Shifting lines and changing times on the big lake they call Gitchi Gummi | Essay

February 21, 2022 6:00 am

Lake Superior. Photo courtesy National Parks Service.

The final “Jeopardy” clue on Feb. 14 got a lot more attention in northern Minnesota than most game show fodder. 

“At about 90,000, it’s the most populous city on North America’s largest lake,” asked host Ken Jennings.

Anyone from here knew the answer right away. We were raised with fervent, almost nationalistic pride in Lake Superior. Largest freshwater lake in North America? Pfft, try largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area. I mean, who goes by water volume, ancient Siberian Lake of Baikal? Seriously? And don’t get us started on that salty tramp, the Caspian Sea.

So we knew the answer was Duluth. Unfortunately, the “Jeopardy” contestants all guessed wrong. Not because they’re dumb, but because for most of America it is possible to live a full life without ever knowing what’s a Duluth. Two said Green Bay. One actually said Minneapolis, also known as “The City of Lakes That Are Small And Lame,” which really belabors the point.

Lake Superior provides a good example of the difference between natural geography and political geography. You can’t move an inland sea. But you sure can move lines on a map. And when you’re in a place that the smartest people can’t seem to remember, those lines will not move in your favor.

That was the topic across the state last week as the new redistricting maps for congressional and legislative districts circulated among politically minded Minnesotans. Population changes in the 2020 census led to significant shifts in representation in some parts of the state, especially here in northern Minnesota.

Right now, Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District is larger than some states in terms of geography.* Redistricting just made it bigger. Shedding Morrison and Wadena counties, the 8th added part of Washington County in the south and Beltrami, Mahnomen, Clearwater and Lake of the Woods counties in the northwest. The most prominent city added is probably Bemidji, which purports to be home of the mythical Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

In fact, with Bemidji and Brainerd, the district now claims both of our state’s competing Bunyan origin stories. It also holds all of Minnesota’s Anishinaabe (Ojibwa/Chippewa) reservations for the first time since the turn of the 20th century. My Native friends might suggest that Paul Bunyan, with his Euro-centric conquest myth, kindly sit on the long end of his mighty axe. The great river we call the Mississippi was here long before “Paul” got sad. Its headwaters flow from the rich and mysterious bogs of this land.

This only highlights the interesting dynamics of this admittedly arbitrary political district. Here we find a natural place of competing political forces. We see glorious wilderness and natural resources speckled with towns built to exploit those assets. The 8th District is not only bigger than several states, it behaves as if it is one.

In the center, the “big city” of Duluth, our progressive city. Surrounding the metropolis we find the fast-growing, hockey-mad suburb of Hermantown. Beyond that, growing exurbs of conservative commuters.

We’ve got a Rust Belt up on the Iron Range, where some jaded blue-collar workers abandon their father’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in favor of the sharp-edged surety of Trumpism. Out in the sticks we find a few progressive towns, reservation communities navigating the dual politics of their own sovereign nations, and a whole lot of conservative townships. The district’s southern environs seem completely dominated by fear and loathing of Minneapolis, often by people who work and shop there.

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. 

By party index, the 8th District became nominally more competitive after last week’s redistricting, moving slightly to the left, although still leaning GOP. It’s a far cry from the not-so-distant past when the DFL held this seat by 30-40 points every two years. Today, U.S Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican ex-cop and erstwhile hockey prospect, remains favored for reelection. Though, he might have reason to worry if political winds shift.

Even starker population shifts northwest of the big lake forced even more dramatic change to the region’s legislative districts. The inevitable push south and west stripped a House seat and most of a Senate seat from the historic boundaries of the Iron Range.

Here, communities that have been paired together for more than a century are now divided. Obvious examples include the split of Hoyt Lakes in the new House District 3A from Biwabik and Aurora in the new 7B. Chisholm, also in 7B, finds itself isolated from its longtime neighbor Hibbing in the new 7A, which now includes most of the western Mesabi Range in Itasca County.

Grand Rapids, legally a Range community but culturally its own thing, becomes the largest city in a new House District 6A, part of a Senate District 6 that also includes Brainerd. 

The implications for partisan control of the Legislature, and specific incumbents here, are great. 

State Rep. Spencer Igo is a Republican who ran in 2020 from Grand Rapids but now lives in Wabana Township on the other side of the line in 7A. He was paired with DFL Rep. Julie Sandstede of Hibbing, who has not yet announced her plans. Regardless, this will pit the largest city on the Mesabi against increasingly conservative areas to the west.

The Senate District 7 race will be open with the retirement of longtime Iron Range lawmaker Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm. Tomassoni, who suffers from ALS, leaves a district that represents the best chance the DFL has to retain the heart of the Iron Range, but also the GOP’s best chance to complete a rout.

Then, of course, we must consider the power struggle in the new Senate District 3, with state Sen. Tom Bakk, who declared independence from the DFL and caucused with Republicans last year. Will he run? Will he be an Independent or a Republican? He already faces a DFL opponent in Keith Steva, who hails from the more DFL-leaning House 3B side. What will the GOP do? Support Bakk, or go all in on a new candidate?

And then there are DFL incumbent Reps. Rob Ecklund of International Falls and Mike Sundin of Cloquet. Ecklund’s 3A and Sundin’s 11A were already competitive, and might be more so with the new map. 

All of this might sound good for Republicans, and it mostly is, but they also need to win many of these seats to protect seats lost in other parts of rural Minnesota. In District 6, for instance, Sens. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, and Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, are paired together. Only one will be in the Legislature next year.

Lake Superior, it’s said, never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early. Darn if Gordon Lightfoot wasn’t right about that. This year the winds seem to be coming from the right, but the weather never stays the same for long around here.

If the 8th District resembles its own state, it might also serve as a quick — albeit much less diverse — stand-in for the United States. We’ve got competing interests, diverging realities and slow-rolling historical challenges that go way deeper than the next election. 

The elections do matter. These new districts, however, ensure that this region will have fewer representatives in St. Paul, each of them trying to balance the needs of more geographically diverse and complex constituencies. When such geographically broad places must share access to power, the people on the ground lose out. And when they call out for help, people in more populated places are surprised to learn they even exist.

Turning this around won’t be easy. A difference of just a few dozen people in Minnesota’s population would have led to a loss of a congressional seat last year. The resulting changes would only be greater, and likely will happen in just 10 years.

Unless, of course, we rethink the future of the region, attracting people – the most precious commodity – to the inland shores of Lake Superior.

Thus, the fate of places like this might not be determined by our actions on Election Day so much as by what we do all the other days. The trends we anticipate, ideas we develop, and collaborations we forge will float or sink our intrepid steel laker — big-money elections be damned. Little will change until we make a better life for ourselves on the big lake, in a wooded land that stretches from Lake of the Woods to Mille Lacs all the way down to Forest Lake.

Maybe then the best and brightest of “Jeopardy” will know our names. Not that we need their approval (or that we’d admit it if we did.)

Correction: A previous version misstated which Minnesota congressional district is the largest. 

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.