Stephanie Lee had one hope for the 8th Congressional District DFL candidate forum at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College on Wednesday.
"I hope we can see more delineation between the DFL candidates," said Lee, of Finlayson and a onetime student at the host school located in Cloquet.
Members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party who packed the school's rotunda didn't see Lee's wish come true - until the topic turned to copper mining.
What had been a homogenous and agreeable display between the five candidates vying to replace the retiring U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan on the DFL ballot and in Congress shifted dramatically following an intermission in the three-hour forum.
Moderator Pete Radosevich, a local attorney and host of the public access program "Harry's Gang," started the second half by asking candidates to address "a divide between pro-labor-union and mining people and the environmentalists who are fearful the mining is going to damage the water and our ecosystem."
It's a divide that has been used to call the 8th District DFL a party in disarray. Maybe, maybe not. But it was a topic that at least proved capable of illustrating the sorts of differences which can elevate or end a candidacy.
Seated behind tables and packed left to right, Leah Phifer, Jason Metsa, Joe Radinovich, Kirsten Kennedy and Michelle Lee finally found in copper mining a way to disagree after nodding along and echoing each other for much of the night.
"Copper-nickel mining is what we're discussing here today," said Phifer, of Isanti, putting the controversial fine point on the issue.
"The PolyMet/Twin Metals copper-nickel type of mining has never been done in Minnesota and it is very, very different and it is very, very risky in a water-rich environment like we have here," she said.
Phifer said she might never be comfortable with it no matter how much money companies put up in escrow to pay for cleanup in the event of a disaster.
Metsa, of Virginia, was a believer in precious-metals mining, saying it was time to trust the experts in the state who have been a part of the yearslong permitting process.
"When it comes to our projects, we need to support our state employees and public servants and they have recommended that these things can move forward," Metsa said. "Their work is essentially what they have spent their fields and entire careers learning expertise in. We need to trust (their judgment)."
He added that as a lawmaker he would work to bring a university-aligned water-research center to the Iron Range which would study, innovate and protect the environment.
Radinovich, of Crosby, seemed to get caught up in nuance. He said the jobs, mining and environment issue is "a false choice" being used by Republicans to drive a wedge in the DFL. He said moving away from fossil fuels creates a greater need for precious metals in renewable energy technologies.
Ultimately, he seemed to agree with precious-metals mining in northern Minnesota, calling for transparency and high standards that he said could "assure proper closure after the life of the project."
"This race is about more than one issue and more than one region," Radinovich said, citing President Donald Trump's 15-point victory in the 8th District in 2016 and Nolan's thin winning margins in recent elections. "We as a Democratic party need to win in difficult places like this. ... We have to be able to unify our base or we won't be able to."
Kennedy, of North Branch, was onboard with mining precious metals.
"We want to move toward a green economy; we want to use technology," she said. "To move us there we need minerals and the minerals we are looking for are found in Minnesota on the Iron Range."
Failing to mine metals found in Minnesota would result in the United States seeking those raw materials from other, third-world countries, where there are fewer or no protections for workers.
"I am unwilling to put it on third-world countries," Kennedy said.
Lee said the topic of precious metals mining "sucks the air out of every room."
Indeed, the topic showed differences between candidates on a night when everyone agreed with universal health coverage, gun reform, the end of corporate personhood, paths to citizenship for immigrants and so on.
On mining, Lee, of Moose Lake, shared Phifer's position. Lee said she was not convinced copper-nickel mining was safe for northern Minnesota.
"I didn't attempt to thread the needle," she said. "I support iron ore mining and unions. I am not convinced we can do copper-nickel mining in a water-rich environment."
Lee gave her adamant no with a twist of enforcement.
"If this does become a reality I will be a thorn in the side of these companies," she said. "I will be a bear that has been poked and ensure they live up to everything they say in their proposals."
So, it's on to April 14 and the 8th Congressional District DFL convention in Duluth. The endorsement process there offers one more chance for the candidates to disagree.
Phifer, Radinovich and Kennedy all said they would abide by the convention endorsement. Metsa danced around it. "I am seeking the endorsement," he said. "I ultimately think delegates will decide at convention what to do."
"I am not going to lie to you tonight," she said, having previously floated the idea of pushing the DFL decision beyond the convention and into the August primary election. "I do not know."