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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

The DFL crackup

Years of divisive politics over the environment coming home to roost


Is the DFL headed for a crackup in the Eighth District? That appears increasingly likely as the divide within the party, particularly over the issue of sulfide mining, has become too vast and too personal for the current crop of political leaders to hope to bridge.

On one side is the party’s blue collar base, centered on the union-heavy Iron Range, long a bastion of DFL strength. Many members of local trade unions and steelworkers, unhappy with the direction of the Democratic Party nationally, abandoned their DFL roots in November, in support of Donald Trump. Enough of them split their tickets to give Eighth District Congressman Nolan another razor-thin victory over Republican Stewart Mills.

But now, it’s another important DFL constituency that looks ready to walk— progressives concerned about environmental protection and climate change, who make up a significant percentage of the party faithful.

Like union voters used to be, these are folks who the DFL in the Eighth has counted on for years to staff phone banks, door-knock, donate money, and spread the word to friends and neighbors. These are folks who helped get Nolan over the finish line the last three election cycles.

Yet as Leah Phifer discovered during her just-concluded listening tour across the district, Nolan’s recent steps to advance sulfide mining in the Boundary Waters watershed and his support of controversial oil sands-related pipelines, have left many on the party’s green flank ready to jump ship. It’s no secret that Nolan has backed such projects for years, and most party progressives were willing to weigh his record in totality, which is progressive on many other issues.

Yet his recent alignment with some of the Republican Party’s most radical anti-environment and anti-public lands members of Congress has left Nolan incongruously positioned to the right of the Trump administration on the environment— a spot on the political spectrum pretty close to the cliff’s edge. Among Nolan’s new friends is Rep. Paul Gosar, of Arizona, who Nolan brought on a tour of the Iron Range this past June. Gosar recently told news reporters that he believes the Nazis who marched in Charlottesville were organized by an Obama operative and funded by George Soros, who he called a “jew” who turned his own people over to the Nazis. This is fact-free, Alex Jones-style conspiracy mongering at its worst. Even Gosar’s own brother called on the congressman to apologize. Nolan may see such political allies as useful, but it’s left many progressive DFLers questioning his judgment, and unwilling to back him in 2018. It’s left Phifer worried that Nolan is little more than a dead man walking, and it’s prompted her to challenge Nolan for the party’s endorsement, she says in hopes of keeping the Eighth in the Democratic column.

Phifer’s concerns are widely held. The D.C.-based Cook Political Report lists Minnesota’s Eighth as one of the ten Democratic seats most at risk in 2018, and that analysis likely fails to account for the growing rebellion from the party’s progressive wing.

There are many factors contributing to the DFL’s fading prospects in the Eighth, including a decision by the party nationally to throw its support behind a growing professional and entrepreneurial class that has benefitted from globalization and other changes in the economy, without adequately considering the impact to the nation’s blue collar workforce. At the same time, party leaders have focused on social issues and identity politics, at the expense of the traditional economic message that used to resonate with working class voters.

But political leaders in the district have added to the party’s woes. Wise politicians, like the late Paul Wellstone, recognized that the district’s blue collar workforce and environmentalists have plenty in common, and that any differences could be bridged with the right leadership and policies. Unfortunately, too many politicians in the region have, for years, failed to heed Wellstone’s advice and have been content to drive a wedge between the party’s disparate constituencies, casting those with environmental concerns as little more than villains out to destroy the region’s economy. It’s nonsense, but it plays well in certain crowds and politicians are usually eager to please. We’ve argued in these pages for years that this “us vs. them” rhetoric would eventually be harmful to the party’s interests. It appears “eventually” may have finally arrived.