Duluth senate primary will document changing DFL coalition

It’s primary election day in Minnesota. And while there are some interesting races around the state — notably the 5th Congressional District DFL race for Congress in Minneapolis — only one merits significant attention here in the North.

State Sen. Erik Simonson (DFL-Duluth)

In the State Senate District 7 DFL contest Sen. Erik Simonson of Duluth faces a spirited challenge from progressive attorney Jen McEwen. McEwen already seized the DFL endorsement from the first term incumbent. Now the primary boils down to a showdown between the two most powerful groups in Duluth DFL politics.

On one side, organized labor seeks to protect the former firefighter union leader Simonson. On the other, a progressive bloc wants McEwen.

One progressive friend told me this is the first time the long standing rivalry between labor and progressives in the Duluth DFL has lined up so perfectly. It’s one on one. Both sides raised money, ran ads, did mailings, and believe they’ll win. While there were a few high-profile endorsements — Gov. Tim Walz for Simonson and the Duluth News Tribune for McEwen — most muckety-mucks have left this for the voters to decide.

The most obvious policy differences between Simonson and McEwen center on environmental regulations. Simonson has shifted toward full-throated support of nonferrous mining and pipelines in northeastern Minnesota, while McEwen voices serious reservations about some current proposals.

Jen McEwen

But there’s more going on than just that. In many ways McEwen’s challenge is a northern version of State Sen. Susan Kent’s successful coup against former DFL Senate Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) earlier this year. Bakk’s district is half Iron Range/woods and half Duluth suburbs. Simonson became a strong Bakk loyalist during the fight while McEwen would likely fall in with the Kent camp.

As I’ve written, the role of organized labor in the DFL has changed. Unions no longer provide enough votes to dominate party organization and primaries. But they still have lots of votes (many of which have become Republican). At the same time, moderate DFLers and labor Democrats have come to see economic development projects — any job-creating projects at all — as the only serious priority. Meanwhile the rest of the DFL wants more attention on health care, societal issues, climate change, and economic security for the non-union working poor. It’s a schism that is as much cultural as it is raw politics.

Thus this battle is about policy, yes, but also about legislative priorities and raw ethos. A once dominant centrist DFL political operation was humiliated in 2016. And, like Republicans after their 2008 drubbing, the new activists picking up the tattered party banner want victory, not a return to the past.

I don’t know if it will happen for McEwen and her supporters this time. Incumbency and the black hole of pandemic news coverage might well favor Simonson. I do expect him to sweat it out tonight, though. McEwen has a chance.

No live blog tonight, but I’ll have some thoughts when it’s done.



  1. Tamara Jones says

    What do you think of Chris Horoshak v. David Tomassoni?

  2. Unless late mail-in ballots come in with large numbers of votes for Simonson, McEwen has won by more than two to one. Simonson, at this writing, did not carry a single precinct, including all of the West Duluth HD 7B precincts that might have been expected to support the West Duluth native and former 7B representative.

    All of this is not really that surprising (except perhaps 7B) given the Duluth vote in the CD8 primary in 2018. Simonson had a long history of trying to cultivate a “middle of the road” position on non-ferrous mining, especially in repeatedly arguing that the mining would have to conform to “Minnesota’s existing strong environmental regulations” and promising not to bend rules to facilitate mining. But then he voted both to eliminate the state’s sulfate emission standards and to override Dayton’s veto of that legislation. That was in 2018, but it turned out that the voters had not forgotten or forgiven.

    Simonson’s support for Bakk in the leadership race, despite Bakk’s longstanding disagreement with most Duluth DFLers on environmental issues, guns, health care, the minimum wage, nursing home regulation, and so on, was also probably a factor. I am certain that Bakk’s leadership in the recent IRRRB board attack on the Fond-du-Lac Band, which many saw as outright racist, didn’t help either.

    Politicians need to be leaders, but they also have to be willing to follow if they want to be re-elected. Simonson seemed to deliberately change his positions to ones that were clearly out of step with many — it turns out most — of his constituents.

    What remains to be seen is what more conservative DFLers in Duluth, and especially organized labor, will do in the contest between McEwen and Bergstrom. Bergstrom supports the pro-non-ferrous mining stance of most of the unions, but is otherwise very far right wing and a strong Trump supporter. She also engaged in some fairly aggressive public racist and xenophobic rhetoric while she was campaigning for Lieutenant Governor in 2018. The unions will once again be faced with a choice of supporting a candidate who agrees with them on most issues other than non-ferrous mining, or a candidate who opposes almost everything they stand for other than non-ferrous mining. In the 2019 city election, they chose the second option or sat out races. But if they oppose McEwen, both of whose parents are union members, and she wins, they will be risking making themselves less and less relevant in Duluth politics.

    One last thing: the Duluth Progressives have had a fast learning curve. Their performance in organizing this race showed that they can play hardball politics as well or better than anyone in Duluth. This may well have a big impact on the future of some of the younger politicians in the city, including several city council members, who will have to deal with the progressives if they want to move up to higher offices.

    • Good take Gerald until the 2nd last paragraph. The 2019 elections the unions did not sit out as they supported a mayor, two at large caniddates, and two district candidates and school board candidates that all supported their labor values. This notion that non-ferrous mining was their litmus test is a farce that you have repeated multiple times. I doubt the unions will sit out and let Bergstrom have a clear shot Building Trades perhaps- but I bet the Nurses, AFSCME, and MAPE come around.

