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

March 18, 2022 6:00 am

Minnesota State Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, poses for a portrait in his office at the Minnesota State Capitol Wednesday, February 3, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

Today, we observe the end of an era in Iron Range politics and the beginning of a shapeless and developing new order.

State Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, announced Thursday 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% Democratic presidential majorities to 45-50% 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 previously for the 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, 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.

In the end, however, 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.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

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