ELY – The four DFL Party candidates looking to advance in the state District 3A primary on Sept. 29 made their case to Ely-area voters last week at a candidate forum at Vermilion Community …
ELY – The four DFL Party candidates looking to advance in the state District 3A primary on Sept. 29 made their case to Ely-area voters last week at a candidate forum at Vermilion Community College.
The 90-minute discussion, sponsored by the local chapter of the American Association of University Women and the Ely Rotary Club, gave the candidates, Rob Ecklund, Bill Hansen, Eric Johnson and Heidi Omerza, a chance to distinguish themselves before an audience of about 150 potential voters.
One candidate will move on to face Republican candidate Roger Skraba and Independence Party candidate Kelsey Johnson in the Dec. 8 special election.
The candidates took turns fielding questions, presented by the panel and the audience, following opening statements. The candidates were also given an opportunity for rebuttal comments, and ended the evening with closing statements.
The first question asked the candidates to describe their plan to stimulate the economy for the region.
Ecklund added technology and transportation to his list of timber, taconite and tourism as the backbone of the economy in northern Minnesota. “Technology, I believe, is what is going to drive the next phase of economic development in the district,” he said. He said he would push to bring broadband, fiber optic technology and better cell service to the area. “People want to work from home and if our visitors can do their work here, they are going to stay longer.”
Hansen said a stronger economy would result from more support for entrepreneurs. “The entrepreneurs create jobs,” he said. “There is a philosophy that says, create the jobs and the rest will come. But the way I look it is you develop all your community assets at the same time. We should make use of our strengths, such as clean water, clean air, our outstanding public lands, productive forests and our superb education system. Broadband is way too late, but it is finally coming.”
Johnson said investing in the future is the key to economic development, including research and development in the timber industries. “We need to search out new ways we can use our wood products and market that to the world for our logging industry and the off-shoot industries that come from that. Those are good paying jobs, living wage jobs, he said.”
Omerza agreed with all the ideas presented by the other candidates. “I’m not about re-inventing the wheel,” she said. “Let’s figure out what is working around other parts of the state and the country and make that work here. She referenced the Ely Folk School mirroring the success of the Grand Marais model as one way to do what works. She also wants to see more state aid money make its way out of the metro area to the northern part of the state.
Hansen took exception to Johnson’s comment on how much money loggers make. “Right now, loggers are not well-paid,” he said. “They are being squeezed between wood brokers and the wood providers. They are the hardest workers in the world in one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and they are not making anywhere near what they should be making. That goes for a lot of employees up here. We have to work hard to provide a living-wage job for everyone.”
Johnson shot back. “Maybe you want to talk to some of the loggers that raise their families on that and tell them that is not a living-wage job, because they are making that happen.”
When asked to describe their differences from the other candidates, Hansen said he has experience already creating jobs across all four counties in the region for the last 20 years and has been a business owner for the past 30 years. “I am adamant about getting money out of politics,” he said. “I think that is corrupting our system and I want to be champion for that in St. Paul.”
Johnson said his “energy, tenacity and fortitude” along with his “willingness to work with anybody on both sides of the aisle to pass legislation that is going to help northeast Minnesota. We don’t have time for partisan gridlock down in St. Paul.”
Omerza cited her experience as an elected official and her time spent in the capital as president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. She also was a member of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board task force. She currently sits on three state boards. “My background in education means I’m a lifelong learner,” she said.
Ecklund said he is a life-long Democrat. “My first door knock was for Michael Dukakis,” he said. His democratic core values and principles and ability to work across the aisle will help him make bipartisanship work in St. Paul.
In a purely local question concerning a community recreation complex in Ely, similar to the Grand Marais facility, the candidates said they “absolutely” give their support.
Omerza said any state budget surplus should first and foremost “be saved for a rainy day. That’s what we’ve done in the city of Ely and that should happen at the state level as well,” she said. She also wants to figure out how to get some of the surplus back to all Minnesotans and deferred to experts to figure out how to get that done.
Ecklund proposed that the Local Government Aid, County Program Aid and Payment in Lieu of Taxes be put on “a solid funding formula that cannot be adjusted at the whims of the legislators when there is a shortfall,” he said. He also criticized the many unfunded mandates, “that are forcing local governments to provide services with no revenues to do it.” He would also push the state tax system to be removed from the county tax statements.
