Cure for waning political power is more people

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

It is again time to tabulate the U.S. Census, an incredibly boring task that affects every aspect of our state and federal government. 

As with most complicated topics — taxes, First Century scrolls, technology — it’s easy for people to hold outrageous, illogical views without any real consequences. After all, who really knows?

That’s why the discussion of the Census often misses the point. The Census dictates reapportionment of federal and state legislative districts. This forces state legislatures to draw new districts. And because these are political offices, people tend to look at the matter through a partisan lens. 

What will this mean for my side? Will we gain or lose power? What will be taken from me?

We know that Minnesota’s population is growing slower than the rest of the country. We also know that northern Minnesota’s population, the Iron Range’s in particular, isn’t growing at all. 

These facts mean that Minnesota will likely lose a Congressional seat (and electoral vote) in the next reapportionment. Northern Minnesota’s 8th Congressional district will morph into a much larger 7th District. And Northeastern Minnesota legislative districts will become larger and less numerous. 

In other words, Northern Minnesota is losing power. 

We knew that, right? We’ve seen our schools become emptier. Our elected officials are whining and thrashing about more than usual. Many see this as part of a war with the rest of the state. They’re taking from us! We need to vote for candidates who stick it to them!

But we’re not at war. Fast-growing parts of Minnesota think very little about our corner of the world. If only one side is at war, it’s really just a resentment.

This brings our region to a crossroads that few like to talk about. Do we want people to move here or not?

Because the easiest choice would be to do nothing. With a few exceptions, that’s what we’re doing now. We’ll hold population in our counties while losing population in our rusting small towns. Financial problems in local government will mount, along with social problems like crime, addiction, and mental health crises. Some folks will do well. Most will struggle.

To marshal resources for these challenges we’ll have to consolidate most forms of local government. Towns will need to combine, forming municipal districts that share employees. Parts of some towns will return to seed. 

We’ll only need three high schools, probably in Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Virginia. Smaller elementary and charter schools would remain in the other towns. 

These aren’t radical ideas. They’re already happening a little each year. And while some of these proposals would save money, and may yet prove inevitable, they don’t excite anyone who lives here.

Another path chooses regeneration of our population and institutions. For my whole life Iron Range leaders have looked at the economic problem from the lens of job creation. If we “create jobs” people will come. This approach produced a handful of success stories and a great number of disappointments.

Job creation failed because the whole economic game was changing while we played by the old rulebook. Every podunk town in America threw money at trendy industries and unscrupulous developers, who played one place against another. Meantime, our main industries reduced their workforce and automated production.

That means the central focus of Iron Range economic development — mines and pipelines — can’t work the way supporters hope it will. 

Ten years ago North Dakota’s economy was booming. Our newspapers and social media feeds overflowed with opinions that we should emulate the Peace Garden State. But their “success” was a heavily subsidized bubble of shale oil extraction, which quickly passed peak production and now appears busted. The state did little to regulate the boom, or capture its tax revenue for the future. Now they’re back where they started. 

Boom and bust doesn’t work, if it ever did. The booms are shorter and the busts longer. Indeed, the way forward, if you want it, comes from attracting people. 

Recreation and tourism don’t match the jobs created by mining. But they do attract people to live in your region, including entrepreneurs and high paid professionals in capital and creative industries. These are the things that create lasting and sustainable jobs.

Why do people move? Often for schools. They want educational experiences that expose students to the arts and STEM fields, not one or the other. They also move for sports programs. Ours will be mediocre until we attract more people. You want the Range to win state championships? People. 

And that goes, quite literally, for our political sway as well. You want lots more representatives and senators? (Really?) Well, if you do, you want people to move here. All kinds of people. From all over. 

It’s that last part, the fact that regeneration means constant change, that holds us back. You want to win the “war” with the metro area? You have to accept that there is no war; except the one we choose to wage on people who look and think differently.

Next week I’ll talk more about ways to attract people to our region. It’s easier, and less expensive, than you think.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Excellent.

    You have been articulating this idea ever since I started reading your blog. It was true back then, and is true now. The truth of all this is going to be driven home with a sledge hammer when the 2021 redistricting hits. People in Northeastern MN are going to be shocked, dismayed, and angered.

    I strongly suspect that the two absconders in the State Senate are well aware of what is coming, and that their decision to betray their voters and leave the DFL is at least partly motivated by the fact that they will likely be leaving office in 2022 ahead of drastic changes in their districts, up to and including elimination of one of them.