  3. I think Simonson lost this more himself by taking the zoo job and now the $100,000 LSC job. He could have been a retired fire-fighter and remained a legislator, but that’s not the choice he made. This particular race was maybe more a confirmation that some people won’t vote for a candidate they find personally wrong no matter their policies? I totally agree the DFL has “sides” but just don’t know if this race was only about that.

    • No. The people who overthrew him were specifically motivated by his positions on non-ferrous mining in general and his vote on allowing unlimited sulfate pollution in particular, and by his alliance with Bakk.

      The only people talking about the zoo and LSC were the GOP and the DNT, which as usual was totally out of it because of their failure to do any actual reporting. In fact, when McEwen was asked about the zoo and LSC by the DNT during her endorsement interview, she specifically said she did not have any knowledge about that or consider it an issue. 100% of McEwen’s core supporters who I have spoken with (and I was inundated by a bunch of celebratory “I told you so” calls) were motivated by the environmental issues, and all her third party support — there were several mailings in support of her by third party groups — came from environmental groups. I have spoken to people who worked on McEwen’s phone backs, and on third party phone banks, and they report that all the support they found was based on environmental issues.

      If there were any secondary issues, then Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders style economics were the most important. There may have been some GOP crossover, since there were no real GOP contests on the ballots and the GOP probably considers the neophyte McEwen a weaker candidate than the veteran Simonson, although events have shown that that is probably a significant underestimate of her abilities. I don’t think that most GOPers in Minnesota are inclined to do mischief voting anyhow — they are way too deep in true believer behavior for that: their hands would wither if they voted DFL.

      Take a look at the results for Duluth precincts in the DFL primary for CD8 in 2018 — Lee, who was riding only the non-ferrous mining issue, won the city and most precincts. That was a preview of this election, which showed that opinions have hardened even more.

      It is hard for people from further north to realize how strong the opposition to non-ferrous mining has gotten in Duluth in the last five years or so. Of course, Duluthiansas a group have a very strong interest in the environment and outdoor recreation, and the impact of mining on the the Duluth economy has been declining by the year as employment by the mines and the docks declines due to increasing mechanization. And of course there are still people living in Duluth who can remember their water being poisoned by a mining company.

      Being a supporter of non-ferrous mining maybe getting to be a dangerous position in Duluth, and I find myself wondering about the future of a couple of the young and ambitious guys on the Duluth City Council based on that. By and large, support for non-ferrous mining is a GOP position in most of Minnesota, a point that third party mailers supporting McEwen made. Some older people, some union people, and Rangers are the only holdouts in the DFL, something that is making a lot of them more and more upset.

      PS: one other interesting thing that the phone bankers told me is that a lot more people seemed to be willing to answer a call from an unknown number than in past elections. I wonder if that is due to COVID-19 induced boredom. McEwen also used a lot of texting, which they had a good response to, according to her people. Whatever the reason, it probably helped the more unknown McEwen more than the much better known Simonaon.

    • To response in an objective way. Yes, the positions certainly played a role in the outcome. However the environmental divide was the significant cause and that alone likely provided McEwen a victory. Erin Murphy and her political machine were texting into the district about Simonson’s job’s so it clearly was an issue that was spoken about with voters.

    • For the sake of having a factual record Amy. Yes it did play into it. The environmental issues likely allow delivered victory, however it was a large enough issue that Erin Muprhy and her political machine made it a point to text about Simonson’s employment while supporting McEwen.

    • Amy to set the record straight, the environmental difference likely gave McEwen a win, which was made larger by Simonsons employment. People were talking about it. Erin Muprhy and her political machine texting into the district talked about it so it was clearly a talking point given to the campaign.

  4. While environmental issues were the dividing line on this, that is false about McEwen’s folks not talking about the LSC position and the Zoo, even Erin Murphy and her machine texting into Duluth talked about it. Clearyl it was a secondary issue although smaller than the environmental issues and multiple mailers on McEwens behalf is helpful.

    It’s also helpful to correct the record since facts matter; that in 2019 the Central Labor Body endorsed a Mayor, two At-Large Coucncilors, and two district councilors who share labor’s values, so they did not sit those races out as claimed in this post. Labor is unlikely to sit this out and I bet you see MNA, MAPE, AFSCME, and others endorse McEwen over her challenger.

  5. In 2019, except for Larson, who has been very circumspect on the issue, the unions endorsed only candidates who supported non-ferrous mining, and refused to endorse candidates who were strong union supporters but opposed to the new mines. In the most striking of the examples, they actually stood aside while Becky Hall, an even more right-wing candidate than Bergstrom, ran against a progressive who had been a union organizer and activist. They actively endorsed candidates who had opposed the sick and safe time ordinance and a city minimum wage.

    Murphy may have been talking about the zoo and LSC, but all the mailings for McEwen were strictly about the environment and paid (except for the DFL’s own mailer) by environmental groups. All the phone banking I have heard about was environment oriented.

    For all intents and purposes, this was a referendum on opinions on non-ferrous mining. the opposition won 62%-38%, adding both supporters together. I think that is a pretty accurate expression of the state of play.

    The interesting thing will be the impact in the future on some Duluth incumbents. The non-ferrous mining opponents are definitely fired up for more contests. Beating Simonson, who never fell below 70% in any of his previous elections, will likely make them think they can take on anyone.

  6. It will be interesting to see the impacts of the Duluth delegation with Rep Liz Olson now the least progressive of the three in realty a moderate and has been wishy washy on her stance on PolyMet & Line 3 (it has likely changed this cycle). And despite a leadership position she has been really light on policy. Maybe she will garner a challenger from the left. Maybe Janet Kennedy is up for it.

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