Back in 2002, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone recruited Tofte outfitter and environmental activist Bill Hansen to run for the Legislature in the old 6A District and secured him the early endorsement of the United Steelworkers.
I mention this small piece of historical trivia to highlight the ways that wise political leaders keep their political parties growing and united by focusing their supporters’ eyes on the big picture. Paul Wellstone was a smart guy and he recognized Hansen’s concern for environmental protection as a fundamental component of the DFL’s governing philosophy of caring. You can’t care for workers, for the elderly, and for the poor, without also caring for the natural world.
Wellstone also recognized that the demographics of the region were changing, and that the DFL needed to make room for those who were moving here for reasons far different from the ones that drew earlier generations. Many of these new residents were progressive by nature and had the potential to help strengthen the DFL base in the region. Indeed, for years, many of them were actively involved in the party, donating money, organizing at the grassroots, and manning the phones at election time. These are the folks who helped animate Bill Hansen’s campaigns and, more recently, Leah Phifer’s.
The DFL’s big tent was able to survive past disputes between its labor and environmental wings because it had leaders who knew how to listen to, and respect, both sides. Both Paul Wellstone and Jim Oberstar had that ability.
The copper-nickel debate has proven so destructive in part because we don’t have their kind of political leadership these days in northeastern Minnesota, and because too many of our current leaders have allowed the political rhetoric to grow so toxic. They appear willing to break up the DFL’s governing coalition in the vain hope that the Iron Range can return to its glory days if we can just open a few more mines.
If only it were that simple. Here’s the reality: an economist would need a magnifying glass to detect the economic impact of bringing copper-nickel mining to our region, and that’s assuming that all goes according to the wildest fantasies of copper-nickel supporters, which it won’t.
Consider the numbers: In St. Louis and Lake counties, residents earned a total of approximately $5.8 billion in 2016. That’s according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
Let’s assume that PolyMet eventually employs 350 workers, who all make the average mining salary of $77,000 a year. That’s $27 million in added personal income, a region-wide increase of 0.49 percent. Heck, let’s go pie-in-the-sky and throw in the Twin Metals project, and their best-case 650 jobs, and you add another $50 million in personal income. Add the two together and you reach $77 million. Let’s throw in another 500 spin-off jobs (figure average salary of $50,000), and you hit a grand total of $102 million from a so-called copper-nickel “boom.”
In a $5.8 billion regional economy, $102 million amounts to 1.7 percent in income growth. It’s not nothing, but it’s a far cry from a game-changer for the region. Personal income in St. Louis and Lake counties grew by $390 million from 2013-2016 even with the loss of jobs in the taconite industry. That pie-in-the-sky $102 million in personal income from copper-nickel mining, in other words, would be equal to about 13 months growth in income from other sectors of the region’s economy. Over the 15 years our area has spent fighting about copper-nickel mining, the region’s economy has experienced income growth equal to nearly a dozen copper-nickel “booms.” And we’re supposed to believe that one more is going to finally turn the tide for the region’s economy? It won’t happen.
Keep in mind, this doesn’t include the economic dislocations that mining always brings. There would be significant economic costs, including lost jobs, closed businesses, and reduced personal income in other sectors as a result of copper-nickel mining. Several studies suggest the economic balance sheet could be a wash, at best.
I recognize that this is more about culture than economics, and about the inevitable friction that every region experiences due to demographic change that isn’t necessarily in sync with the priorities of prior generations.
We hear all the time from area politicians that mining is the way of life in this region. That may have once been a defensible argument. It’s not anymore. Even if you exclude Duluth, mining and related jobs make up barely five percent of the workforce in our region. Don’t the other 95 percent of us count?
The cultural divide may have been manageable in the past because the new way of thinking was still in the minority. But the times have changed. David Dill beat Bill Hansen in the 2002 primary, despite Wellstone’s support for Hansen. But Hansen would easily have won that race today because the electorate is no longer the same. Indeed, in the primary against Rob Ecklund in 2015, Hansen won handily within the boundaries of the old District 6A. Recent polls show an overwhelming majority of DFLers are increasingly skeptical of copper-nickel mining. And so are many Republicans, according to Stewart Mills III, who recently published a column on the topic.
The DFL could have negotiated this demographic shift with the right kind of leadership. Instead, the party appears to be breaking up over what is a relatively minor economic issue from a regional perspective because area politicians have opted to portray concern for the environment and the promotion of an alternative vision of economic development as an existential threat to the region and its way of life.
What is even more astonishing, is that this breakup is taking place over an issue on which residents of the area actually have very little say. All the political support in the world won’t bring copper-nickel mining to northeastern Minnesota. Investors, mostly foreign, will be the ones who decide that question, and it will be based purely on economic considerations that look increasingly sketchy these days. Copper-nickel mining could simply be another in a long line of Iron Range development proposals that raised hopes before going bust.
The DFL, in other words, could very well be destroying itself over absolutely nothing.
A visonary leader, like Paul Wellstone, would have avoided such a debacle, by keeping DFLers focused on the big issues, such as the fundamental lack of economic fairness baked into the American economy writ large— an issue that affects everyone in northeastern Minnesota.
If our current political leaders won’t focus on repairing the damage, the DFL governing coalition likely won’t survive— and that will have wide-ranging repercussions for the region. The Iron Range has enjoyed outsized political influence for years in Minnesota because it was closely-aligned with the DFL and because its residents turned out to vote in high numbers in DFL primaries, and often made the difference for the party in statewide general elections.
The day the Iron Range starts voting like the Red River Valley or the Brainerd Lakes region is the day that its vaunted political clout goes up in smoke. That’s the day when Iron Range politicians lose influence in the Legislature and the economic woes on the Iron Range lose their potency as a political issue in St. Paul. To risk all that over a likely meaningless fight over copper-nickel mining is madness. It’s time that DFL leaders work to fix the damage. It’s time they stop living in the past.