Bakk, Tomassoni bolt DFL caucus in MN State Senate

PHOTO: troita_<><, Flickr CC-BY

Two longtime Iron Range state senators will leave the DFL caucus and form an independent caucus for the 2021 legislative session. State Sen. David Tomassoni (I-Chisholm) and former DFL majority leader Sen. Tom Bakk (I-Cook) made the announcement Wednesday.

The Republicans held a 34-33 majority in the State Senate. Now they’ll hold a 34-31-2 advantage. So, this is less a seismic shift and more an opportunistic realignment.

I’ve written a full commentary on this development for the Minnesota Reformer: “Bakk-assoni say they’re going ‘independent.’ More like kept company men.”



  1. Fred Schumacher says

    This is the nail in the coffin of the Iron Range as a political power in the state. It’s finished. Rural Republicans don’t give a rip about mining, and urban DFLers are opposed. Mining is a one-time harvest, and the decline of mining regions is baked into the system. The world is littered with abandoned mining towns on dead end roads. When the Range had more population and voted DFL, it was the counterpoise that delivered the state to the DFL. By voting Republican, the Range has made itself irrelevant. It has become subsumed into the mass of outstate Republicans whose priorities are very different from those of the Range. It wasn’t politics that took away the Range’s “traditional life.” It’s 120 yard haul trucks and 60 yard shovels, both of which will soon become driverless. Mining has very high productivity and requires few employees.

    The ringer in all this is that the island of Bougainville has voted 98% in favor of independence from Papua New Guinea. That island had the largest copper mine in the world when it was shut down by civil war in the 1980s. At the time, it provided 40% of the tax revenue of Papua New Guinea. One year’s production from the Panguna Mine would equal the entire life cycle production of hard rock mining in northern Minnesota. A slurry pipeline to a deep water ocean port was completed before the mine shut down. My neighbor was an engineer on that project. That port is only 3,000 miles from the largest consumer of copper, China. Panguna has high quality ore, including a high percentage of gold, that is easily mined. If Panguna reopens, Minnesota won’t be able to compete.

  2. “By voting Republican, the Range has made itself irrelevant.” That is the way it feels to me. How long will it take for the DFL to realized it doesn’t have to kowtow to Range/mining interests any more?

  3. Great piece Aaron. A hammer was taken to those idiots. The leadership of these two is criminal. Veda Ponikvar will be haunting Tomassoini this night and to his grave. This accomplishes nothing for the people of the range except making everything worse then ever. They aligned themselves with the Proud Boys over the people and as others have said in a totally pointless power move.

  4. During the senate DFL leadership fight last year, one of the tropes making the rounds was a plea to not embarrass Bakk when he was planning on retiring before the 2022 election, which would follow redistricting.

    It does seem very questionable ethically to run as a party member, then leave the party three weeks after the election. It seems, in fact, outright cowardly. If they had this staunch philosophical belief, why didn’t they have the guts to run on it in 2020? I guess in their minds the voters are just suckers who don’t deserve to know.

    My guess is that both of them will “retire” in 2022, moving to highly paid “jobs” in the mining industry that leave a lot of time for fishing and reward years of putting the mining companies ahead of everything else.

    The Democratic Party survived the departure of Strom Thurmond. It will survive the departure of these two “friends of Strom” as well.

  5. Fred Schumacher says
  6. Excellent column , Aaron. “Kept company men” , for sure…a shameful and deceitful move.

  7. Serious question: where will we get the steel for the driverless EV cars of the future? I don’t care what a bunch of MN greenies think, the rich and powerful in the Democrat party from Silicon Valley and their surrogates in China producing the components, WILL get these types of vehicles produced. It’s going to happen. What will be built to harvest crops and distribute them across the fruited plain if we were to shut down transportation and mining because the Earth is harmed?

    I would rather invest in mining in highly environmentally regulated places (i.e. here) where we are in the process of producing highly concentrated grades of Fe product that can be utilized in electric arc furnaces to bring recycled scrap up to the quality necessary for automotive strength. That is how we reduce the impact of industry on the planet. China neither has the capacity, OR true interest, in improving the global environment.

    I’m sympathetic to the reality of the problems we cause on Earth, and we should do all that we can, but short of going feudal, there is going to be modern industry that requires some mining.

    I also wonder Aaron, does this political football twist have anything to do with the Executive Council’s recommendation to extend the Mesabi Metallics leases yesterday? That’s some dirty vindictive politics right there and the DFL needs to start being honest with the citizens about their intentions for a region that is in lesser supply other profitable ventures.

