Bakk-assoni say they’re going “independent.” More like kept company men.

An old production truck on display at the Hull Rust Mine View. Automation continues to reduce the number of jobs on the Iron Range. The pandemic has exposed the rest of the state to the unemployment crisis familiar to the Iron Range for more than a century. Photo by Christina Hiatt Brown.

Two longtime Iron Range state senators will leave the DFL caucus and form an independent caucus for the 2021 legislative session. State Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm and former DFL majority leader Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook made the announcement Wednesday

The Republicans held a 34-33 majority in the State Senate. Now they’ll hold a 34-31-2 advantage. So, this is less a seismic shift and more an opportunistic realignment.

Tomassoni had already been elected Senate President in an elaborate political gambit last week. Now we see the move was part of a larger negotiated decision to reduce the power of the Senate DFL caucus and elevate the Range senators and their interests.

“People are going to wonder why I’m doing this — and to be honest, there are several reasons. I’m very disappointed by the extreme partisanship going on nationally and right here in Minnesota,” Bakk said in a joint statement with Tomassoni. “Both political parties are to blame. The constant negative and  sharp rhetoric is undermining voters’ confidence in our public institutions. It doesn’t have to stay this way.”

The move comes with Republican promises of committee chairmanships and other majority privileges, suggesting that this was a negotiated plan with the Senate GOP majority.

“Serving as chair of a Senate committee will allow me to better serve my communities and deliver results for my district,” Tomassoni said in the joint statement. “My constituents elected me to serve them to the best of my abilities. The Iron Range has provided the ore that has forged the steel that has made the bridges of America. If we expect to actually bridge the partisan divide, someone must take a proactive step to build such a bridge. I consider this to be a positive approach in an attempt to move away from the negative and partisan rhetoric while continuing to fully support our way of life on the Iron Range.”

State Sens. Tom Bakk and David Tomassoni left the Senate DFL caucus to form their own two-person caucus.

The joint statement issued by Bakk and Tomassoni spends a lot of time talking about partisanship. But if that were really the motivating factor for the Range senators, I’d expect the statement to include assurances about DFL issues they still support.

For instance, the release doesn’t mention K-12 education, higher education, access to health care or the social safety net for poor and vulnerable people. It only mentions natural resources and the same vague notion of “our way of life” that has propelled the rightward shift of the Iron Range. It’s the terminal outcome of the “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra that fails to address the changing economy and technology that has most affected places like this

So, we see quite plainly this move isn’t driven by a desire for bipartisanship. It’s about political power and the ability of these two senators to deliver the pro-mining company, anti-regulatory agenda of their districts’ most dominant political forces. Those being: mining companies, mining vendors, Minnesota Power and increasingly conservative trade unions. 

The word “independent” has thus reached its apex of irony. Tomassoni and Bakk just performed a massive display of dependence on the extraction industry. Not since U.S. Steel was the largest corporation on Earth have Mesabi Range state senators so blatantly maneuvered on behalf of the monied interests of this region.

Bakk and Tomassoni might still win elections on the Range. But surely they know that redistricting — no matter who does it — will be hard on them. Bakk’s Senate District 3  and Tomassoni’s Senate District 6 both sit near the top of underpopulated districts heading into this redistricting cycle. It is quite possible that the two of them will be drawn together in a new Senate district come 2022. 

Additionally, Bakk won his recent election by 10 points; Tomassoni won his by 15. You might call these good margins, but each actually faced the closest general election of his career against weak, underfunded opponents. President Trump won Tomassoni’s district and gave a strong showing in Bakk’s.* Better GOP candidates would give them trouble. So, dealing with the GOP means that Bakk and Tomassoni will have less to worry about on their right flank.

In doing so, however, Bakk and Tomassoni alienate the progressives in their base. Despite the narrative fueled by the Trump campaign, there remain a hefty number of actual Democrats who live in St. Louis, Itasca, Lake and Cook counties. Actual liberals, who believe in things. They will not allow two turncoat independents to go uncontested in the general election. 

And local Republicans will want total conversion on a number of issues before letting Bakk or Tomassoni have a free pass either. Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising to find Bakk and Tomassoni, like “Trapper” Bob Lessard before them, calling it a career after one last act of defiance.

This actually helps us understand the move. If these senators only have two years left, after decades of building seniority, they want all they can get. So, Tomassoni gets the Senate residency and a chairmanship. Bakk gets a chairmanship and an opportunity to flip off the Senate DFL caucus that rejected him for Sen. Susan Kent earlier this year

A good friend from Range politics, former Rep. Tom Anzelc, would always tell me that there is no purple button on a legislator’s desk. There is a green button and a red button. 

If the GOP takes the unprecedented step of giving chairmanships to independents elected as Democrats, they will have expectations. On all the votes that matter Bakk and Tomassoni will vote with Senate Republicans. 

So it goes. If trends hold, these two might be the last DFL senators elected out of the Iron Range for the next 10 years at least. What a pity this tradition of upward mobility for working class immigrants ends with the Machiavellian ascent of company lickspittles. 

All this for two copper-nickel mines that are unlikely to open anytime soon and a pipeline to bring wealth from one far-away place to another. Thirty pieces of silver would have been a better deal.

*This story has been corrected to note Trump did not win Bakk’s Senate district.