Race for 8th is defined by diverse demographics
If you think of Minnesota's 8th Congressional District as a window shade, you can begin to imagine the breadth of the district and its people. As you pull it down, you draw it from the Canadian border, through the central and northeastern part of...
If you think of Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District as a window shade, you can begin to imagine the breadth of the district and its people.
As you pull it down, you draw it from the Canadian border, through the central and northeastern part of the state, all the way to the very northern rim of the Twin Cities.
In doing so, you have included all or part of 18 counties and oodles of divergent communities. Some are known for their recreational hot spots, some for their industry, some - like Duluth - for both, and some for their status as well-populated
“exurbs” - bedroom communities known as much for their consumption as their production.
The district that once was known as a quaint DFL outpost safeguarding the blue-collar sensibilities of Duluth and the Iron Range is now firmly in its post-Jim Oberstar, post-John Blatnik era.
What had been a staunchly DFL district for 31 straight biennial elections is now a window shade that, when drawn back up, can reveal the red hue of a sunset to go with what once were only blue horizons.
In 2010, the district skewed Republican red for the first time in recent history, by 1.59 percent of total votes. In 2012, it swung wildly back to blue, with a nearly 9-percentage-point victory for the DFL.
In 2014, it’s anybody’s guess what color will be revealed beyond the window shade on Election Day, Nov. 4. National pundits are calling the race a toss-up and one worth watching.
In some ways the 8th District race among DFL incumbent Rick Nolan, Republican challenger Stewart Mills and the Green Party’s Skip Sandman is a race to define its people.
Because of the district’s newfound volatility, the two major parties’ political action committees are pouring money into TV ads as they attempt to spur their electorates to the polls.
“There’s tumult in the electorate,” said Aaron Brown, a 34-year-old Hibbing Community College professor, author and political blogger. “The candidates spend a notable amount of money, and five times more than that will come in on both sides. There will be wall-to-wall ads. Most will be bought out of the (Twin Cities) metro market. It’s now a shared district.”
To help illustrate that tumult, the News Tribune hit the road for two days, talking to voters and later the candidates in an effort to understand how the district is reacting to its newfound status as a battleground.
The Iron Range
Just beyond the “We Support Mining” banner strung across the main drag in Aurora, there’s Sport Stop. It’s there that Jim Butler runs an honor-system bait shop from what used to be his garage. Night or day, anglers in need of bait don’t have to count on Butler to be there. They can pluck their fatheads or shiners, leave a few bucks in a lock box and be on their way. He said he serves a lot of “612-ers” - a nod to the traditional area code of the Twin Cities’ metro folks, many of whom retreat to the lakes and their cabins on the Iron Range.
Butler’s is small-business ingenuity at its finest from a man who retired from work in the mines. He explained there’s enough political talk at the miners’ lunch tables that politics becomes an exercise in osmosis, with miners absorbing the issues whether they’re actively in on the discussions or not. But in the end, it’s not the issues, plural, that matter, Butler said.
“I think most people pick one issue and pick a person based on that one issue,” he said.
For Butler, the one issue is gun control. He blames the government for the paucity of .22-caliber shells on the market, believing the government has been manipulating ammunition with massive buy-ups in the name of military as a way to control guns. He supports Mills as a result. Mills has made an issue out of protecting the Second Amendment and a believer out of Butler.
“If we want to protect our children,” Mills said, “we have to go and physically protect them. We can’t have these magical anti-gun zones around our schools. Protecting the Second Amendment is about enforcing the laws that we currently have and not using politically motivated sound bites to try to advance anti-gun policies or legislation that would undermine that.”
Zeroing in on the Second Amendment was a bit of maneuvering from a political novice in Mills. He forced a response from Nolan, who did so by donning an orange hunting vest and firing a rifle in his first wave of TV ads.
But not everybody is so inspired by a lone issue - much less one they view as the protection of their recreational activities.
“If it comes down to one issue,” said John Dickinson, “I’m more worried about jobs than owning a gun. If I don’t have a job, I’m not going hunting anyway.”
Dickinson was in Virginia at the United Steelworkers Local 6115 headquarters, spending a day in the office, tending to his responsibilities as the union’s financial secretary. The next day he said he’d return to what he called
“the rugged environment” of the mine pit, where he’s an electrician. The work never stops on equipment that couldn’t withstand the wear and tear without his expertise at maintaining it. As a fifth-generation Iron Range miner, Dickinson favors the PolyMet copper and nickel mining project proposed for nearby Hoyt Lakes.
“I’ve gone to a lot of the public open forums and don’t see why we can’t do it responsibly,” Dickinson said.