Hansen admitted that he and Ecklund think a lot alike. “The first thing I would do with the surplus is to re-fund the programs that were gutted under the Pawlenty administration, including LGA, CPA and PILT.” He would also look to smooth out the peaks and valleys of the natural business cycle. “We need to plan ahead and to shore up the economy and keep things humming along on a more even keel,” he said. He added that the state is overdue for tax reform.
Johnson said that everyone on the stage seemed to agree. “We need to invest in our future and our future is in property tax relief and reforming the tax system. He also said the transportation system is underfunded and proposed using some of the surplus in that area.
Omerza added that some of the state surplus should be used for education.
Ecklund disagreed with Johnson on using the surplus to help fund transportation. “That’s a one-time shot,” he said. “We need to develop an ongoing formula that will sustain (transportation) well into the future.”
The greatest challenge to District 3A, Johnson said is economic development. “We are seeing the erosion of our populations and tax bases,” he said. “That is the cornerstone.” He also said he will fight to maintain the rights of sportsmen to use public lands. “It is a rich culture that we have up here and we need to fight to maintain it,” he said. “And we need more northern Minnesota down in St. Paul, and less St. Paul up here in northern Minnesota.”
Omerza said the vast size of the district is a big challenge. “It is also a huge opportunity,” she said. “Being from Ely, we are a microcosm of the entire district. We have tourism. We have mining. We have light industry. We have a college. We have a hospital. We have schools. We have everything right here. I have elected experience and I know what’s going on. We need to continue economic development and work on getting along.”
Ecklund said the district’s greatest challenge is to keep young people here with adequate jobs. “They are the ones who are going to buy our homes and buy our property and they are going to make this area vibrant,” he said. He reiterated that technology “will be the true driving force” in making the area vibrant again.
Hansen said the largest issue facing the district “is that we are poised for success and prosperity.” He described the assets of clean water, clean air and vibrant ecosystems and productive natural resources and a vibrant education system will drive the economy. “But we need to rebuild the middle class, so we need to raise the wages of the people that are working,” he said. He also called for a “sane system” of campaign financing.”
In terms of the proposed sulfide mining projects of PolyMet and Twin Metals, three of the four candidates voiced their support, and Hansen said he was the only candidate who “is deeply skeptical” of the projects.
Hansen said he fully supports the iron mining industry, but “sulfide mining is different. It is a much more dangerous and dirty kind of mining,” he said. “Let’s look at it as an economic tool. It’s a bad deal for Minnesota. These are our minerals and we are not getting enough for those minerals. If we are going to do these projects, we should keep them wholly in Minnesota and keep the value here, and not pass it off to large multi-national corporations that are well-known international pirates. If I can be convinced that it is economically viable and that our water would absolutely be guaranteed of not being hurt, I would be for it, but I’m a long way from that.”
Johnson said mining in northeastern Minnesota “is absolutely crucial to our economic viability. The PolyMet project needs to get up and running,” he said. He proposed an institute of precious metal mining to be built in northern Minnesota. “This will put our skilled trades people to work right now,” he said. “This will also give us a neutral forum to look at the science and technology behind this. And we are going to develop a whole new industry and develop the technologies on how to do this across the whole world. This is an investment that will bring decades of dividends.”
Omerza said, “The controversy of mining itself hurts this district and we need to work past this. I support copper-nickel mining.” She deferred to the many agencies studying the proposal to make the decision on whether it will be safe or not. “My job as a legislator will be to make sure those agencies make it safe. I will be diligent to make sure nothing changes in the process.”
Ecklund agreed. “I am 100-percent pro mining,” he said. “We have the finest regulatory agencies in the country. We have the finest scientists and we have the highest standards of anywhere in the world. When they can convince me that standards are met and we can go forward, then I am completely in favor of them because I know our agencies and scientists will let us know this can be done safely without harm to the environment.”
Hansen took issue with Ecklund’s statement. “I don’t know how you can say you are 100-percent for mining and then say that you are going to wait for the process to play out, he said. “These companies that are going to own these mines are terrible corporate citizens. They aren’t just anti-union, they crush unions and they have a terrible record in the communities where they operate.”
Ecklund admitted that he might have misspoken. “I need to see that it can be done correctly. I didn’t say to let the process go forward. Prove to me that it can be done and I am 100 percent in favor of it.”
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