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8th District election wrestles with environment

Foam-edged waves meet the sand along Park Point. Protecting the lake and regional watershed are vital considerations for environmentally minded voters, whose opposition to proposed precious metals mining is struggling to find a voice among front-running candidates in the 8th Congressional District election race. Bob King /

Try as they might to turn the topical dial to health care, spending or immigration in the open race for the 8th Congressional District seat, the candidates' views on mining have dominated the early part of the November midterm election cycle.

Shaping the discussion are their thoughts on precious metals mining in the Lake Superior basin.

"Mining equals economy and economy equals a good job and a good job equals a family," Republican Pete Stauber said in a mining-rich speech prior to receiving his party's endorsement in Park Rapids earlier this month.

Three of the four candidates expected to be a part of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor primary on Aug. 14 — Joe Radinovich, Jason Metsa and Kirsten Kennedy — are supportive of copper-nickel mining on the Iron Range. For once, Republicans and Democrats seem to agree with each other. Still, the outcome remains divided as environmentalists are loathe to be relegated out of the discussion.

"More than a few people are pretty discouraged at the state of affairs," said John Doberstein of Duluth for Clean Water, a watershed advocacy group that hasn't decided whether to endorse a candidate in the 8th District race now that its champion, Leah Phifer, ended her campaign after falling shy of the DFL endorsement.

Phifer opposed current pipeline and mining proposals in the district and, in doing so, won the support of water protectors, environmentalists and others who are now weighing and even wondering where to turn.

The state DFL Environmental Caucus told the News Tribune that it would offer no further endorsement in the 8th District race.

"We did endorse Leah Phifer and stood very strongly behind that endorsement and at this point we're just not prepared to make another," said DFL Environmental Caucus chair Vita Kanitz.

But into the void some candidates will go. DFLer Michelle Lee and Independence Party candidate Ray "Skip" Sandman have stepped up efforts to offer refuge to voters who lead with their greener values.

Sandman, of Duluth, has long championed a pro-environment platform. The refinery fire in Superior in April gave him a example with which to reinforce his message.

"In order to avoid disasters like this in the future, and slow climate change, we need to focus our attention on converting to green energy and sustainable technologies more quickly," Sandman said in a news release. "I am dismayed that we are still relying on fossil fuels to power our country."

Lee is a retired Northland television newscaster from Moose Lake whose support is limited to taconite mining. She described Phifer supporters to the News Tribune as "grieving," but said that individually they were testing out her campaign. Lee cited the DFL environmental platform — to leave the world in better condition than it was found — as a vital part of her own campaign. She added that she subscribes to a Native American approach to long-term planning.

"The future includes looking beyond our generation," Lee said. "We have to start considering those sustainable jobs of the future which include renewable resources."

Lee said she hasn't given up on the DFL Environmental Caucus and hopes it will call on her for an interview. But, she said, "they're not going to rush to judgment."

Stauber jabbed at Lee's fellow DFL primary opponents — Rangers Metsa and Radinovich and the North Branch Mayor Kennedy — during his aforementioned convention speech.

"I support iron ore and precious metals mining and there is not a Democrat who can make that statement without having to look behind them to see who is listening," he said.

However, it was Rep. Rick Nolan, the retiring DFL congressman, who used federal legislation to advance long-proposed efforts to mine precious metals in northern Minnesota.

But Stauber, a retired Duluth police lieutenant from Hermantown, has the luxury of pushing the environmental needle as far as he wants to go. He did so in April when he told the News Tribune, "Right now with fossil fuels we have 200 years or more of it for the transition times."

Later in the month, he further pushed his brand of stewardship, telling convention delegates in his speech that he supports loggers and allowing "federal lands to be harvested to full capacity."

"The private sector is working (and) will transition our economy to (renewables)," he told the News Tribune. "It's transitioning now — wind, solar, hydro — those are all energy examples we need to look at (and be) continuing to look at. But you can't have the government force that. You do need public-private partnerships to start that conversation."

Stauber cited a $500 million failed federal loan to the maker of a cylindrical solar panel as an example of mistaken government involvement.

Like Stauber, Lee made an effort to connect family and environment. In doing so, she also threaded a needle through the Iron Range.

"I'm all about building my party, whether it's labor or people who support the environment," she said. "I have never met an Iron Ranger who didn't appreciate clean water and clean air and the importance of both on their grandchildren."

Sandman makes a more macroeconomic analysis — one that wouldn't tolerate 200 more years of fossil fuel usage: "Converting America to a green economy would create long-term and sustainable jobs and protect the environment for future generations," he said.

Lee and Sandman are counting on environmentalists to be listening.

"We always try to hope for the best, so let's see what happens," said Gay Trachsel of Duluth for Clean Water. "People don't seem as motivated right now as they were with Phifer in the race. We've all got that to wrestle with now."