Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Michelle Lee doesn’t sound like a politician


REGIONAL— Michelle Lee admits she doesn’t have much political experience. And she doesn’t have the most money or the most political endorsements of the five candidates currently vying for the DFL endorsement in the Eighth District .

But she does have a secret weapon in an era when most voters aren’t looking for more of the same: Michelle Lee doesn’t sound like a politician.

She knows what’s she’s up against and yet she exudes genuine optimism and an enthusiasm for retail politics. “I’m enjoying every minute of it,” said Lee, who took a break late last week to talk about the campaign with just over three weeks to go until the Aug. 14 primary that will advance one of the five candidates to a general election showdown with the expected GOP nominee, St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber.

It’s crunch time in the race and every day is another seemingly endless round of events and meet-and-greets across a congressional district that is larger than many Eastern states.

“I’m amazed at the reception I’m getting,” said Lee, the longtime news anchor for KBJR in Duluth. A recent internal poll by one of her competitors suggests why Lee may be getting a reaction from those she meets along the way. With nearly 40-percent name recognition in the district, she is known by nearly as many voters in the region as the rest of the candidates put together. That’s a bigger advantage in a general election, versus a primary, which tends to bring out more informed voters who are less likely to be swayed simply by name recognition.

But this year could be different. Lee said she’s amazed at the political engagement and excitement she’s seeing in people across the district. She said she suspects that primary turnout, especially among DFLers, is likely to be high this year.

And she’s taken a cue from another politician who proved extremely popular in the district two years ago— Bernie Sanders. Like Sanders, Lee is an unapologetic progressive, who firmly believes in universal, single-payer health insurance and free public college and university tuition. Sanders also eschewed donations from political action committees, relying instead on small money donations from a vast network of supporters. Lee, too, has relied on small donations, although her network is considerably smaller than that enjoyed by the Vermont Senator. Lee has raised just over $50,000 in the race so far, based on the latest campaign finance reports that came out this week. That’s less than the two leading fundraisers, Joe Radinovich and Jason Metsa, but it’s enough to give someone with her name recognition a credible shot.

“I haven’t raised as much money as some of the candidates, but a lot of people tell me they want big money out of politics anyway,” she said. “We are doing a different kind of campaign.”

Fundraising is likely to be less an issue in the general election campaign, since both sides are expected to spend millions on this hotly-contested race, which could decide control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

While Lee backs free four-year public college tuition, she acknowledges that a traditional college education isn’t for everyone, and she believes the country needs to lower the barriers for people to learn a trade.

“We don’t have a lack of jobs,” she said. “We have a lack of trained workers.”

She recounted a recent conversation with a woman who runs a trucking company in International Falls. Despite paying a solidly middle-class salary and full benefits, Lee said the woman is just one of hundreds of business owners across the district who can’t fill job vacancies.

“I think parents have a role to play in this, in showing what’s a noble profession,” said Lee. “We have to start telling young people that if they want to work with their hands, they should be going into the trades.”

And it’s not just young people starting out, said Lee. “We have to continuously be re-training people because the economy is changing so rapidly,” she said.

Technology is also changing rapidly and she said rural areas can’t be left behind. “We have to build up our broadband capacity,” she said. “If we can build out just like we did with rural electrification, imagine what that would do for our rural areas and for small businesses.”

Lee says she sees lots of heads nod when she starts talking about education and the economy. “There’s a multitude of issues in which I’m finding support from voters,” she said. “People also recognize that we have to fight the anti-union push from the right. We know how important unions are to workers.”

Political divide

She said the two issues that still divide DFL voters are sulfide mining and a woman’s right to choose. She said the politics surrounding abortion, which have existed mostly in the background in the past several election cycles, have jumped to the fore since the announced retirement of Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. Lee said many of the women she’s hearing from are worried that the new court could overturn the 1973 decision that legalized abortion in the U.S.

She said she hears some excitement from those on the other side that more restrictions could be placed on abortions, although few expect that the procedure would be outlawed altogether.

