Northeastern Minnesota seat shuffle shows how it is when nobody knows your name

PHOTO: Sharon Mollerus, Flickr CC-BY

My latest column for the Minnesota Reformer is up today. Entitled “Shifting lines and changing times on the big lake they call Gitchi Gummi,” this piece explores redistricting outcomes here in northern Minnesota.

Specifically I take a look at the expanding geography and unique political culture of the Eighth Congressional District. For instance, this observation:

Minnesota’s 8th might be the only district in Congress where you might find as many $5,000 bicycles hanging in garages as you do poached deer. I would caution, however, against trying to prove it. 

I also look at the implications of the Iron Range losing a State House seat and most of a State Senate seat. This dire game of musical chairs will have a big impact on the region this year.

Check out the full column in the Minnesota Reformer. Thanks for reading!



  1. Unfortunately for the Northland, the answer given for the Jeopardy question is wrong.

    The largest city on North America’s largest lake is Thunder Bay, at about 110,000 residents. Another reflection on the gradual decline of the Northland.

    But there is some good news here. The largest metro area is Duluth, at nearly 279,000 twice as big as Thunder Bay metro. Of course, part of that is in Wisconsin.

  2. The redistricting has brought a major shakeup in the state races in Duluth.

    For reasons that are unclear to me, the Court decided to change the name of the Senate District that covers Duluth from SD7 to SD8. Population changes required adding some voters, mostly from existing Duluth City precincts that used to be in Mary Murphy’s 3B district. This shifted SD8 very slightly right compared with SD7, but the numbers crunchers still rate it DFL +30, so SD8 and 8A and 8B continue to be safe DFL seats.

    However, Jen Schultz, the representative for 7A since 2015, has decided to hang it up and is not running, making her seat, now 8B, an open seat for November. Short of a reincarnation of Dwight Eisenhower, a GOP victory in East Duluth remains extremely unlikely, but there does seem to be a race for the DFL spot on the ballot. Arik Forsman, former Ranger who now works in the Development Department of Minnesota Power and serves on the Duluth City Council as an at large representative, and Breanna Ellison, who works for the City of Duluth as a counselor in the Workforce Development Department, both former Duluth News-Tribune “20 under 40” honorees, have declared for the 8B DFL nomination..

    Meanwhile, in the new SD8 race, Renee Van Nett, a Red Lake Band enrollee and also a sitting city councilor, has declared for the DFL slot against SD7 incumbent Jen McEwen.

    All of this seems pretty ordinary, but, as the saying goes, you can’t tell the players without a program.

    Both these races are the latest iteration of the ongoing fight between the pro-non-ferrous mining, labor backed, Chamber of Commerce backed right wing of the Duluth DFL and the anti-non-ferrous mining, environmentalist, progressive left wing for the soul of the Duluth DFL and control of its elective positions.

    The Progressives have had the upper hand in elections lately, but the pro-Polymet group is back for a rematch. Forsman is a central figure in the pro-Polymet movement,. He was a founder of the pro-Polymet group “Better in Our Backyard,” and of course his employer stands to profit heavily from more mining development. He has been the leader of the center-right coalition that has had the upper hand in the City Council for the last few years (incidentally strengthened by the recent appointment of former councilor Noah Hobbes to the council.) Van Nett has been a reliable Forsman follower on the council. Van Nett has had two close elections for her seat, but may play better in East Duluth, where her ethnicity may attract some progressive voters. Forsman has won easily in the past.

    Van Nett has had the amusing nerve to couch her candidacy as committed to clean water. This obviously requires an asterisk, since it seems to mean “I trust Glencore to not mess up our drinking water.” Given the stance of the Fond du Lac band on Polymet, this should result in the spectacle of a Native American candidate being opposed by the most prominent Native American leaders in Duluth, but for anyone who follows Indigenous politics even minimally, a fight between a Red Lake member and the rest of the Ojibwa nation in Minnesota is old news. In fact, McEwen’s GOP opponent in 2020 was another Red Lake enrollee, GOP/MAGA activist Donna Bergstrom.

    Before you say that Polymet is no longer an issue at the state legislature, cast your mind back a few years to when the GOP/Ranger coalition passed bills in both the House and the Senate to totally eliminate the sulfide water pollution standards for Minnesota. The bill only failed because it was vetoed by Dayton, and the Polymet supporters may want to make another run at it with a different governor. I have talked to several people knowledgeable about mining engineering and sulfide issues who believe that there is no way that Polymet can meet the current standards for sulfide pollution and make a profit, regardless of the prices of copper and nickel, so the unlimited right to dump sulfide into the waters that feed Lake Superior and the Duluth City water supply may be a critical factor in the ongoing battle over the mine.

    Schultz’s late resignation has made the SD8 endorsing convention a mystery, as has the use of remote registration and remote meeting. No one, except perhaps major-league organizers, knows what the makeup of the convention will be. In the recent past the progressives have dominated the convention and the district offices, but perhaps the Right Wing/Union coalition has stolen a page from the progressive playbook and packed the convention with their supporters. That will only be clear when the convention happens in late April. The DFL endorsement still means something in Duluth, but in the recent past the right wingers have ignored the endorsement when it has gone against them and moved on to the primary. In a primary, name recognition should help McEwen and Forsman, even if they don’t win the endorsements.

    It would be a cliche to say that this kind of mess is typical in the Duluth DFL, but the reason it’s a cliche is because it is so true.

    Stay tuned. The lack of any real news outlets in Duluth these days is going to make it hard to follow what is happening and may make it hard for the less well known candidates to make any headway. Organizing strength for both the progressives and the business/union coalition will probably be the main factor in the outcome. Both should have plenty of money. And of course, in Duluth winning the DFL nomination is an almost certain guarantee of success in November.

    • More clarity in Duluth.

      Alicia Kozlowski has also declared for 8B. She is a community relations officer for the city government and is reportedly a force. She is Indigenous, Latina, and LGBTQ, for a full trifecta of minority buttons, and is supposed to be very articulate and dynamic. She also is the third Duluth News-Tribune “20 Under 40” selectee in the race. As certified old person, I am happy to see good younger people stepping up.

      Kozlowski appears to be the more or less official candidate of the powerful Duluth DFL Left. I am told she has a series of endorsements by important local and state political figures that will drop soon.

      I am also told that the delegates to the SD8 endorsing convention lean strongly left. The retirement of Jen Schultz (BTW, I am told to watch for another shoe to drop on that) caught people by surprise and happened after the selection of delegates, but the well-organized left wing knew that Jen McEwan would face a right-wing challenge from Renee Van Nett and loaded up for that with delegates who can be expected to back Kozlowski also. Expect Arik Forsman to take the position that just because he sought the endorsement (and may have promised to honor it) doesn’t mean he has to pay attention to it. “DFL endorsement? We don’t need no stinking DFL endorsement!”

      No one is quite sure what impact Breanna Ellison might have. I am told that the convention will use rank choices voting for the endorsement, which might allow people to support Ellison while still giving another candidate a first round victory.

      Forsman is making calls and sending email blasts trying to sound as progressive as possible. He has voted in support of many progressive issues, but only after working to push laws substantially to the right and structuring them to suit Chamber and business interests. Non-ferrous mining will be an issue (there’s a shock,) with a very stark divide between Forsman, a major pro-mining advocate and organizer, and Kozlowski. Recent elections suggest that Duluth has moved sharply left on that issue.

      Meanwhile, expect the college signings of local high school hockey stars and Stauber family backyard barbecues to get more coverage in the DNT/My Weekly Reader than elections for state office, since lately they can’t be bothered. The death of the local papers is, sadly, partly suicide.

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