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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

District 3A DFL candidates in their own words

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Editor’s Note: The Timberjay emailed a questionnaire to the four candidates vying to represent the DFL in the special election for state representative for House District 3A. The DFL primary is scheduled for Sept. 29 with the special election for the House seat slated for Dec. 8. The candidate’s responses are below and on the facing page in alphabetical order, subject only to minor editing for space. The questions were as follows:

1) Please provide a brief background on any previous government or other work experience you feel is relevant and tell us what motivated you to enter the race for the House District 3A seat.

2) With downturns in the timber and mining industries of late, what actions would you pursue as a legislator to bring more jobs to northern Minnesota?

3) Sulfide mining has been touted as the next jobs boom on the Iron Range, but has also stirred controversy because of potential harm to the environment. Where do you stand on the issue and what steps would you take to safeguard the environment?

4) What are some of the other key issues in the district that you see and what ideas do you have for tackling them?

5) Can you give a snapshot of your overall philosophy when it comes to government? Do you align yourself with a particular party’s platform and how does that shape your approach to issues?

Rob Ecklund

1. I have enthusiastically served as a Koochiching County commissioner for the past five years. I was first elected in 2010, and then re-elected in 2014. As a sitting commissioner, I have been able to interact with many elected officials at the municipal, county, state and federal level to work on issues that affect the lives of my constituents.

Prior to my getting elected, I served my community in multiple other ways. I have worked with and been past chair of a national labor organization called the Pulp and Paperworker’s Resource Council that calls on our elected officials in Washington, D.C. Our main focus during my tenure was environmental and forestry issues that had an impact on how the forest products did business.

I also worked with a similar group in Minnesota called the Minnesota Wood Fiber Council which did the same type of work with our state Legislature. I have testified at committee hearings at both the state and federal levels.

2. I believe that the state can provide incentives to do research to find alternative uses for our timber industry. We must also work to make sure that our existing timber industry remains strong and vibrant. One of my proud accomplishments at the Legislature was getting a bill passed requiring that state offices buy paper manufactured in Minnesota whenever possible.

I believe the same thing can be done for the mining industry. There is no reason that we cannot require American-made steel in our construction projects.

Another priority is to improve the quality of technology delivery to our area. We need broadband delivery to every community in northern Minnesota. The new way of doing business in the world is through the use of modern technology. I will aggressively champion this.

3. On the issue of copper/nickel mining, I am 100 percent in favor. In Minnesota and the United States we have regulatory agencies that are the most stringent in the world. We must rely on the science when any new project is put in place. If these potential projects are vetted completely and safeguard standards carefully adhered to, then I am in favor of them going forward. We all want and need our personal communication devices.

I would rather have the minerals mined where all safeguards are in place, rather than in some country where there is little or no regard for the environment.

4. I have been a big proponent of clean water and municipal sewer projects that have been built and studied in northern St. Louis and Koochiching counties. These projects not only provide jobs during the construction phase, but also help to clean up the waters of Voyageurs National Park.

I would like to see the state and local ATV clubs work more closely to increase the amount of ATV access trails in northern Minnesota.

In the north, we are blessed with a cool and cold environment for a good deal of the year. I think that we are the right place to start building data centers. With the amount of electronic information and data being passed in industry today, these types of centers are needed.

5. I have been a DFL member my entire life. I have been active at every level of the party, starting as a precinct chair, and attending as a delegate to several state conventions. With all of that being said, I recognize that in order to accomplish anything at the Legislature, a bi-partisan openness and approach will be necessary. I will work through my caucus and with the Iron Range delegation.

Additionally, when circumstances call for it, I will seek out any and all resources to serve my constituents in the best way I can.

Bill Hansen

1. I am 62 years old, married to Cindy Hansen for 30 years, with four grown children and one brand new grandchild. I am president of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters Inc., founded by my parents in 1957.

I’ve had a lifetime of public service, including deep involvement with the Minnesota DFL Party, running as the DFL-endorsed candidate for Minnesota House of Representatives in 2002 and 2004. In addition, I have served as trustee and chairman of Northland Foundation, and a board member and chairman of the Entrepreneur Fund Board. I am a member of Cook County Higher Education and treasurer of Tofte Township among many other public commitments. I am inspired to serve by values that my parents taught me and by the birth of my first granddhild, June Felix.