    One point I would emphasize more is the impact that the normal life cycle of extraction industry will have on our region. No matter how much we want to preserve the way of life centered on mining, in the long run it is doomed, the long run in this case being thirty to fifty years even if we add non-ferrous mining to the mix. We dodged the bullet on this back when the red ore ran out, our region saved by University of Minnesota research — research that today would be unlikely to happen due to the shortsightedness of the very people who were saved by the research in defunding the U, apparently due to the impression that it espouses a different way of life than they support, or perhaps just out of shortsighted cheapness and ignorance. North Dakota is an example of what happens in extraction-based regional economies, for certain, although their problem is less due to exhaustion of resources and more due to the implacable economics of the cyclic demand and price for oil and gas — more similar to the booms and busts that mining has experienced over the last fifty years due to fluctuations of demand that we are all familiar with. Obama helped the steel industry mightily by stopping Chinese dumping, but neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can conjure up more ore to stop the end from coming. The best model for what is happening is West Virginia, where decline in available coal and technical changes decreasing demand have hollowed out the economy and the culture, leaving unemployment and underemployment, poverty, anger, and opiate addiction. That is what we are promising our kids when we stick with the mining, mining, mining approach.

    I am eager to see your ideas for attracting population.

  2. We should also take into consideration the local mentality. I am from Northern MN and have moved all the around the US and have never been met with such a disdain for “outsiders” than I have coming home to MN. The mentality of “if you’re not from here…” is strongly rooted in my parents, grandparents and now siblings. How do you suggest growing a population with locals who really don’t want insiders to move in? It’s like they will shoot themselves in the foot by complaining about tourists and people “not from here” and would rather watch their local economies die. What is that? Hometown pride? Racism? Fear? All of the above? It’s disheartening to watch.

  3. Paul Ojanen says

    Just to add; the “good times” people refer to were essentially from 1964-1981. The combination of a tax system aimed at full employment (Roosevelt’s Keynes reforms implemented during WWII) and the production tax giveaway from the state in 1964 (Tying government funding to the companies production rather than as taxable property…a giveaway) is what created the boom. Three elements have impacted mining employment; the end of that full employment as goal system under Reagan in 1981, Brazilian ore coming online at about the same time and technology. One of my geography professors commented (back in the 90’s) the boom was the worst thing that could’ve happened as it created the illusion of prosperity while local officials ignored what would eventually happen. It was a double impact; the expansions of the 70’s made the crisis worse as the collapse went through the local economy. There’s one problem never dealt with…the “Bezzle”. ( see These are the scams or criminality that a boom hides. It doesn’t necessarily have to be criminal, but can also be a mode of operation…see the IRRRB for examples such as the loan to Tom Micheletti and that’s hurt the area even more. The best example I can think of for what’s happened is my own family. Out of the 33 first cousins still alive (yes 41 one ff us ) only 7 remain near the range…and two are in their 80’s.

  4. Fred Schumacher says

    Mining is a one time harvest. From the first load of ore, the end is already in sight. The world is littered with abandoned mining towns on dead end roads. What killed mining jobs is not politics but 120 yard haul trucks and 60 yard shovels. Northeastern Minnesota is in the boreal forest, the last ecosystem colonized by people. It has a very low carrying capacity for humans. White pine logging and iron mining in the past required many workers and it boosted the population of the region beyond sustainable levels. It’s what North Dakota Elwyn Robinson called The Too Much Mistake, too many people, too much infrastructure that couldn’t be supported. The result has been a steady drop in population. The drop in population is what’s normal for the region, not growth.

    This region’s primary production is high volume, low value commodities, iron ore and wood pulp. Its largest resource is water, and we use tourists to harvest that. I remember a North Dakota Rancher of the Year who said his crop was grass, and he used cows to harvest it. By managing his grass, rather than focusing on the cows, his income increased. The money, however, is in value added, not base commodity production. That’s the idea behind ethanol. It’s a two-for, increasing the value of corn, while also producing a valuable by-product, high protein distillers grains, all while creating rural jobs. A cord of wood turned into furniture is worth far more than being ground into pulp and turned into paper or OSB. NRRI has developed a heat treatment process for wood that changes its chemistry so it no longer rots. That’s technology that just screams for value-added development.

  5. Interesting and thoughtful comments here. I’ve thought for years that the Range looks like going the ways of West Virginia….

    If I were looking for a place to locate a home or business, I think I would look first at the places that had the lowest voting support for trump. The reasons seem obvious.

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