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Trump, Obama and the Iron Range. Which party gets it right?

Joe Radionovich (left) and Pete Stauber

Throughout the 8th Congressional District race, there's been a tug-of-war between the major parties and their candidates over which one of them will best represent miners.

Republican Pete Stauber credits President Donald Trump's policies and blanket tariffs with turning around the economy and putting cheap foreign steel in its place, respectively.

Democrat Joe Radinovich recalls Barack Obama as the president who put out-of-work Iron Range miners back on the job by correcting foreign steel dumping which brought Northland mines to a near halt.

While voters would benefit from knowing one side was right and one wrong, it's not so simple.

Without a doubt, both parties are listening to miners. Both candidates praised Thursday's permit approvals for the proposed Polymet copper-nickel mine in Hoyt Lakes. And both sides have pulled levers which have led to today's more profitable taconite iron ore mining industry. And neither side is willing to surrender the point.

"What's Donald Trump getting all the credit for?" retiring Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Crosby, wondered aloud in an interview this week. "Everybody was back to work by the time he became president."

For Democrats, that's the open-and-shut case.

Even a Republican miner will acknowledge it. But then he'll go further.

"Obama did get it started," Ely's Craig Seliskar said, "but when we went back to work under the tariffs he started, it was back to the same old, same old — we don't know what the future holds. With the Trump tariffs, everything got kicked into high speed. The outlook is better than it's been for quite a few years."

Seliskar, 39, said he works for Cleveland-Cliffs and is a member of the partisan group Minnesota Miners, whose support for Trump and Republicans can be found on billboards across the district.

"When I go to the voting booth," Seliskar said, "I'm thinking long term and who is going to take care of my way of life."

Nolan would argue that's what he and the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party have done.

When cheap, government-subsidized Chinese steel was undercutting the American market earlier this decade, Nolan said he was the one who made regular appearances in front of the International Trade Commission and brought Obama's chief of staff to a rally on the Iron Range which was later hailed as a turning point. Obama went on to impose tariffs as high as 522 percent on specific products, such as cold rolled steel. The administration put miners back to work, Nolan said, without impacting, say, the soybean farmers who are struggling in the face of Trump tariffs.

"We did not cause the slightest ripple in the international trading community," Nolan said, "because we specifically targeted the cheaters and everybody knew they were cheating."

When it comes to supporting iron miners, Nolan is loathe to be lost to the dustbin of history or cede the territory to Republicans. He held the 8th District in 2016 despite Trump winning it by almost 16 points.

"A lot of people who voted for Trump voted for me because of the work I've done on mining," Nolan said. "... Trump's verbal support of miners and mining is appreciated, but it's questionable if it's helpful. Knowledgeable people know who was in the trenches doing the work."

Stauber argues it's he and Trump in the trenches now. Trump's 25 percent blanket tariffs imposed this year, "should have been done a decade ago," Stauber said at the October debate in Brainerd. "He made that happen."

A half-dozen Iron Range mayors and their Stauber endorsements seem to agree. During a contentious moment later in the campaign, Stauber talked during the Minnesota Public Radio debate about walking shoulder to shoulder with mining families in Virginia.

Hearing that was enough for Radinovich to get defensive. He countered, "Yet we never see you at any contract rallies or steel dumping rallies."

Even during a time of swaying allegiances, some relationships remain ironclad between the DFL and Iron Range. Last month, Radinovich earned the endorsement of the United Steelworkers.

Said District 11 director Emil Ramirez in a statement last month: "Joe Radinovich has been standing with us during our fight for fair contracts in the steel industry throughout the summer."

So, which party and candidate stands tallest on the Iron Range? It's a question only Tuesday's electorate has the authority to answer.

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