On mining, Lee’s position is perhaps the clearest and most unequivocal of any of the candidates in the race. She’s a strong supporter of the taconite industry but believes that sulfide-based copper-nickel mining is too big a threat to northeastern Minnesota’s clean water to support.

“I feel strongly about it and I have never wavered,” she said.

Lee believes that sulfide mining will do nothing to even out the boom-and-bust nature of the Iron Range economy, and could negatively impact property values, and discourage the kind of new economic activity that could create a more sustainable economic environment. “That’s why I am really promoting the idea of sound economic growth that stabilizes the economy, rather than encourages more boom and bust,” she said. “It’s about good-paying, sustainable jobs, and protecting our natural resources, like our clean water.”

While her stand may hurt her prospects on parts of the Iron Range, she said she hears lots of support for her position elsewhere in the district, and even from some on the Iron Range. “I had a good reception at the Hibbing parade,” she said. “Although I noticed I got a lot more high-fives from women.” Lee said she’s not sure whether the issue helps or hurts her in the district, although she’s clearly picking up support from voters who agree with her on the issue. “I guess we’ll find out ultimately on Aug. 14,” she said.

“It’s ultimately up to the power of choice for the voters, and I’m hoping that people make the choice to exercise their right,” she said. “I don’t know how this will work out, but win, lose, or draw, I feel we’re getting our message out.”


9 comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Steve Jacobson

Question #1- who is going to pay for four years of college and "free" medical?

Sweden has it and their tax rate is 38 to 53%!

Friday, July 20, 2018
shore view

And Minnesotans' effective tax rate is about six percent state tax plus nine percent social security and Medicare plus 25 to 28 percent federal for most people plus health premium which in the US isn't included in your tax plus student loan payment and tuition payment which of course isn't included . . . . . and there's no scenario under any circumstances I've heard of that you get that total down to 38 percent and there are plenty of scenarios where it adds up to more than 53. So what's your point? Same deal with healthcare; my premiums in my employer plan were stable under Obama and before 2017 there was even talk of a reduction as the benefits of Obamacare built up in the system; they've shot up 15 percent under Trump as the insurance company and hospitals have to protect themselves against the risk of more uninsured people. It all comes down to this basic fact; either you cover people efficiently as a group, or you pay more as individuals while getting less.

Sunday, July 22, 2018
Lee Peterson

Thank you, shore view. You explained it well.

Maybe it would be helpful if the definition of insurance had been learned by more folks. And isn't it odd that the vast majority of people are OK with mandated vehicle insurance but a sizable minority oppose that on their own bodies?

Monday, July 23, 2018
Steve Jacobson

Take what ever rate you want to decide on and just figure that in will increase substantially if you want to give health care to everyone plus free college tuition. Blaming Trump for increased health care? Please! My health care, through the mines has been fairly steady but yes increasing every year. But again, it is going up because of all the people who are receiving free health care already.

Give everyone free everything! Just let me know how and who is going to pay for it. I put 20% of my salary in my 401k which means that before Trump's tax break this past January I was receiving 47% of my gross paycheck. I now receive about 52%,

Tuesday, July 24, 2018
Lee Peterson

The paycheck percentages you talk about are puzzling. I hope you realize that the 20% you put into a 401k is still actually staying in your own pocket.

The larger the insurance pool is, the lower the cost is for participants. That's simple to understand economics. The NRA/Republican Congress and Trump have eliminated the Affordable Care Act Mandate that all people pay for health insurance. Therefore, because it is illegal for hospitals and clinics to deny medical care, and having fewer people paying for health insurance, the cost will go up for those who do pay. What is your solution for that reality? I'm curious. A serious solution, not another shot in the dark.

You work in one of the mines. You don't say if you are a union member or management. Regardless, the Steelworkers Union has played a big part in getting health coverage for you. It's no secret that the NRA/Republicans are constantly working to weaken and destroy the unions. What is your position on this? I'm curious. Are you anti union?

