Last week, one of the nation’s largest solar manufacturing plants celebrated a major expansion, not in California or Texas, but in Minnesota’s Iron Mountain Range.
Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith were there to celebrate. So was local DFL state Rep. Dave Lislegard, who reminded the crowd that the solar plant is built on the old tailings of an iron ore mine and very close to what could be a new mining wave in the region.
“You’re here in the Iron Mountain, where we have one of the largest copper and nickel mining deposits in the world,” he said. “When we talk about solar, we talk about wind, and we talk about electric cars, You have the ability to do the right thing, the right way, right here! Done right. Made in Minnesota. Made in America.”
Lislegard is the kind of Democrat who not too long ago probably would have made it to re-election in the Iron Range. He is a former iron miner and former mayor of the city of Aurora.
He argues that he is pro-mining, pro-labour, pro-employment – bread-and-butter priorities that resonate in this working-class region.
However, as he seeks to retain the District 6B seat, he finds himself in a tight race with Republican Matt Norri, a political neophyte with significant name recognition. For years his family owned a beer distribution business on the range.
“The party I’m running with, the platform is very, very positive for mining here in Minnesota,” Norri said, adding that mining is his top issue and the one he hears most often from voters.
“My opponent’s party, the majority of their caucus doesn’t want to mine here,” Norri said. “I mean, you can be as pro-mining as you want, but when you don’t have the support to do it, it’s just not going to happen.”
Change the policy
Republicans sense an opportunity in the Iron Range, a Democratic stronghold that has shifted rapidly to the right in recent elections. The GOP argues that the DFL is more aligned with Twin Cities liberals and out of touch with Range’s priorities.
Last month, key Republican officials from across the state came to the Range to support Norri. U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber drove to Virginia, Minnesota, to gather volunteers in a Hobby Lobby parking lot before knocking on the first candidate’s door.
“I’m the first Republican re-elected in 76 years here on the Range, and this is just the beginning,” Stauber proclaimed. “You people here are going to add to that by getting Matt elected here.”
With slim margins in both the state House and Senate, the Iron Range could hold the key to which party controls the state legislature. Two state Senate seats and several House seats are up for grabs in northeastern Minnesota.
“Range itself can put us in the majority,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, who also traveled to Virginia to support Norri. “We think we have a better chance of winning all the legislative seats than the 50-50. Range.”
WORK FOR WORKING FAMILIES
Iron Range Democrats argue that they are the candidates with a long track record of supporting working families and organized labor.
“The DFL, our party, does represent working families,” state Rep. Jen Schultz, Stauber’s challenger in the 8th District, told a room full of volunteers at the party office in Hibbing before leaving for at an evening knocking on the door.
“And we need to make sure that message gets to the table, when you’re at the door, to communicate all the great things our party is doing for working families.”
That’s what state Rep. Julie Sanstede emphasized when she went door-to-door, chatting with residents of a Hibbing neighborhood recently.
“I really fight hard to make sure that our voices here in the Iron Range are heard in St. Paul and that our issues that are so important to us are as important down there as they are to us up here,” he said . an owner
Sandstede, a music teacher, opts for a fourth term at St. Paul. In 2018, he won District 6A by nearly 20 percentage points. Two years later, he won by less than 1% against the same Republican challenger.
In his presentation to the voters, Sandstede talks about his achievements in St. Paul and how he works across the aisle to get things done for his district, such as bringing home funding for investments in broadband infrastructure, water and sewer, and public safety buildings.
While he hears a lot of positive feedback, he said he also feels a lot of frustration over what he sees as DFL “extremism,” including Gov. Tim Walz’s handling of COVID-19.
“If I had a dime for every time someone said, Julie, ‘not you, not frustrated with you, just in general, you know, we want to see things done differently.’ So I tell them, “That’s why you need to elect a moderate Democrat.” [so] that I can push back within my own caucus. Just to make sure it doesn’t go too far one way or the other.”
This year Sandstede is running against another incumbent, Spencer Igo from near Grand Rapids. The redistricting paired them against each other. Knocking on doors in a different Hibbing neighborhood, Igo said his message resonates with the Iron Rangers.
“I’m pro-work, against right-to-work,” he said. It was also described as “energy, which is mining, which is logging, manufacturing,” he continued. “I like to say give people a hand. to live their life instead of a donation. That’s how we’ve always been up here.”
TWO OPEN SEATS
Regardless of who prevails, the Iron Range is guaranteed to have two new state senators next legislative session. There are races for two open seats to replace signature lawmakers: Sen. Tom Bakk, who is retiring; and Sen. Dave Tomassoni, who died earlier this year after a year-long battle with ALS.
Both encapsulate the shifting political winds in the Iron Range. Both were longtime Democrats who became independents during their final terms.
Bakk has endorsed a Republican to replace him in the Senate, but supports two Democratic incumbents for House seats in his district, including Dave Lislegard. “There is no one more pro-mining in the entire Legislature than Dave Lislegard,” he said.
But overall, Bakk said, Democrats’ national messages on issues like climate change and abortion don’t resonate with voters in the Iron Range.
“Work will always be the problem here, because we live in a very cyclical economy. And you don’t hear many jobs narratives coming from the Democratic Party anymore. They’ve moved on to other things, but I don’t think people here have moved on because of the nature of the economy up here.”