2. I strongly support the iron mining industry and will join in the effort to create “value-added” steel products that can be made right here in northern Minnesota, which will help to stabilize the industry.

I strongly support the forest products industry and will work to increase the access and return to local loggers, processors and manufacturers.

I will work to quickly finish the roll-out of broadband Internet for every home and business in northern Minnesota, and work to create a culture of entrepreneurship, leveling the playing field so homegrown entrepreneurs can compete with multi-national corporations.

In addition, I will work to bring our public education system up to world-class standards as a strategy to allow everyone to realize their full potential.

3. I am deeply skeptical of the PolyMet and Twin Metals projects as proposed. In my opinion, the long-term risk to our most valuable resource — clean, fresh water — is too high. I question the commitment of large, foreign mining companies to monitor and control pollution for hundreds of years.

Even if you set environmental concerns aside, I believe these projects are a bad deal for Minnesotans. Our valuable minerals, which belong to us, are being sold too cheaply. The vast majority of value would go to very wealthy investors all around the world, while the products would be sent elsewhere for manufacturing.

If, in the future, a method is developed that guarantees the safety of our clean, fresh water, then I would like to see the value of the minerals and the manufacturing kept in Minnesota.

I also worry about the volatile nature of the mining industry and how the community will cope with the inevitable end of an industry that is unsustainable by its very nature.

4. Growing a strong and diverse economy that honors and protects the very reasons that we live here: clean, healthy water and air; outstanding outdoor recreation like hunting, fishing, motorized and non-motorized trail sports; along with an intact and functioning ecosystem.

Reforming public education funding in a way that is fair and accountable for all Minnesotans. Education excellence that allows our own children to thrive in a quickly changing world.

High-quality and affordable health care for all, with a payment system that is simple, sensible and transparent. Our elders must have access to the care and dignity that they deserve.

Progressive and fair taxation without unfunded mandates that raise your property taxes. Reform the tax system to reverse the growing problem of income inequality by removing advantages given to the very wealthy.

5. I have been active in the DFL Party for my whole life. I am not blindly loyal to any party, but I live by the values of justice and fairness that are included in the DFL platform.

I believe community development is accomplished by simultaneous hard work on every part of the community.

I’m inspired by the successful progressive leadership of Gov. Mark Dayton and Duluth Mayor Don Ness. I will strive to bring that style of leadership and prosperity to District 3A.

Eric Johnson

1. I am a lifelong resident, businessman, community activist and board member of several nonprofit organizations.

I bring the experience of owning, operating, and growing two different businesses — International Dental Arts, a dental manufacturing corporation, which I founded and expanded, and Voyageurs Outfitters, a guiding and outfitting operation. My experience from them has led me to work with people from diverse backgrounds. Business owners don’t follow political lines. Business owners are natural problem-solvers. Problems are inevitable; when they arise we work with whomever to solve them.

I am running because I have the energy, dedication and moderate tone that Rep. David Dill possessed. Northern Minnesota and the entire state lost a great bipartisan statesman in Rep. Dill. District 3A needs a representative that has the same openness to ideas as our late representative.

2. The timber and mining industries are crucial to our long-term economic success. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is simply out of touch. I would support legislation that helps our loggers and manufacturers become more competitive. We need to invest in research and development to find other uses and markets for our wood products.

It is in the best interest of the entire state that our sustainable forests are harvested and utilized. I will be a strong voice in St. Paul to secure funding for these endeavors.

I think the timber industry should be treated like the agricultural industry. In reality that is what it is: long term agriculture. We harvest our crop every couple of decades rather than every year.

The mining industry as I see it is similar in character. We need to have policies in place that keep the producers competitive and we need to research and develop new technologies and markets for those resources.

3. The proposed sulfide mining has been contentious. With that being said, I am a realist, and the reality is that the PolyMet project will be tied up with the DNR, MPCA, Forest Service, tribal lands, EPA and the courts for some time.

My position is and has been the same as Rep. Dill’s: I am for responsible mining.

