REGIONAL— International Falls may be nearly 300 miles north of the Twin Cities, but that didn’t stop this past summer’s unrest in Minneapolis from dominating a candidates’ …
REGIONAL— International Falls may be nearly 300 miles north of the Twin Cities, but that didn’t stop this past summer’s unrest in Minneapolis from dominating a candidates’ forum here earlier this month that included third-term Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL- International Falls, and his youthful challenger ,Thomas Manninen.
Manninen is a 2015 graduate of Littlefork High School, who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science and criminal justice from Minnesota State University in Moorhead. He’s since studied law at Hamline in St. Paul as part of his goal of a career in politics.
Ecklund, by contrast, recently retired as a longtime employee and union member at Boise in International Falls. He previously served on the Koochiching County Board before running for the Legislature in a 2015 special election to fill the seat vacated by the death of David Dill.
The Oct. 1 forum, sponsored by the International Falls Chamber of Commerce, highlighted some of the differences between the two candidates in their views of DFL Gov. Tim Walz and their economic solutions for rural Minnesota.
Last summer’s violence in the wake of the death of George Floyd was a focus of the forum. Manninen said the issue has surprising resonance with voters he’s met during the campaign and he said he would have supported sending in federal law enforcement or troops to quell the violence, which resulted in the destruction of large areas of the Lake Street neighborhood in Minneapolis. “For three days, the governor did nothing in the face of insurrection,” said Manninen. “The federal government, if the governor abdicates his responsibility, should intervene.”
Manninen also took issue with Ecklund’s support of legislation that tapped $160 million from the state general fund and raised the sales tax in the seven-county metro area to pay for rebuilding those areas destroyed in the rioting.
Ecklund responded that Gov. Walz had called out the state’s national guard, although he acknowledged that, in hindsight, it might have been better to have deployed the guard sooner. “But we first need to talk about what prompted the situation,” said Ecklund. “We had a law enforcement official kneel on the neck of a citizen of Minnesota for eight and half minutes. The root cause of what happened still needs to be worked on in Minnesota and in the United States.”
And Ecklund defended the use of state resources to help with rebuilding damaged neighborhoods in Minneapolis. “Whenever we have disasters in Minnesota, no matter the cause, the citizens of Minnesota pitch in and help repair what went on,” he said, adding that state resources helped Koochiching County repair damage from flooding not that long ago.
Manninen disagreed and cited a comment he heard from a constituent that he thought expressed a widely-held sentiment. “It would be a completely different story had the governor and the state of Minnesota done everything they could have to defend Minneapolis,” he said, arguing that Greater Minnesota should not be forced to pay for repairs stemming from the violence, although he did not have a clear answer on where the funds to rebuild should come from. The Trump administration, earlier this year, refused to release FEMA disaster funds to help pay to rebuild damaged areas.
Ecklund noted that the Twin Cities generates the bulk of the tax revenue that supports operations and projects throughout the state. “The seven-county metro is the economic engine of Minnesota, far more money flows north to northern Minnesota than flows from northern Minnesota to the metro,” he said.
On the subject of the pandemic, Ecklund defended the governor’s use of his emergency powers under the constitution to address the public health risks associated with COVID-19. “I think the governor has done a terrific job,” he said. “If we were the only state in the country that had governor’s executive orders, you’re darn right I’d be pretty concerned about it, but right now, 49 of the 50 states are under some kind of emergency orders,” he said.
Manninen accused Walz of taking “unilateral, unconstitutional action,” which he said has harmed businesses and communities in the region. He said Walz was making decisions without consulting the Legislature, who represent Minnesotans across the state, and he called on the Legislature to “take back its authority as a co-equal branch of government.”
Ecklund noted that legislators are part-time, and so not in a good position to be legislating responses to a rapidly evolving public health threat.
On the economy, both candidates expressed support for non-ferrous mining projects, although Manninen tried to tie Ecklund to a late August decision by the DFL Central Committee to call for a moratorium on copper-nickel mining in the state. The measure was approved by a razor-thin 126-122 margin and it was opposed by DFL legislative leaders, but it’s been a talking point for Republican legislative candidates in northern Minnesota ever since.
“If elected, I will defend the right of every Minnesotan to utilize the natural resources beneath our feet,” said Manninen, who argued that both the mining and timber industries are currently struggling. He blamed an “unfriendly business climate” in Minnesota for the struggles of those industries. Most economists view the downturn in those industries as related to broader issues in the global economy.
Ecklund, as he has done throughout his tenure in the Legislature, emphasized the importance of expanding broadband connectivity to rural parts of the state. “I believe that providing broadband is the true new economy of the north,” he said. “Every city in the state has an empty industrial park. We’re all fighting to get industry here, but if we bring true border-to-border broadband to every house in the district, just like rural electricity was in the 1950s, that’s where we’ll see the boom in jobs.”
Ecklund said that people are looking for alternatives to life in urban areas and that northern Minnesota is looking increasingly attractive, provided there is broadband capability.
Ecklund has also consistently spoken in favor of passage of a bonding bill this year as a way to address the state’s facility needs while creating jobs in construction and the building supply sectors.