Iron Range, seething at the Twin Cities, continues right turn
State Sen.-elect Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, right, was a rare bright spot for Democrats in northeast Minnesota. Courtesy photo. Rep. Spencer Igo, R-Grand Rapids, won a newly drawn district against an incumbent who had been endorsed by the United Steelworkers and the CEO of Cleveland Cliffs. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Legislature.
Iron Range Republicans have been waiting for an election like Tuesday’s their whole lives. No, really. There hasn’t been one this good for the local GOP since Hoover.
Republican Rob Farnsworth won the open State Senate seat in the central Mesabi Range by a solid seven-point margin. This is the beating heart of the Iron Range, an erstwhile DFL bastion that delivered 40-point margins for John Kerry not that long ago.
Redistricting paired two incumbents in House District 7A, Republican Spencer Igo and DFLer Julie Sandstede. Sandstede was endorsed by the United Steelworkers and the CEO of Cleveland Cliffs, a historically rare combination. Nevertheless, Igo won by a similar seven-point margin.
In the state’s geographically biggest House seat, District 3A, Ely Mayor Roger Skraba defeated incumbent DFLer Rob Ecklund, a former Steelworkers union president, by a mere 15 votes.
Only DFL incumbent Rep. David Lislegard held on in District 7B. Despite being arguably the most pro-mining legislator in the state, Lislegard won by just three points.
And so it’s time to consider that some of this isn’t really about mining. It’s about culture.
Some years ago I fell down a research rabbit hole writing about a campaign to create a new state from the northern portions of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. This new state would be called Superior.
This was before social media, back when people would leave comments on websites. Many of the comments I saw came from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where the idea first originated. They rehashed the basic arguments: Local control for regions “forgotten” by their state capitals while keeping mining, logging and tourism revenue.
But then these comments would take a turn. At long last, in the Great State of Superior, Detroit would stop feasting on the hard-earned tax dollars of working people up north.
If you talk to people in northern Wisconsin, they complain the same way about Milwaukee. And we know how northern Minnesotans view the Twin Cities. Just look at the ads and mailers that fueled the Republican shift on the Iron Range. Voters in rural areas outside Minnesota’s big cities and regional centers rejected statewide Democrats by ever-expanding margins.
It gets me thinking about what would happen if the State of Superior actually happened. With Detroit, Milwaukee and Minneapolis all safely removed, what would residents of our new state complain about? Duluth? Marquette? The wind?
It’s hard to be Superior when you’ve got an inferiority complex.
I’ve always been fascinated by the U.P. of Michigan. My Cornish mining ancestors worked there first before coming to northern Minnesota. It’s a beautiful place, full of much of the same fascinating labor and immigration history I’ve always loved about my homeland.
But when I first went there about 20 years ago, the U.P. struck me as a version of the Iron Range set somewhere in the future. While the Range still voted DFL then, the U.P. had become very conservative. Small towns emptied into skeletal bedroom communities, devoid of commerce, schools or medical institutions.
Last Tuesday, Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer romped in her bid for re-election in this swing state. With her, voters elected unexpected Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate. In this, Michigan’s results resemble what happened here in Minnesota.
But the U.P., just like most of the Iron Range now, won’t have as much influence with these new majorities. Only one Democrat won a state House seat in Michigan’s U.P., same as the Iron Range. This only exacerbates Democrats’ problems in places like these. The distance between the cultural and economic conditions start to feed into an even deeper sense of “us” and “them.”
That’s unfortunate. Just half that energy instead dedicated to local politics and community service would solve most problems.
One bright spot for Minnesota’s Iron Range DFL came from the victory of Grant Hauschild in Senate District 3. Hauschild narrowly defeated Republican Andrea Zupancich, mayor of Babbitt and DFL-turned-independent Sen. Tom Bakk’s chosen successor.
Now to be clear, Hauschild benefited from the fact that District 3 includes the suburbs of Duluth, where he’s from. But he performed admirably in some rural parts of the district as well. Moreover, he demonstrated how choosing the right campaign priorities can flip the script.
Hauschild supports mining projects in his district, but rather than flogging that fact, he talked about lowering property taxes and eliminating taxes on Social Security income. He stuck to those “kitchen table” issues while still telegraphing his support for reproductive health care rights and other common DFL issues.
For 20 long years, candidates have been subjected to a sort of litmus test on their support for copper-nickel mining projects here that are probably decades from reality. Republicans have used this issue well — first to drive a wedge in the DFL coalition and last Tuesday to finally cleave that old log in two.
But when candidates who say and do and wholeheartedly believe all the right things when it comes to supporting mining still lose, what gives? It could be that regions like this, deprived of the economic growth seen elsewhere in the state, have become like a negatively charged magnet, always pushing against and away from the Twin Cities.
It’s true that the state’s metro region could better understand the Iron Range, but I can guarantee that metro residents spend a lot less time thinking, talking and seething about the Range than the other way around.
The world keeps moving on. It’s sad to see an old political tradition rooted in the labor movement go dormant like this. The region’s commitment to public education, collective bargaining and accessible health care is quite literally what produced the person writing this essay and what feeds the author’s children. A lot of that feels like it’s slipping away.
But it’s hard to feed kids on kitty litter memes and an obsession with the U.S. border located 1,800 miles south instead of the one just north of us. This has all happened before. Once upon a time, the mining companies ruled, nativists divided the communities by spitting slurs, jobs grew scarce and the winter came.
Back then, a long-dead generation of Iron Rangers started meeting in secret. They whispered their hopes. They organized and lost. And lost. And then they won.
That’s the beauty of democracy applied over time.
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