Anyone who doesn’t think mining is a cornerstone to our economy up here is a bit out of touch. To put people to work and to help move the process forward, I’d propose legislation that would create the first-ever institute of Copper Nickel PMG mining. This could be done in conjunction with the U of M and the resources they bring to the table. The institute would do three things:

1. It would put our skilled tradespeople to work right now building the infrastructure to support the institute.

2. It will create a neutral environment in which the science can be judged on its merits.

3. Most importantly, with the institute in place, we will mine the ideas, technologies, and patents to do this type of mining in a way that won’t harm the environment. This can change how responsible non-ferrous mining is done across the globe and we can supply the technologies to do so providing a new industry to the area. The value of this region is in our ideas and our workforce.

4. As many know, the upcoming legislative session will be focused on a bonding bill. What this means is that whoever is elected will be fighting against a Republican-led House to secure funding for the projects this district needs.

Once elected, my first job will be to contact local officials from the 14 cities, 28 townships, and four counties to learn about their needs. My bipartisan background allows me to work with legislators in the House and be the most effective person to bring home money for those projects.

Local Government Aid (LGA) is always a battle with the metro legislators. I will be a strong voice to ensure our communities get the resources they need.

Hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, and ATV rights are important to many folks across 3A. I hold our way of life in Northern Minnesota sacred. Rep. Dill was a champion for sportsmen’s rights and I would be honored to carry on his work to be a strong voice for all outdoor recreation issues.

5. I’ve never been a party guy. I believe the truth generally lies somewhere in the middle between opposing, extreme viewpoints. I, like many folks, am sick and tired of partisan politics and its subsequent gridlock. We in 3A do not have time for that. I will work with anyone to get the job done.

Rep. Dill was a master at bipartisan politics and it did our district well. I would consider it a great honor and privilege to carry on his work and legacy in the Minnesota House of Representatives by being a strong advocate for miners, mill workers, loggers, and sportsmen, and work with anyone in the legislature to pass laws that help the people of 3A.

Heidi Omerza

1. My motivating factors are my four children and my husband of 20 years. They are what got me into elected office as a council member, and they continue to inspire me.

I have nine years of experience being an elected official. On the state level, I am the past president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, a board member of the League of Minnesota Cities and secretary of the Greater Minnesota Partnership.

In Ely, I am the president of the Economic Development Authority and chair of Incredible Ely (a grassroots organization based on the Main Street program). I also served on the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board Task Force for two years. The task force made recommendations to the IRRRB Board.

I have the most elected experience, experience at the state level, and I was at the Capitol much of last year’s session. I bring a perspective that no other candidate brings to the table.

2. Job retention is a priority; keeping the jobs we have and growing them. Listening to business owners, leaders and entrepreneurs and following their lead. Looking to our locally elected officials and EDA boards to see what “tools” would help each area.

Overall, there are many programs that would help the district, including some programs that are already available but underfunded such as the Angel Investment program, broadband, jobs training programs, BDPI, DEED and energy efficiency programs.

Most of the district is also in the IRRRB area, which is an invaluable resource to the area. I am also a believer in recreating what works in other states or parts of the state, not reinventing the wheel every time when it comes to jobs.

3. The stigma of boom or bust mining hurts the district. The controversy of mining itself happening hurts the economy. We need to economically grow past this as a district and not let it consume us.

I support mining. I support copper nickel mining. The DNR, MPCA, EPA and other governmental agencies will make the determination if it can be done safely. The oversight of the mining industry is not carried out by elected officials, but I would make certain those doing it are diligent.

4. The biggest issue of the district is the sheer size and the different economies of the region.

Living in Ely, we are a smaller version of the district. We have tourism, light manufacturing, logging, mining, schools, etc. Ely is also the center of the district. I am able to travel to other places with greater ease and ability, and also to St. Paul, which I have already been doing with great regularity. Communication is always key. Being high tech and high touch!

5. I am a DFLer. My background is education and teaching. I see the need all around for livable-wage jobs and a middle class.

I have lived all around the great state of Minnesota, from southern farmland to suburbia. It has given me a great perspective on the state to know that I am very blessed to be living in northeastern Minnesota, where I CHOOSE to live and raise my family.

I listen and build consensus, working from a place of agreement. I also believe in volunteering, helping out when and where you can.

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