The hard work of political change on the Iron Range

Last Tuesday brought to a close a long and fascinating chapter in the political history of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. A new era now begins.

Sen. Doug Johnson

Sen. Doug Johnson (PHOTO: Minnesota State Senate archive)

Amid the din of political punditry and the fan of my overused computer, a friend called to tell me that former State Sen. Doug Johnson died that morning at the age of 80. I once worked on Johnson’s spirited but ultimately Quixotic 1998 campaign for the DFL nomination for governor. That thrilling summer provided my 18-year-old self an unparalleled education in how Iron Range politics worked. 

Johnson’s career symbolized a sort of politics that, by all appearances, left with him on Nov. 8. 

This week, for the first time in the post-1974 partisan legislative era, Republicans won elections on the central Mesabi Iron Range. You have to go back to Carl D’Aquila of Hibbing in 1948 to find a declared conservative legislator winning an election here. Before that, you’d have to go back to the 1920s to find an Iron Range election as successful for the GOP as this year’s — a full century ago.

Rob Farnsworth of Hibbing won the Senate District 7 race over Ben DeNucci of Nashwauk. This new district includes most Mesabi Iron Range precincts. 

Meantime, the House 7A campaign featured two incumbent representatives paired in a new district that included Hibbing, Chisholm and the western Mesabi. Republican Spencer Igo of Wabana Township defeated DFLer Julie Sandstede of Hibbing. 

Both of these races were competitive, but ultimately each resulted in a win of about 7 percentage points for Farnsworth and Igo, respectively. 

House 7B includes Virginia, Eveleth, Gilbert and the east-central Mesabi. There, DFL incumbent David Lislegard held his seat by a relatively narrow margin of about 3 percent over GOP opponent Matt Norri. 

These races demonstrated the awesome, or perhaps awful, power of outside money in closely contested races. The 70-year dominance of the DFL in this region shielded us from the less personal, far more expensive world of swing district campaigns in the 21st century. Short online interactions, quick handshakes, and mountains of mailers characterize this new world. It wasn’t always this way.

A childhood polio survivor, Doug Johnson overcame physical challenges to project his gregarious personality into his DFL politics. Johnson, then a guidance counselor at the old Cook High School, ran for the legislature, winning a State House seat in 1970. There he would join with other Range DFL political legends, Rudy Perpich among them, to craft new language surrounding taconite mining taxation that would retain some of the massive mineral wealth of the region for local communities and schools. He is the last surviving legislator to have worked on this 1970s legislation. 

After winning Northeastern Minnesota’s biggest geographic State Senate seat, Johnson became known for his acumen in state tax policy. He became tax chair and one of the most powerful people in the legislature. People would joke that Doug thought the state motto, “L’Étoile du Nord,” meant “send the money north.” He liked that joke. Even if it wasn’t really the state motto, it was his motto.

Because of his disability, the physical act of campaigning was tough on Johnson. In that ’98 campaign, he did parades and events on top of a camouflage painted ATV. But there was no avoiding the retail politicking, something Doug did with seeming glee even though it literally hurt him.

Johnson’s last political act this year was to advise the Senate District 3 campaign of DFLer Grant Hauschild of Hermantown. In fact, Johnson endorsed Hauschild the same day his successor Tom Bakk, who left the DFL, endorsed Republican Andrea Zupancich of Babbitt. I remember thinking that was a bit of cheeky resolve from the man I once knew. 

So it is perhaps fitting that one of the big surprises of Election Night was that the GOP failed to win District 3. Even though Republicans narrowly carried both House Districts 3A and 3B (by margins of 15 and 35 votes, respectively), Hauschild won the Senate race by more than 700 votes. It was a change election more than anything else, and Johnson’s instincts proved correct one last time.

It’s obvious that the people of the Iron Range don’t much agree about politics right now, but I think everyone heading to the polls last week did express their version of hope for the strengthening of Range communities. It’s different, perhaps, than the world we grew up in. But different doesn’t have to be bad so long as we keep our hearts full of love and our hands full of work, of which there is plenty to find. 

For my DFL friends, look to the success of new voices like Hauschild for examples of how combining vision with good messaging can reach new voters tired of hearing about the same old arguments. Or how Lislegard marshaled his industry expertise to win over voters that had otherwise left his party. There will be more elections.

For my Republican friends, congratulations on this long sought achievement. Political victories like these have eluded most of you your entire lives. You now have a chance to build the kind of trust and effectiveness that could last a generation. If it helps the Range, well, beggars can’t be choosers, as you well know.

I think my defining memory of Doug Johnson comes from after a summer parade somewhere on the Iron Range. He had gotten off his ATV to work the crowd and was bone tired and hurting. Sweaty and round, he leaned against the tailgate of his pickup truck as he smoked one of his famous Marlboro cigarettes. People would walk by and call his name. He’d smile at them with 10,000 watts until they left. Then he went right back to being tired. 

Politics demands popularity and sometimes brains, but Dougie showed that this business mostly requires a hell of a lot of work if you want to do it right. Our changing party politics on the Iron Range hold big policy implications, to be sure. But our population numbers and political power have waned. The people of the Mesabi would do well to remember that a strong, independent Range has plenty of room for different ideas and new voices.

Aaron J. Brown

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 Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Back when Duluth TV covered the legislature, I had the beat at KDLH. Doug was a class act and truly a joy to cover and write about. In his off e he had a great editorial cartoonist showing Iron Range lawmakers taking wheelbarrows of money north. Thanks for the piece, you should adapt this to a statewide audience and submit to the Strib.

  2. Love your columns

  3. Paul A Sturgul says

    What has happened to the political landscape of the Mesabi has also happened to that of Northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula. Only one county- Marquette, with its public university and two operating mines, now votes Democratic. Iron County, WI [my home] was once one of the most solidly Democratic counties in Wisconsin. Now it is 60+% Trump Republican. The challenge for the Democrats is to win back the hearts and minds of the people of the Lake Superior Region. So far the Democratic party movers and shakers have seemed oblivious to the loss of this region. The people here feel that their grievances are not being heard or addressed by the Democratic Party. The Republicans offer no solutions except psychic gratification but know how to channel voter resentment into political victory. I suggest that the Democratic elected officials at the state and federal level, including the Biden Administration, convene an economic summit of the Lake Superior Region. The gathering would bring together all the stakeholders of the region to discuss where we are, how to go to where we are, and what kind of future we want our region to have, and how to get there. Do this now!

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