    • The executive council meets today to consider the Mesabi Metallics proposal. I honestly don’t know which way that’s going, though I agree with the local reps that it’s time to move on from this company and its investors. That is, unless they drop half a billion dollars on the table this afternoon. Which I doubt.

      No one’s talking about not using steel, or not farming, or not moving goods and people around the country. I think that’s a straw man argument against some of the proposals designed to rethink the cumulative effect of what we currently do. You might be interested in my column this Sunday. I talk about ways to make steel with less emissions or even no emissions, using the same iron ore we mine right here.

      As far as regulations go, Minnesota is a funny state. Some aspects of mining are extremely regulated, while others are not regulated very well. The bigger concern about the copper mine proposals here is that the permits hinge on technology that does exist, and indeed will probably work, but without any assurance that future mine ownership will be bound to use it or continue mitigation efforts after active mining is complete. That’s actually true of iron mining, too, we just got lucky that taconite proved viable and remains in reasonably high demand. My greater concern about the new projects is that they are financially risky and that we may well have wasted an entire generation arguing about a Snuffleupagus.

      • Aaron, I always always appreciate your writing and responses that keep me in check, but please here me out on my rambling, passionate, visceral reaction to the Executive Council call today… I listened to the full call.

        I think you just saw why Bakk and Tomassoni defected. Yeah, it might be over copper-nickel as well, but I’m telling you this defection is about Essar. Bakk and Tomassoni might be company men, but they are American company men, not Essar men, not Glencore men, but they’ll happily take their money too. There is a HUGE story here that nobody is truly covering and it has to do with international players trying to strategically encumber US industry. Tom Clarke was a pawn, that’s been his whole career. Half the Mesabi people didn’t even show up for the call and when they spoke they had nothing to the tone of their voice to show passion for this project or the Range. There is corruption here and you, Aaron, are being blinded by the legitimate concerns of protecting the environment and diversifying the Iron Range economy. I am on board with environmental agendas, but the lengths taken to stop existing industry in this country, while there is ZERO public outcry by officials against the Brazils, Chinas, Indias, etc. of the world and everyone continues buying iPhones, Teslas, etc… is beyond irritating. It’s utter hypocrisy and it’s at the heart of angry MAGA types. I am not a Trump supporter, for full disclosure, but I understand why his message resonated.

        We can have industry here. We can do a better job than those places at maximalizing our tech. I look forward to your Sunday article. I believe we need LNG tech currently available to get us to subsidize the “emissions-free” carbonizing that they are trying to develop in Sweden/Austria at Voelstalpine. I get that, it needs to get there, but there’s nothing that even remotely gives me assurance that Essar Global, and how it conducts its business elsewhere in the world, will pursue this technology, at least certainly not as quickly as Cliffs has demonstrated that it will. Cliffs didn’t just buy Steel companies over the past year to ensure a place for pellets to go, he is creating an integrated system that will provide the overhead reduction, and synergies needed, to develop the next waves of steel-making tech.

        Fromthe call today again, for the DNR to insinuate that Cliffs could potentially be unable to get through the permitting process if the project were to reset is UTTER hogwash. I almost fell out of my chair. How did Cliffs retro-fit operations at NorthShore? Hmm? Was the DNR not involved? What a garbage statement. That DNR guy onthe call today is the REAL company-kept man in this state, and hint, it’s Essar, or Mercuria, or whoever… None of these business have anything other than a throw-away website, except Essar. Also, the reserve data on HibTac is KNOWN, I found it insulting that the DNR would not confirm the remaining mine life and instead made an overture that US Steel has reserves adjacent that HibTac could access. Sure maybe US Steel can do something to help HibTac out, but why would US Steel do that? They consume everything internally, so they are cutting off a body part just for a little coin, that Cliffs doesn’t want to pay… And in that instance the DNR would make CLF go through another permitting process for that, so they are talking out of both sides of their mouth when it comes to Cliffs being able to navigate the permitting process…

        Walz showed zero leadership today. He had the opportunity to make a “No” vote, seeing that there was a majority of “Ay”, to at least voice displeasure and affirm his statement soon after entering office, but instead he made it unanimous and back-tracked on his statement that Essar be disbarred from operating here. I listened to the full 2 hours of the call. In my opinion this was yet another example of local officials trying to extract a few 10s of millions for projects today, while putting decades of 100s of Millions in jeopardy with a untrustworthy venture.

