A longtime educator, political volunteer and Ely resident dating back to the 1970s, Carol Orban’s word cinched it: There hasn’t been a physical Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party presence in Ely in generations.

Until now.

“We just feel so optimistic about this,” Orban said Monday, the same day the Minnesota DFL announced it was opening an office in Ely along the downtown route of Minnesota Highway 169.

Orban was one of three board members for the St. Louis County DFL Organizing Unit 03 to discuss the new Ely office Monday, and what makes its arrival meaningful.

“We noticed a shift in voting patterns, and we felt we could do a better job of outreach to the northeastern part of Minnesota,” board chair Barb Crow said. “It’s been a difficult road, but we’re on a good path.”

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

To Crow's point, House districts 3A, 6A and 6B in the region all swung Republican in the last presidential election, according to Minnesota Secretary of State data.

Officially, the new DFL office is located at 1311 E. Sheridan St. in Ely, and will be staffed by volunteers. A grand opening from 2-3 p.m. Sunday will feature Minnesota Auditor Julie Blaha, DFL political and organizing director Alyse Maye Quade, and House District 3A Representative Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls.

Julie Blaha
Julie Blaha

The county organizing unit stretches from Proctor and Hermantown, north through Ely and Orr, and up to Crane and Kabetogama lakes on the Canadian border. Organizing meetings have long been held in the southern portion of the vast area. The Ely office gives northernmost party activists a place to call home.

“We felt we needed this,” said organizing unit board member Leah Rogne, of Orr. “We’ve been active in party affairs, and doing the work. Having the office gives us a presence and visibility in the community. It lets people know we’re here, and gives us a place to gather more people who want to be involved.”

In a statement to the News Tribune, Minnesota GOP spokesperson Preya Samsundar called the DFL's move into Ely "trading in traditional Midwest values for a radical agenda that hurts families on the Iron Range."

"No office from the Democrats will undo the damage that has seen legislators, local officials and everyday voters leave the party en masse.”

Rep. Rob Ecklund
Rep. Rob Ecklund

The new Ely office was strategically located in the center of Minnesota Senate District 3, the largest Senate district in the state, which incorporates areas of Cook, Koochiching, Lake and St. Louis counties.

“I’m 67 miles from Ely, and up here, 67 miles isn’t a big drive,” Rogne said. “We’re delighted to have that.”

The idea for an office in Ely grew out of an event in 2018. A forum on climate change held by the party unit drew scores of audience members to Vermilion Community College in Ely, including DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, who pledged support for the new office, sources said.

Funds from the statewide party and “generous donations” from DFL loyalists are what’s making the Ely office possible.

“We’re hoping to keep it open at least through the 2022 election,” Orban said, noting 8th Congressional District Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, and the incumbent's likely midterm reelection bid.

“Mainly, we would love to have a Democratic congressperson,” Orban added. “That’s the most important thing.”

To date, Stauber has raised more than $800,000 toward a potential reelection campaign. He has offices within the district in Hermantown, Brainerd, Chisholm and Cambridge.

As of yet, there are no Democratic candidates in the 8th Congressional District field. Martin explained in a News Tribune story in August that any Stauber challengers would likely pause announcements until the 2022 Minnesota redistricting picture is clearer. The 8th District will need to add roughly 37,000 people to its borders early next year either through redistricting in the legislature or courts.

Either way, Minnesota DFL spokesman Brian Evans said the party "was thrilled to bolster its efforts in Ely."

“Our party is working to build a future where every Minnesotan has access to good health care, a strong public education, and a job that pays a decent wage,” Evans said.

Crow, the unit chair, agreed there was plenty of work to do even without party candidates in the high-profile 8th District race.

“We’re talking to people about Democratic values, and letting them know we’re here and want to hear from them,” Crow said.

As a precaution during the pandemic, the Ely DFL office will require masks be worn and practice safe distancing.

“We’re going to be organizing issues forums about important topics, and we are doing door-to-door canvassing, talking to people about issues important to them,” Rogne said. “We’re not just knocking on known Democrats. We’re knocking on every door, talking to our neighbors and finding out what they care about.”

News Tribune reporter Brady Slater covers 8th Congressional District politics. He can be reached at bslater@duluthnews.com.