REGIONAL— Can a campaign against corruption elevate a University of Minnesota law professor to the U.S. Senate in the age of Trump? That’s the question Richard Painter intends to answer as he …
REGIONAL— Can a campaign against corruption elevate a University of Minnesota law professor to the U.S. Senate in the age of Trump? That’s the question Richard Painter intends to answer as he takes on U.S. Sen. Tina Smith for the DFL party nomination— and he sees the current push for copper-nickel mining as grist for his campaign.
Painter, 57, who announced his bid for the Senate earlier this month, is a former government ethics lawyer, who worked in the George W. Bush White House as well as in corporate board rooms for years. He’s probably best known as one of President Trump’s most outspoken critics, having appeared countless times on cable news shows since Trump’s surprise election in 2016. He’s also vice-chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, a group that unsuccessfully sought to sue President Trump over violations of the emoluments clause of the constitution. He’s Harvard and Yale-educated and he has nearly half a million followers on Twitter, where he regularly issues broadsides against Trump and other targets.
Painter, who has called himself a Republican for years, said he’s focused on ensuring that the DFL maintains the seat now held by Smith, who was appointed earlier this year following the resignation of Sen. Al Franken. Painter will challenge Smith in the August primary but says he has no intention of running a negative campaign, or of accepting donations from political action committees.
Painter discussed the race with the Timberjay this past week, and said he is particularly concerned about the corrupting influence of big money on the political process, and he highlights a close-to-home example of how powerful and wealthy interests are affecting politics here in Minnesota. Copper-nickel mining, according to Painter, is a bad deal that will leave the state with a centuries-long waste problem while powerful players, who most Minnesotans couldn’t even name, skate off with the vast majority of wealth that a new type of mining might generate.
And he said his campaign is working to expose the connections to the people who are really behind the projects currently under consideration. “When you talk about PolyMet, it’s really not PolyMet, it’s Glencore that has the power,” he said. “Glencore controls a third of the stock, but it also has a lot of the debt and that gives you a tremendous amount of control of a company.”
Painter noted that Glencore, a Swiss-based international commodities broker, also has contractual rights to any metals produced by PolyMet, which means the Swiss company will have the ability to price metals favorably for itself, potentially limiting future profitability for PolyMet if it remains as a separate entity.
Painter said the big players who are really behind the PolyMet project are wealthy foreign financiers, like Nate Rothschild, of the Rothschild banking family, and Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch previously served by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.
“Both Rothschild and Deripaska like to pose as miners,” said Painter. “But they’re just billionaires who’ve never worked a day in their lives.”
Painter said PolyMet is essentially a local front and stated that it’s a common ploy used around the world, mostly by European financiers seeking to tap resources elsewhere while tamping down local opposition. “The British were experts at this,” said Painter. “That was their whole modus operandi around the world.”
In Minnesota, said Painter, Glencore and its front men have cultivated ties with the political class in both major parties as well as the labor community to build support for their project. He said Twin Metals, which is controlled by the Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic, is trying to replicate PolyMet’s approach, but faces a greater challenge due in part to its location within the watershed of a major Boundary Waters tributary.
Still, Luksic’s project advanced this past week with the decision by the Trump Interior Department to reinstate mineral leases that had been rescinded in the final weeks of the Obama administration. Painter notes that Luksic, who now rents a Washington, D.C., mansion to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, has a history of using various levers of influence, including financial, to obtain favorable treatment from governments.
Painter said the influence of these foreign financiers is taking its toll on Minnesota’s political process and dividing the DFL. “What’s going on is that the party bosses in the DFL have decided to essentially split the baby, to go ahead and support PolyMet and keep Twin Metals a bit on the slow track,” said Painter. “As a result, the people in Duluth feel like they’ve been thrown under the bus,” he said. PolyMet’s NorthMet deposit, which is located south of the Laurentian Divide, poses the most environmental risk to the St. Louis River watershed, which enters Lake Superior in Duluth.
“The evidence that I’ve seen, is that both mines present serious environmental problems,” said Painter. “We’ve done iron mining here and I believe the consequences of that have been manageable, but when you get into copper-nickel, it’s a whole lot trickier and the environmental risks are much more severe. I’m not an environmental expert, but that appears to be the scientific consensus.”
Painter said he has little confidence in the Department of Natural Resources to protect Minnesota’s environment or understand the financial games that big multinationals are capable of playing. “The DNR is just a political branch of the government,” he said. “They don’t have the expertise.”
Painter suggested the state would be reckless to allow either project to move forward without adequate cash bond, and he said he has too much experience with other financial instruments, like letters of credit, to put stock in them. “You could stack up letters of credit and use them for toilet paper for all the good they’ll do,” he said. According to Painter, such letters may look credible but are often issued from subsidiaries that don’t ultimately have the assets to back them. “Glencore’s got the money,” he said, suggesting that the state should require the company to post cash bond, which is far more secure. “They just don’t want to take the risk,” he said. But that leaves the risk ultimately on the backs of taxpayers, he said.
Painter suggested that Glencore’s selection of Tony Hayward as company chairman is indicative of the company’s questionable commitment to the environment. The British-born Hayward became notorious in the U.S. during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, when Hayward was chairman of British Petroleum, which was responsible for the disaster. “Here you have a guy with a really crappy environmental record, and he’s the chairman of Glencore,” said Painter. “And they’re ensuring us it will all be fine here in Minnesota?” he asked.
It’s a bad bet, said Painter, adding that Minnesotans need to understand the way that the commodities industry has globalized. “The old model from iron mining days was you had an American who owned an iron mine and they would build a big house in Duluth and raise their children and spend their time and money there. They’d fund charities and the wealth would stay in Minnesota, often for two or three generations,” said Painter. Those days are largely gone, he said. “Today, the vast majority of the profits will be to people like Andronico Luksic or Nate Rothschild.”
Painter is clearly planning to make copper-nickel mining an issue in the campaign, although it remains to be seen how well a former Republican will fare with progressives in the DFL who might otherwise be receptive to his arguments on the issue.
Painter may put more pressure on Smith to clarify her position on the issue. Smith has generally made pro-mining statements, at least in northeastern Minnesota, but has not been outspoken on the issue.