would generally continue in that same pattern. Now those for whom is hasn’t happened tend to blame the poor and the immigrants, but in fact all the growth in available wealth has been snapped up by the greedy, wealthy 1 percent. And they have done it in part by crushing the unions that represented the middle class workforce. Such a waste.

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