On the missing pieces in Iron Range political coverage

Tracks leading to the crushing plant at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park. (Aaron J. Brown)

On Sunday, the national political publication Politico profiled the shifting political winds on northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. Reporter Adam Behsudi and photographer M. Scott Mahaskey toured the region a few weeks ago. 

And yes, I appear in the story. It’s worth reading. But if you do, consider reading my latest column for the Minnesota Reformer as well.

I respond to the story with some thoughts about what these kind of pieces so often miss. It’s not always the reporters’ fault. It’s hard to capture the nuance of a rapidly changing story and people caught up in something they don’t control.

And, frankly, my biggest beef isn’t with Behsudi or Politico. Local office holders again seem trapped in a tunnel of repetition. It’s a crisis of imagination shared by the chroniclers as well as their subjects.

Read my column at the Minnesota Reformer.


  1. Fred Schumacher says

    What is missed in these stories is the nature of the boreal forest, the location of the Iron Range, which is one of the last and most difficult environments humans have colonized. The hard reality is that the population on the Iron Range far exceeds the natural carrying capacity of the land for humans. The mines made that population explosion possible but not sustainable, since mining is a one-time harvest, and the world is littered with abandoned mining towns on dead end roads. Hibbing Taconite only has four more years of ore left to mine. Hard rock mines in this area would be just another short term solution. Thompson, Manitoba, the most significant hard rock mining town in the northern interior, no longer has mining as its primary economic activity. It is now a distribution center for northern Manitoba.

    Also forgotten is the 1854 Treaty that allows all these Iron Range “immigrants” and mines to live and operate legally. It was not only the Anishinabe who got treaty rights in 1854, but everybody else who came here, took over land which previously was not theirs to own, and make this area their home. The aboriginal people of this land also have a right to their “way of life,” and that includes keeping the land and waters unpoisoned.

    And let us not forget the primary reason the glory days of the Iron Range are in the past, and that can be summed up in one word, productivity. It now takes 1/10th the number of people to mine the same amount of tonnage as in those hay days. Haul trucks now carry 120 cubic yards and are filled by shovels with the capacity to dig 35 to 60 yards at a scoop. Walk into a taconite plant and you’ll see it’s mostly empty. Mining just doesn’t require many people, and it will get worse. Autonomous haul trucks and shovels are just around the corner. Nobody will be in the cabs of those monsters.

    There’s a self-selection process that has been operating on the Range. Risk takers leave, and those who can’t or won’t adapt to changing conditions stay behind. After the 2016 election, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran an article on Pepin County, Wisconsin and noted that it voted overwhelmingly for Trump and had the same population as it did in 1900. My first thought was, what happened to the people who were born in Pepin County? Most of them left. Who left and who stayed behind is the operative question. The go-getters went the the Cities, Milwaukee, Chicago, and other places, and conservatives stayed behind and voted for Trump. Same thing has happened on the Range. Liberals left and conservatives stayed, and that’s why 70% of Iron Range Steelworker members now vote Republican. And that’s why the Range is no longer significant in Minnesota politics. At one time it provided the swing vote in Minnesota for the DFL. Now it’s just subsumed into that huge southern Minnesota Republican voting population and no longer counts. That’s why Bakk lost the leadership in the MN Senate. His area no longer counts.

    By the way, Aaron, I live on the road your grandfather has his hunting shack, and my neighbor and I often cross-country ski on his hunting trails.

    • Thanks for these thoughts, Fred. A lot to chew on. And how cool that you know our haunt in the wilds of Greaney! I’m not much of a hunter but I do enjoy patrolling those trails every fall. It’s a little bit of zen.

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    The Range has always looked for a sugar daddy to solve its problems, the next big thing that will provide city wages and benefits in a rural area, so that everybody can have a cabin on a lake to “rinse off the ore dust away,” as John Berquist used to sing. After the collapse of communism in Poland, the joke went around that there were two ways Poles would solve their problems, the ordinary and the miraculous. The ordinary way was for the angel Gabriel to come down from heaven and make things right. And the miraculous? Oh, that was Poland solving its problems by itself.

    The great North Dakota historian Elwyn Robinson developed six themes of North Dakota history that explained its condition. One of those themes is the “Too Much Mistake,” too many people, too many farmers, too many roads, too much infrastructure for the land to support. The history of North Dakota over the last 90 years has been a process of coming to terms with the reality of its location in the center of the continent. The Range is North Dakota with trees.

  3. In a purely political context, Politico, and many local Range DFLers, are missing the point. Statewide and national trends are conspiring to make this story obsolete before the ending is even written.

    The Range is a relatively small subset of the population of the state. And it is getting smaller by the year.

