Here’s what Politico got wrong about the Iron Range

Leonidas Overlook near Eveleth. Courtesy Ironrange.org.

The national political publication Politico profiled the shifting political winds on northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. Reporter Adam Behsudi and photographer M. Scott Mahaskey toured the region a few weeks ago.

Disclosure: I was among the sources interviewed.

It hardly seems relevant now, given current events, but the piece is worth reading. At first blush, the story says something obvious: That this region is no longer a solid DFL region, that residents are drifting toward Republican candidates because of mining, guns and distrust of immigrants. That much has been said before.

This one is quite comprehensive, however. Behsudi did a good job putting local Steelworker leaders and mayors on the record saying the sorts of things that are typically muttered off the record. As a historical document this explains the thought process of Iron Range political leadership.

I point out two flaws, and I would extend this same criticism to most reporting on Iron Range politics these days. One, the story ends up relying on the same voices typically quoted. Two, it uses a political lens to observe a cultural phenomenon.

First, whenever a reporter is sent to “take the political pulse of the Iron Range,” he or she generally sticks to the framing of mining and environmental issues.

A lot of that is surface level. It puts you in the business of interviewing the same people over and over again. You’ve got the miners, the mayors, and the environmental advocates. I am frequently cast as the “contextual analyst” in such stories, its own kind of trope.

But I noticed this same thing when KBJR did a similar story (also quoting me) a few weeks ago. When you stick out your microphone and ask about politics, the people who answer tend to be middle aged or elderly men. That’s not to say those opinions don’t matter, only that focusing on that demographic omits a large part of the population.

The Politico story was tilted 9-2 toward men. The Iron Range is more than half female. At 40, I might not have been the youngest person quoted, but the median age of sources was easily north of 50.

Now, our region is older. So that shows up in our politics. But as you talk to young people on the Iron Range, especially if you ask the vast majority of people who don’t work in mines, you get a far more nuanced picture of our community and its politics.

These other folks might not necessarily be liberal or anti-mining. But they live in a different world than the folks who generally get quoted in stories like this. (The sources in this story, for instance, have an average income far greater than the typical Iron Ranger).

Over time, the politics of this region will be dictated by the under 40s who stay here, a demographic that is only partially motivated by mining politics.

It also galls me that health care, our largest industry, remains an afterthought. Particularly so as we grapple with a national health care crisis. Health care is a female-dominated industry full of educated professionals. The political views you find among members of this industry will sound very different than the typical Iron Range political report. This is especially true with questions over community services and economic diversification.

New mines might theoretically create better jobs for people who already have jobs. But no one seems to care much that a rural hospital can’t recruit doctors because there are no jobs for their educated spouses.

Yes, some nurses are the partners of miners, but most are not. This has much more to do with the cultural sway of mining in this region than the economic facts of our conundrum.

Which brings me to my other point, one that I am quoted talking about. This is all about culture. When Pete Stauber bellows “Our Way of Life” at his campaign rallies, he’s equating our right to fish, hunt, and live in our small communities with a set of policies that serve a small number of large and (until quite recently) profitable industries. As though the wild rice standard might cause the confiscation of our hunting rifles. Or setting higher financial assurance requirements for PolyMet might cause grandma to forget her potica recipe.

It’s a cynical ruse, one that might take a generation to unpack. But as I point out it’s highly effective right now and likely to work like a charm next November.

I can see the analog in social media traffic surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic here on the Range. A couple weeks ago this was all overblown, nothing to worry about here. Now, with everything shut down, people are noticing people coming from the Twin Cities to lay low at their cabins. And they’re pissed.

Because it’s all cultural. We want to control our own future and can’t because big companies have been gobbling up the power and land for a century. We feel too weak to challenge big industry, so our middle class and thought leaders gravitate toward the companies, hoping that we are safe in their shadows.

I endeavor to cover actual economic realities in my work. To what end, I increasingly do not know. But I see this region as much more complex than it is portrayed. I see now why writers and academics in Appalachia are always pulling out their hair trying to get the rest of the country to see the real story, not just the stereotypes.

The fact that I feel this way probably does not bode well for the economic prospects of this region. As long as we’re a rootin’, tootin’ stereotype, we will struggle to win outside investment for anything more than non-union mines and the dregs of industry.