        I might sound like a CLF apologist, and I am, but they deliver. They are creating prosperity for their people and prosperity is what we need to institute new systems and technology that will help us move beyond raw industrialism. This is what Marx talks about, that you need capitalism as a vehicle to get you to the prosperity necessary to equitably distribute resources through socialism. I weep for the Range… They are systematically ignored by St. Paul about doing things that work, while St. Paul holds out hope for 2 birds in the bush. Cliffs is being ignored, NOT because they might not produce a value-added plant, but because they’ll actually get it done. The DNR is banking on this project continuing to die with pittance payments to local governments. That’s what there leadership is demonstrating.

        Anyway, I know I am assessing certain things wrong here, but my bigger picture ethos is what I hope we can continue to discuss. We have to have some semblance of an industry of REAL things that last in perpetuity, if we don’t have REAL goods to sell (alongside services) eventually our economy is backed by nothing. Then, when we consume more than we produce, we have to do things to artificially support our currency (like back-stop war around the globe). This is a real and serious problem that liberals need to understand and take off the greenie-colored glasses and work towards a middle ground.

  8. By the way… I realize you are not all liberals. I am specifically calling out Metro area types who would rather see this project tied up by liars, rather than be politically unpopular and say they are anti-mining.

    Sorry, hope you didn’t take my rambling the wrong way.

    • Hi Derek — No, I didn’t take it the wrong way. I just missed the comment until just now. I actually agree with most of what you said. I still think the Range delegation is naive about how Glencore, et al., will treat us if we supplicate ourselves too much, but point taken. I am of particular agreement about Cliffs. I was very skeptical of Lourenco when he came on (I think most were) but I am seeing a company that is A) reasonably friendly to labor, B) reasonably fair with local governments, and C) finishes what it starts. Also, LG has shown much more vision than I could have imagined. I worried he would just prove a hedge fund huckster, but he’s a real mining and steel guy and it shows. I don’t know what sway that Mesabi Metallics has over the state, other than I think the state just doesn’t want to be encumbered with the ugly lawsuits that they’d get if they yanked the leases. I think it’s a defensive crouch, and that’s not a good look for anyone. And it’s not going to work, either. Best case this weird new proposal fizzles in May and they really do pull the leases, but how often have we said something like that before.

  9. The handwriting is on the wall for most Range iron ore producers, with their mineable resources heading toward exhaustion. Most have less than 20 years of reserves left at full production, some have less than 10, and only one has more than 25. Meanwhile, although resources in Australia are also starting to show a future endpoint, they still have many more years left, and the same is true in South America. The real future appears to be in West Africa, where exploration seems to suggest reserves larger than the entire output of the Range over its productive history, perhaps by several times. That is where the future supplies will come from, produced from plants local to the mines and owned by everyone from the Chinese to the South Koreans to the Singaporeans to the Taiwanese, perhaps with some Indian and Middle Eastern people in the mix as well. That is where the metals of our future will come from. And as far as any “strategic” considerations, by far the smarter move there is to leave our depleting oil and ore resources in the ground against day when accessing world supplies might be impossible due to war.

    Like all resource extraction, iron mining is a finite proposition, and the Range has the end in sight.

    Copper and nickel may be a different issue, with resources untapped, but that is hampered by the extremely high cost of production in Northeastern Minnesota, which is a high for the world even without suitable control of pollution, and out of reach with it. Throw in a world-wide current glut and very low prices, and the factor of likely other new resources in less developed nations, and the economics of Minnesota copper stop making sense. And even if world prices and demand were to return to the mid aught values that originally led to the current efforts at exploitation, that resource is also limited and subject to repeated downtime as prices fluctuate.

    If the Range is to have a future beyond tourism, our leaders need to get moving on creation of other jobs and other futures beyond the now-visible end of mining. A recent piece of research showed that people with high school education only were capable of developing technical skills leading to incomes in the $55,000 to $75,000 range right now, if employers could be convinced to wave knee-jerk degree requirements. Obviously, this is still much lower than core mining jobs when they are able to work full time, but probably average out to be at least as much over a career, factoring in downtime in the mines and future job loss do to ongoing technical change. And it is certainly higher than earned by almost all those working in spin-off jobs from mining that do not require engineering or other four-year and graduate degrees.

    The future of the Range is outside of mining. The question is what vision we see, a Range with half or less the current population and everyone else moving elsewhere, or a Range with a growing population but with core industries outside mining. Mining obviously remains important to the Range, but it is no longer the dominant factor it once was, and definitely is not the path to a viable, prosperous future over the next 50 years.

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