The labor contracts are up for renewal in the mines this year. If the NRA/Republicans are successful in their goal of destroying the unions, this year's contract negotiation could be the last one that secures good health coverage for mine workers.

Public investment in education is a bad thing? How to pay for it? Remember that the already bloated defense budget for this year was increased by $70 billion with no mechanism to pay for it. And today, Donald is floating out $12 billion in welfare to farmers who are being hurt by the NRA/Republican trade war--and no mechanism to pay for the $12 billion.

NRA/Republicans love debt, and they're fearful of education. That's a certainty.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Steve Jacobson

You don't associate free health care and free college tuition as debt? Yes, I am a union member! But, unlike many others, I vote on issues and not party lines. I did not vote for Rick Nolan but I had planned to vote for him this fall as a state Senator and as of right now will vote for him for Governor. My union has suspended endorsing politicians. Indications around the union hall is that it is about a 50-50 split with more leaning towards the GOP.I think that the election this fall will again prove that more union workers will vote GOP. Also, yes, the 401k money is still mine. I contribute as much as I possibly can because it is deducted pre-tax. I talked to someone very familiar with the military budget just last week and he said he, himself has not seen one difference in military spending in the last two years. Please don't tout free anything and try tack it on to the GOP! Tell me how you plan to pay for it while at the same time reduce national debt.

Friday, July 27, 2018
Lee Peterson

It's probably pointless to take you seriously, Steve. You write of Nolan, that you "had planned to vote for him this fall as a state Senator and as of right now will vote for him for Governor." The fact is, Steve, that Nolan was not running for state Senator and he is not now running for Governor. I guess you can do a write-in vote. To me, this is a clear indication of your lack of an accurate knowledge base.

As far as what you call "free health care", I think you need to re read what I wrote. Maybe you should look up the word "insurance" in the dictionary. Then take a look at the insurance bill for your auto and note the mandated sum you are required to pay for coverage. If you're still having trouble understanding it, visit your insurance agent. Then re read what I wrote about the now destroyed mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

And as far as what you call "free college tuition"... When you went to K through 12 school, did you consider it to be free? To clear that idea up, please take out your property tax statement and look down for the line that says "School District". To the right of it, there is a number. That number represents an investment in education that is paid for. As the world has evolved, progressive people are aware that a 12th grade education is no longer sufficient for most people. Therefore, it is a relatively simple concept that we progressive folks now favor public investment in education beyond the 12th grade as the most efficient way of moving America forward. And we believe in paying for it, contrary to the way NRA/Republicans are spending like drunken sailors with no intention of paying the bills.

And, Steve, the $70 billion unpaid for additional military spending this year is a fact. Check the legislation for yourself. If your military friend is accurate in saying that he can't see "any difference in military spending in the last two years", can that say anything other than we're getting screwed?

You write: "Please don't tout free anything and try [to] tack it on the GOP!" …. Steve, I need a good bedtime story. Explain to me how you NRA/Republicans are going to pay for the $25 billion border wall or this week's $12 billion farm bailout? Are you willing to pay higher taxes to cover just these two items? Or are you in favor of adding these expenses to the national debt? I think I know the answers. These should be simple yes or no answers.

Sunday, July 29, 2018
Steve Jacobson


Since I cannot convince you of my theories I will leave with one single promise - anyone who runs with an anti mining platform like Lea will lose, end of story. The GOP will continue to gain strength up here because of it! Way too many of us happy miners love mining and continue to want it to expand, even near the BWCA.

Monday, July 30, 2018
Lee Peterson

Typical of NRA/Republicans, when you are confronted with facts and simple questions--you run and hide.

Let's just narrow it down to one simplified question:

Steve, are you willing to personally pay your share of additional Federal taxes to pay for the $25,000,000,000 border wall and this week's $12,000,000,000 farm bailout? A simple "yes" or "no" answer--or no answer at all, will be enough to define you.

Any answer other than "yes" means that you just want to pile another $37 billion onto the Federal debt.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018