As Bakk retires, unpredictable new era begins on the Iron Range

Tom Bakk

State Sen. Tom Bakk (I-Cook)

Though I have been on an extended hiatus from daily political blogging, I find it hard to leave certain events without comment. Thus, today, we observe the end of an era in Iron Range politics and the beginning of a shapeless and developing new order.

This morning, State Sen. Tom Bakk (I-Cook) announced that he will retire from the legislature at the end of his term this year. This comes two weeks after the retirement of State Sen. David Tomassoni (I-Chisholm), who will not seek re-election as he battles advanced ALS.

The announcement alone doesn’t change the big picture, but it is a sort of punctuation mark in the midst of political change on the Iron Range. Bakk and Tomassoni had already scrambled the situation by declaring their independence from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party after the 2020 election. They then caucused with Republicans in exchange for committee chairmanships.

Regardless of your opinion of their choices, it was a strong indicator of observable political change in the region. Though the Iron Range was not the most pro-Trump part of rural Minnesota, its remarkable shift from 65-70 percent Democratic presidential majorities to 45-50 percent pluralities for Trump was among the starkest shifts on record.

While Bakk, Tomassoni, and central Range legislators held their seats, their majorities, too, were beginning to shrink. Meantime, the western Iron Range in Itasca County shifted heavily toward the Republicans at all levels. This includes a complete rout in House District 5B of a district that had been in DFL hands just four years earlier. There, the Republican won all but two *precincts*. The electoral shift could be observed moving west to east, with incumbent Rep. Julie Sandstede in House 6A (eastern Itasca County, Hibbing and Chisholm) nearly losing her seat as well.

Now there are new maps. Some new Range districts allow the DFL to remain competitive, but others provide big pickup opportunities for Republicans. As I wrote for the Minnesota Reformer, there remains an opportunity for the GOP to sweep the Range, just as Democrats retain a chance of stemming the tide.

This is not some passive consideration. Control of next year’s state House and Senate will likely hinge on Range districts.

Will Minnesota policy move in the direction of progressive taxation, social programs to aid our global economic transition, reproductive freedom, acknowledgement of climate change, and a commitment public education? Or will it move in the direction of privatization, voting “security” that limits access to the ballot, tax cuts, abortion bans, and a political party that has shown little temperance in regards to authoritarianism.

Ironically, these questions may be decided by a slap fight over who’s more pro-mining, the pro-mining candidate or the other pro-mining candidate.

For a lot of Rangers, the matter boils down to a cultural understanding. How things are going? (Badly). Who is to blame? (Right now, they’d say Democrats, for lack of any other theory).

It is fascinating that in the new District 7, the seat currently held by Tomassoni, that there is only one DFLer announced to run and four Republicans. This is a perfect inverse of how things ran when the DFL was in control of the region. More Republicans means that more people who imagine being a senator are running on the GOP side. They could be delusional; politicians often are. But their candidacies might also represent meaningful data.

Bakk was always a very smart Range DFL political leader. His instinct toward survival and preservation of a political order, however, limited his ability to remain effective as a Democrat during our changing times. He risked losing a two-front war as an independent. A GOP primary would have been a firing squad. So he leaves the arena.

No matter the political party in office, the Range political system is oriented around cultural grievances against Duluth and the Twin Cities. DFL or Republican, the mining industry has dominated politics here for more than a century. To his credit, Bakk proved capable of thinking bigger than this. In conversation, he was an amiable and thoughtful analyst of past, present and future. However, in the end, Bakk would not break with the Range tradition. It was not in his nature. He followed the political winds to a cove on the outskirts of the GOP caucus. Like Pompey, he falls on the beach with some strange new order coming to take the Empire he built.


  1. Thank you for the analysis. As a lefty, I’m sad to see my home area give in to Republican culture war nonsense. Not surprised, but sad.

  2. Joe musich says

    ….” They could be delusional; politicians often are.” Or they can come to be. As to my making a choice I would still say as a whole the lefties are very much less so. Or a least this side of the equation advocates for more for all. I am hoping that people will open their eyes and see the benefit of that outlook up there again. Here ya go … And more about the great Abel Meeropol …

  3. Suppose one was looking for a community in Minnesota in which to locate a home and/or business.
    How would one decide in the face of hundreds of possibilities?
    A great screening tool would be the smallest percentage of trump/GOP voters.

  4. In traveling around the state and country it becomes obvious that the IRRRB has not been particularly successful in the last 74 years of reforming us or our local economy. Most towns havr modern schools and water treatment plants and many have new industries and businesses.

    Especially telling is the eastern strip of South Dakota along the Minnesota border. Exact opposite taxation and government.philosiphies have produced telling differences. Cities like Sioux Falls, Brookings, Watertown, and Sisseton.have much more going for them than their Minnesota counterparts.

    Economic prosperity seems to follow red voting areas and stagnation and dispair follow blue areas.

    • I hate to disagree with you, B, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. The eastern cities of the Dakotas are on a major international trade route and are to a large degree regional centers. Regional centers and large cities are indeed thriving all over the country in blue and red states. Places wedded to single industries — no matter the industry — are struggling, along with rural areas generally. The highest population and GDP in Minnesota, for instance, are the deep blue Twin Cities and the bluing suburbs. But I won’t make the claim that it’s *because* they’re blue, only that our economy is sending people and money into concentrated centers.

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