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Nolan, Mills courting Iron Range votes

Edith and Mike Tappa of Grand Portage show their support for the proposed PolyMet copper mine project at a public hearing in Aurora in January. Eighth District Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan and his challenger, Republican Stewart Mills III, both are courting votes on the Iron Range in advance of the November election. (File / News Tribune)

The major party candidates for the 8th Congressional District seat went mining for votes in the past week.

Incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan outlined his position on the prospect of bringing precious-metals mining to the Iron Range.

As Nolan was on the range, Republican challenger Stewart Mills distanced himself from a fellow Republican candidate for federal office who had angered miners.  

Earlier this month, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden drew the ire of Iron Range Steelworkers when he said he’d build a major federal pipeline project with Chinese steel if it were cheaper than American steel. McFadden is vying with incumbent Democrat Al Franken for a U.S. Senate seat.

“McFadden’s not recanting at all,” said John Dickinson, the financial secretary of United Steelworkers Local 6115 in Virginia. “He wants the jobs but doesn’t care at what expense.”

Meanwhile, Mills has been courting the Iron Range. He denied that McFadden’s perceived faux pas is hurting his own campaign’s efforts there.

“Our campaign is our campaign,” Mills said during an interview Thursday with the News Tribune. “It’s not affiliated with anybody else’s campaign.”

In distancing himself from McFadden, Mills is putting at arm’s length a candidate with whom Mills has toured the district in the past year. When asked if he would use Chinese steel on something such as Enbridge Energy’s proposed 610-mile Sandpiper project across Minnesota, Mills was unequivocal.

“Absolutely not,” said the 42-year-old candidate. “First of all, they’re manipulating their currency. Second of all, it’s a communist country that is directly subsidizing their workforce. So how can you compete on a level playing field? Why would we ever want to reward them for cheating?”

Mills’ has come out in favor of PolyMet and other mining projects throughout his campaign, which began in 2013.

Nolan and other incumbent Democrats who are up for re-election, including Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton, have been more cautious as they await a completed environmental review of the proposed PolyMet project. The project would reopen on the former LTV Steel site in Hoyt Lakes. PolyMet has its name on an Adopt-A-Highway sign in the neighborhood of the proposed mine.   

Nolan told the News Tribune in an Aug. 22 interview that “you can pin me down” about mining deposits of copper, nickel and other precious metals on the Iron Range. Previously, Nolan had written a letter to a Department of Natural Resources official in the state that urged timely approval of the PolyMet project and the subsequent opening of the Duluth Complex — the name of the reserves of copper and nickel that have been described as some of the world’s largest such reserves.  

“I support mining and I support that they have to be in full compliance with our environmental health and safety rules and regulations,” Nolan said.

“Here’s the good news,” Nolan added. “Business and industry supports good environmental rules now. They don’t come at you and say, ‘If we have all these rules and regulations, we’ll be put out of business.’ They don’t say that any more. They say, ‘Tell us what the standards are and we’ll comply.’ ”

Nolan was quick to point out that his position risks putting him at odds with the environmentalists in the DFL. Green Party candidate Skip Sandman figures to be the beneficiary; Sandman opposes the sulfide mining that extracts copper, nickel and other metals.  

“The Green Party candidate who’s not spending any money is getting 4-5 percent off my side of the ledger,” Nolan said.

But Nolan believes his support of mining with conditions approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, among other agencies, is the practical bridge his opponents won’t cross.

“You have the Green Party candidate who is opposed to mining on the one side,” Nolan said. “And we’ve had a half-dozen votes in the Congress with the Republicans trying to strip the EPA on anything having to do with a wide variety of things.”

Nolan said he grew up in a time of acid rain and polluted rivers and lakes catching fire. Practical controls like scrubbers on coal-fired power plants are the result of a “political will” he believes is necessary to have both mining and strong environmental rules and protections. Between his first vongressional term, representing the state’s 6th District from 1975-1981, and his current term, “I learned along the way you can do both,” he said.   

“I like to tell my friends in the Twin Cities that nobody cares more about the great outdoors up here than we do,” Nolan said.  

Mills said he was making headway on the Iron Range and believes he will continue to do so.

“(Because) every time we visit there,” Mills said. “Our message suits them.”

Mills is vice president of Mills Fleet Farm, a family-owned company with more than 30 retail stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. He cited his family’s longtime work in the timber industry as common ground with the Iron Range’s miners. He said his great-grandfather even mined iron on the southern edge of the Cuyuna Range in Crow Wing County.

“I’ve got iron ore in my blood,” Mills said, before explaining that he believes he has anearnest connection with the Iron Range.    

“My great-great-grandfather came up from the Cities in the 1870s to work in the timber industry,” Mills said at a café across from his campaign office in Brainerd. “Those folks came up to work in the mining industry. The fact they all came here in the 1870s through 1900 to work in the natural resource industries; there’s a commonality. So it’s really easy to make connections with those people.”