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Ecklund advances to District 3A general election

Koochiching County Commissioner Rob Ecklund of International Falls topped a field of four candidates Tuesday to win the state House District 3A DFL primary.

Koochiching County Commissioner Rob Ecklund of International Falls topped a field of four candidates Tuesday to win the state House District 3A DFL primary.
Ecklund, 57, who works as a paper machine operator at the Boise paper mill, moves on to the Dec. 8 special election, called by Gov. Mark Dayton after the August death of Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake.
“I have to work at the mill tomorrow night, but I hope to get down to the deer shack this weekend with the boys and relax a little,” Ecklund said when it became clear he had won the race.
Ecklund will face Republican Roger Skraba, the former mayor of Ely, and independent Kelsey Johnson of Gnesen Township north of Duluth, a political newcomer who has worked as a lobbyist at the state Capitol.
Ecklund took about 44 percent of the vote compared to about 37 percent for canoe outfitter Bill Hansen of Sawbill Lake north of Tofte in Cook County. Heidi Omerza of Ely and Eric Johnson, an International Falls businessman, each took less than 10 percent of the vote.
House District 3A is the largest in the state, covering all of Koochiching and Cook counties, most of Lake County and the northern third and eastern townships in St. Louis County.
Touting the backing of organized labor, logging interests and David Dill’s family, Ecklund rode a strong wave of support in Koochiching County and the mining areas of St. Louis and Lake counties.
“I think I did so well up here (in the International Falls area) because people appreciate what I’ve done on the county board,” Ecklund told the News Tribune. “Most of all I have to thank Tucky and Drake Dill. They urged me to run, Their support really helped.”
Hansen said he strongly backs Ecklund in the general election.
“Rob is a really good guy. He’s a good Democrat. We’re probably together on 99 percent of the issues,” Hansen said after the results were in. “We gave it a good shot. At least it was a short campaign.”
The DFL primary was cast by some as a regional referendum on proposed copper mining in northeastern Minnesota, with Ecklund a strong supporter of the proposed PolyMet copper mine project now under environmental review. Hansen, 62, in his third primary for the same regional House seat, was seen as a potential contender even though he strongly opposes copper mining.
Indeed, in Babbitt, a taconite iron ore mining town just a few miles from the proposed PolyMet copper mine pit and where the new mining jobs would be welcome, Ecklund took 140 votes to just 12 for Hansen. But in Eagles Nest Township near Ely, where many residents live on pristine lakes and have expressed concern over copper mining pollution, Hansen won 45-18 over Ecklund.
Ecklund won where the most people live and voted in the district, in International Falls, Ely and towns just north of the Iron Range, while Hansen won by huge margins on the more thinly populated North Shore.
“Organized labor and the support from the mining community was critical for me, and my message isn't going to change for the general election,” Ecklund said. “Minnesota has the strongest environmental laws in the country. And if the decision is that it can be done right, let’s do this” copper mining.
Eric Johnson and Heidi Omerza may have captured some pro-mining votes that would have gone to Ecklund, but they didn’t emerge as major factors in the race.
With the pro-mining and pro-union Ecklund winning the primary, the DFL looks to keep an advantage over Republican Skraba and independent Johnson in what is usually a strong DFL district. Barack Obama won the district in 2012 with 55 percent of the vote for president even though the district leans conservative on social issues such as abortion and guns. And it’s largely rural dominated by mining and logging interests in many areas but also strongly tied to tourism.
Ecklund works at the Boise paper mill in International Falls where he’s a paper-machine tender. He is a member and past president of United Steelworkers Local 159. He was elected to the Koochiching County Board in 2010 and re-elected in 2014.
Ecklund, a Marine Corps veteran, said he has focused on economic development, transportation and clean-water issues as a County Board member, and noted he has experience working at both the state Capitol in St. Paul and in Washington.
Ecklund and his wife, Joan, have three children - Nick, Jared and Cory.
Hansen had the endorsement of his home Cook County DFL Party, the DFL Environmental Caucus, the Conservation Minnesota Voter Center and Duluth Mayor Don Ness.
Ecklund has landed the support of nearly all organized labor in the district, including the United Steelworkers Local 129 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.
The biggest dust-up of the campaign occurred after Hansen, in a video posted on his campaign website, predicted social tumult if large copper mining construction projects occur in the district, recalling crime and other problems that have often followed transient workers to places like North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields.
That assessment drew the wrath of Iron Range trade union officials who said Hansen was disparaging their reputations, although those unions already had endorsed Ecklund.
“That may have encouraged a few more people to vote, but I think most of those votes were already decided,” Hansen noted Tuesday night.

Hansen owns and operates Sawbill Canoe Outfitters with his wife, Cindy, at the end of the Sawbill Trail, and has run for the Legislature twice before. Hansen ran against Dill in a DFL primary in 2002 when the seat - then House District 6A - was open, with no incumbent, and again in 2004 after Dill's first term.
Hansen was the DFL-endorsed candidate but lost to Dill by a roughly 41-34 percent margin in 2002, with two other candidates polling 14 and 11 percent. In 2004 Dill won the DFL primary by a 59-41 percent margin over Hansen.
Hansen’s stand against proposed copper mining projects has earned scorn from some northern DFLers and union officials but praise from environmental groups and some Duluth-area politicians. It’s not just the potential environmental harm, Hansen said of his concerns, but the short-term, cyclical nature of the jobs that come with it, saying mining in high-sulfide rock wasn’t a good economic deal for the state.

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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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