DFL Duluth Senate primary a 'race of consequence' driven largely by mining divisions

DFL-endorsed Jen McEwen will take on incumbent Sen. Erik Simonson in a hotly contested primary.

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State Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, and primary challenger Jen McEwen

The upcoming Aug. 11 primary will pit incumbent District 7 Sen. Erik Simonson against a DFL-endorsed challenger, Jen McEwen.

McEwen, an attorney who represents workers with disability claims, said she was motivated to run because of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

"Experiencing the onset of the pandemic this spring really caused me to re-examine my participation in creating change and what my role should be and might be in moving things forward," she said.

In particular, McEwen expressed disappointment with Simonson's voting record as it relates to natural resources-related issues.

"I think that Duluth should have a senator who is really going to be in St. Paul fighting for the kinds of values and the kinds of change we need with a sense of urgency," she said.


Simonson, who is seeking a second term in the Senate after serving two terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives, said he was somewhat surprised to lose the party endorsement to a political newcomer. McEwen won the DFL endorsement with 70% of the delegate vote.

"The party is shifting, and that's been happening for a while. I first noticed it in 2016, where it became very evident that there's a growing group of people that are wanting their voice to be heard," he said. "I don't think it represents the entirety of Duluth, but you could see that there was a shift. And obviously now, here in 2020, that shift is continuing and it has transcended into DFL partisan politics."

The debate over whether copper-nickel sulfide deposits should be mined in the Northland has loomed large in the campaign.

"I've tried to come at this from a practical, common-sense standpoint and say: We can't have it one way or the other," Simonson said. "We have to figure out a way to do both. We have to be responsible for the environment; we have to do things in a safe way. But at the same time, we can't just deny the fact that these minerals are in the ground and that people are going to figure out a way to get them out."

But McEwen warned that whatever economic benefit copper-nickel mines bring to the region likely will be short-lived.

"Going the route of copper-nickel sulfide mining would be disastrous. It would be disastrous for our economy as a whole that relies on our clean water and our rich natural resources up here," she said.

Cynthia Rugeley, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said McEwen seems to represent the more liberal wing of the DFL party, inspired by the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, while Simonson seems to represent the more traditional, labor union-driven wing.

Rugeley said those party divisions are laid bare by disputes over the future of copper-nickel sulfide mining.


"It's almost like there is no other issue in this area of the state any more," she said. "On a personal level, I find that distressing, because I think that it kind of takes away from a lot of the issues that really need to be talked about."

Simonson agreed that the prospect of copper-nickel has polarized the party.

"It still to this day baffles me that this has become such a wedge issue," he said.

He suggested that if the DFL drifts too far to the left, it may have trouble navigating a divided Legislature.

"I'm not an activist. I don't go to the Legislature, pound my fist on my desk and demand that it has to be one way or the other. That's just not the way I operate. I try to come at things from the perspective of: How can I get something done?" Simonson said.

While compromise has its place, McEwen suggested DFL leaders have sometimes been too eager to strike deals.

"They come to the bargaining table asking for a compromise. They've already compromised on what they'd like, and they're coming to the table with what they think is a reasonable middle ground. But we're dealing with a Republican Party that is frankly not the Republican Party of old," said McEwen, pointing to what she considers the extreme, right-wing views that have come to dominate the party.

"We've been drifting to the right for decades in our politics," she said. "And there needs to be a course correction. Part of that means Democrats really standing up and naming the things that they want and fighting for the things that they really want. I think we need more advocacy from our leaders and less going along to get along."


Simonson said division within the DFL presents its own problems, too. "My fear is that the ability to win majorities in the Legislature โ€” both Senate and House โ€” the more you divide, the less opportunity there is for the Democrats to hold onto or win majorities."

Neither Simonson nor McEwen have been out knocking on doors during this campaign season, due to COVID-19 concerns.

Instead, both have been working the phones with volunteers and have turned to social media. They're also planning to air television ads in advance of this unusually charged primary election.

"It has become a race of consequence," McEwen said.

Both candidates also have been encouraging supporters to vote via absentee ballots.

Due to the pandemic, Rugeley said she expects many people will cast their votes by mail, and candidates could be rewarded for helping supporters to do so.

"I would not be surprised if the absentee ballots outnumber the number of votes cast at the polls this year," Rugeley said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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