One year after special election win, Ecklund faces re-election
If it seems like Rob Ecklund just got elected to the state House, you’re right.
The International Falls DFLer won his first bid for the Minnesota House last year, first by topping a field of four candidates in the DFL primary and then winning a three-way battle in a December special election to replace longtime Rep. Dave Dill, who passed away in 2015.
Ecklund was immediately thrown into the fray when the legislative session started in March with nearly all the other legislators already one year into their terms.
“Most legislators get a three-day orientation. I got 45 minutes,” Ecklund said with a laugh.
Now Ecklund, with just one session under his belt at the Capitol, is running as the incumbent in his first re-election bid, facing Republican Tom Long on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The district covers all of Koochiching and Cook counties, most of Lake County and the northern third and eastern townships in St. Louis County. The House 3A district is the state's largest.
While the district tilts generally toward Democrats and DFL candidates (Obama won the district in 2012 with 55 percent of the vote), it also leans conservative on social issues such as abortion and guns. And it's largely rural — International Falls and Ely are the largest cities — dominated by mining and logging interests in many areas but also strongly tied to tourism. Voyageurs National Park, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the Superior National Forest and much of the North Shore is in the district.
Long said he wants to see massive changeover among Minnesota lawmakers to break the gridlock that occurred in 2016 when a DFL governor and state Senate reached an impasse with the Republican-controlled House on major legislation.
“I believe there’s a lot of change needed. The election process itself is in need of change. We need a new bunch of people. This group obviously can’t get along very well,” he said. “I’d like to be a change agent. ... I’m looking at transportation issues, like a bus line up the North Shore and finishing the bike trail.”
Long is a former state behavior analyst with the Department of Human Services who retired to the forest outside Grand Marais. He was active in Minneapolis community issues when he lived there and said he wants to continue in his new home.
“I’ve been coming up here since I was in high school and I fell in love with the area. I’ve been coming up here ever since,’’ he said. “So, when I retired, we went up north. This is where we wanted to be.”
Long says the region’s biggest issue is the possible expansion into copper mining at a time when iron mining has faced a downturn. Both he and Ecklund support development of the proposed PolyMet copper mine near Hoyt Lakes.
“It has people worried and excited at the same time. We have to consider the environmental impacts. But we also have to look at the impacts of not doing it on the people up there, and that's just as important to me,” Long said, saying he’s sided with copper development and jobs. “It seems the environmental issues are solvable.”
Ecklund, a Marine Corps veteran, said the biggest issues facing the district are the crumbling transportation infrastructure — which affects the timber and tourism industries as well as residents’ travel — and struggling rural schools that can’t keep up their curriculum and buildings under the current state aid formula, and with declining enrollments and in some cases a declining population and tax base.
Lawmakers were unable to agree on a transportation bill in 2016, nor a construction/bonding bill, Ecklund noted, which will delay several projects in the region.
Another emerging issue is the “behavior health crisis. It’s draining a lot of county resources. We have to change how things are done,” Ecklund said, noting drug addiction and mental health issues aren't just costing money but wasting lives, and the state and federal governments have seemed seem slow to respond.
Ecklund said he also is pushing border-to-border broadband internet access across the state, which has remained slow to come to the region’s remote areas.
He also said being in the minority in the House “forced me to reach out across the aisle and forge alliances. I was able to do that. And, either way, if we (the DFL) take the House back or don't, that puts me in a better position.”
Minnesota House 3A
OCCUPATION: Paper machine tender at the Package Corp. of America, the former Boise paper mill in International Falls.
EDUCATION: Graduated from International Falls High School. Attended Rainy River Community College and Bemidji State University.
ELECTED/CIVIC EXPERIENCE: He was elected to the Koochiching County Board in 2010 and re-elected in 2014. Elected to the Minnesota House in a special election in 2015. He is a member and past president of United Steelworkers Local 159
ENDORSEMENTS: Nearly all organized labor in the district, including the United Steelworkers Local 159 and District 11; Teamsters Local 346 and District 32; the Iron Range Building Trades; the Duluth Building Trades; AFSCME Council 65; and AFSCME Council 5. Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Farm Bureau, Minnesota Small Business Association, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota Police Officers Association.
FAMILY: Wife, Joan; three children — Nick, Jared and Cory.
OCCUPATION: Retired behavior analyst for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
EDUCATION: Graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in behavioral psychology.
ELECTED/CIVIC EXPERIENCE: Chairman of the Beltrami Neighborhood Housing Committee in Minneapolis.
FAMILY: Wife, Connie.