    It is highly likely, given population trends in both Minnesota and the country, that Stauber’s seat in CD8 is going to disappear following the next census. Even if Minnesota manages to retain an 8th district, the district will look a lot different, since our population in CD8 is falling further and further behind other districts and is in last place for MN districts. At best, the district will have to incorporate areas to the south and west. Just what the impact of those new areas will have on DFL vs. GOP balance will likely depend on who draws the map, and therefore who it favors.

    But even more important, there is a battle for control of Minnesota politics, and the Range is not part of the front line. The battle is in the ring suburbs and exurbs surrounding the Twin Cities. The DFL and the GOP are being forced to develop strategies for control. The DFL is all in for a model that works for control of the suburbs, since the Trump era and the social agenda of the GOP has given them a huge opening to seize what have previously been the “Anderson-Carlson” wing of the GOP. The GOP model has become one of ignoring the desires and needs of the Metro area in favor of Greater Minnesota, with the hope that they can keep enough votes, especially in the Metro outer ring, to cobble together a majority.

    This reality puts both parties in a dilemma in regard to non-ferrous mining. As Politico notes, the majority of people in the state, and especially in the Metro, are opposed to the new mining, and place protection of the Boundary Waters, if not the Duluth-St. Louis-Lake Superior watershed, ahead of the desires for a few more mining jobs that will certainly be severely cyclical. The DFL is being forced toward that position by their political strategy. The GOP, following the Trump administration’s anti-regulation and anti-environmental policies, are in the opposite camp.

    Ironically, the traditional political weight of the Range is reversed. Whereas for years the Range was a critical part of the DFL power structure, it is now much less important as its population has tumbled. The rings of the Metro are far more important. But for the GOP, the Range is a small but potentially critical piece of their Greater Minnesota strategy.

    As far as the unions, this situation is not at all surprising. The rank and file of unions nationally have not been part of the Democratic coalition since 1980, when the “southern strategy” and the “bear in the woods” strategy pulled a lot of traditional blue collar Democrats, especially men, and especially older men, away from the Democrats. The steelworkers on the Range are behind on this trend. The unions have always tended to oppose new social changes for the last 75 years, starting with the civil rights issue, going on to the war issue, the women’s issue, the LGBTQ issue, and the immigration issue, and now on to the environmental issue.

    The one thing with all of this is, as Aaron notes in his article, this GOP coalition, and its associated union opposition to progressive issues, is strongly generational. Older people are the core of the support for the GOP and Trump. Younger people tend to be more favorable toward the social issues and the environmental issue, even younger conservatives. Like race, women, LGBTQ, and other issues, this will resolve itself eventually as the older men die out and are replaced with younger. The GOP will have to find new cultural issues to trumpet, or they will become increasingly irrelevant. I don’t doubt that they will. Long after environmentalism has become normative, there will be something else.

  4. Good points, Aaron. Pretty good points in the comments section as well.
    Times are changing. Major mistakes were made. And our fathers and grandfathers aren’t going to be running things much longer. My wife joked recently that maybe we should revoke male voting rights for awhile , just to make up for all those years when women didn’t have them.

  5. Well, Aaron, when you start seeing the parallels to Appalachia you are getting at reality. Not pleasant, but real.

    Looking at the dynamics of the DFL, it’s easy to see that the ‘Range’ DFLers have been using their clout in toxic ways. Ways that give nobody–other than Republicans, sort of–incentive to want them to stick around. Who gives a shit about “Reagan Democrats” except themselves?

  6. Joe musich says

    I went to the premier of the film North Country down here in Minneapolis. It has been long since I jumped the Mesabi Range ship. The last time I had been there after my pops died on the job at Minnetac in 1971 was to watch my mother die after a stroke in the late 80’s. Neither wanted me to have anything to do with living up there. It was not just risk taking that got many of us to leave it was parental demand. Since the Oliver shuttered in roughly 1960 anybody with eyes open could see where it was going. Before I graduated from High School a number of high level teachers were on to better places. I worked for a time at Minnetac after graduating college and the characterization of the conservatives staying behind was pretty spot on. It is a summation of how I have seen it for years. I returned for a Humanities workshop in 2004. There were some twenty teacher from around the country of that experience. It was a look at the steel economy from mining to steel production. The efforts at convincing that group to buy into Polymet were unbelievable. There DFL reps were there falling right in line with the smoke and mirrors mining arguments. Other then the tour of the restored synagogue and watching a couple on Moose on highway everything I experienced was what I expected- the desperation as so sadly revealed in The North Country. There can be no imagination with desperation until it is struggled with like the demon in the desert. Your piece at The Reformer was excellent. Thanks.

  7. Taylor Johnson says

    “We feel too weak to challenge big industry, so our middle class and thought leaders gravitate toward the companies, hoping that we are safe in their shadows.” I love that quote from your response. It’s a sad state of affairs and as you know note when people feel that it means we all see the writing on the wall. Even if we don’t want to acknowledge it.

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