Mills favors the job growth inherent in the PolyMet project, and just Friday in a news conference he said the Environmental Protection Agency risks getting in the way of job creation. Sandman vehemently opposes the mining of precious metals in what he called “pristine” northern Minnesota. The Green Party candidate has said he’s willing to compromise, but not on the water.
“It’s not a matter of if it leaks, but when it leaks,” Sandman said. “Anything to save that water. That’s the No. 1 thing.”
Nolan privately supported the precious metals mining proposal in a letter to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but he’s hedged his support publicly. Nolan has environmentalists to appease as part of his electorate. Overzealous support for precious metals mining puts him at risk of losing votes to Sandman. Still, Dickinson said he supports Nolan as a traditional Iron Range Democrat. On Thursday, Nolan praised the federal permit to expand iron mining at the Minntac mine - a neighboring iron mine to ArcelorMittal’s Minorca Mine, where Dickinson works.
“I like Al Franken,” Dickinson said, referring to Minnesota’s junior U.S. senator. “Mining matters to him. He’s sincere when he speaks. I like Nolan, too. He’s also sincere.”
Nolan’s reach, despite his nuanced approach to PolyMet, extended to Hoyt Lakes. There, a couple and their two kids were tooling around town in a side-by-side all-terrain vehicle. Their mode of transportation is one of the things that sets the northern part of the 8th District apart from the southern half, say Kevin and Jill Eckman.
“You wouldn’t see this down there,” Jill said.
Kevin had a midnight shift at the mines coming up later in the day. They’re supporters of PolyMet and Nolan, too.
Another couple, Doane and Malinda Scheunemann, have been married for 38 years. They live in downtown Aurora, where mining companies once sprouted the single-story housing throughout its neighborhoods. Their yard is flush with signs in support of Democrats. They were emptying their van in anticipation of a trip to the food shelf the next day. Retired from 31 years in the mines, the Scheunemanns rely on Ruby’s Pantry in Hibbing, where they can get about $150 worth of groceries for $20. They bring a cooler and a laundry basket and fill both up.
“PolyMet would bring younger people to the Range, and we need that,” Malinda said.
They can’t relate to Mills, they said, because, “Look at all the money he’s got.”
“Here’s what I think is fundamental to a campaign like this,” Nolan told the News Tribune. “There’s nothing wrong with being a millionaire, but what kinds of policies do you advocate? Do you advocate for the homeless veteran, or the kids in need of education, or the roads and bridges, the streets and hospitals, the schools? Do you advocate for the greater common public good? Or do you become an advocate for the super-rich?”
In leaving behind the tamarack bogs and sparkling lakes of the Iron Range, the road turns next to Brainerd.
Answers in Brainerd
Indeed, during a meeting with Mills in Brainerd - home area to both major party candidates - money is the first issue to be addressed. Nolan has repeatedly derided Mills as “the millionaire” during the campaign. Mills is vice president of Mills Fleet Farm, a family-owned company with 35 retail stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The family also owns some car dealerships. Mills proudly described his grandfather, Stewart Mills Sr., and his uphill battle from clothing store worker, to law student, to war veteran, to land cruiser - “that’s buying up timber itself, buying up timber rights and then actually the land for timber,” the candidate Mills said.
Mills Sr. saved his money, bought car dealerships in Brainerd and Willmar, Minn., and the now-92-year-old Lively Building in downtown Brainerd. The rest is history. Mills Fleet Farm still is headquartered in the Lively Building.
Nolan, too, was in the wood products industry, once operating a sawmill. He’s not done too badly for himself either, having been a worldwide exporter of numerous products. But Nolan throughout his campaign has purported Mills to be something less for having more.
“I have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to apologize for,” Mills said. “It’s a great legacy, and its one I embrace fully. It’s a small business success story. We started on Main Street. We worked hard by the sweat of the brow, survived through the Great Depression, thrived afterward, reinvested money back into our business and along the way, as we grew, we created jobs.
“If there was some private equity money or venture capital money or if we were publically traded, that may be something that would disconnect us from the district. But this is a business that started right here in the heart of the 8th District, and it’s still here. We’re proud of what we accomplished, and we’re not going to run away from anything.”
Mills said 70 percent to 80 percent of Mills Fleet Farm construction projects are won by union shops.
Still, Nolan presses at the perceived disconnect.
“Some people are for the greater common good on the belief that when we all do better, we all do better,” Nolan said. “Others are comfortable with where they’re at and view any attempt to make it better for others as a threat to their well-being.”
Welcome to the 'exurbs'
In places such as Princeton, Cambridge and North Branch, Minn., identity has undergone a major shift.
It’s during the trip to the southern half of the district where this ideological split swells. Say what you want about the boom-or-bust nature of the Iron Range - and Sandman does, proposing a shift of its miners to being trained in sustainable energy projects - its identity hasn’t changed for ages.
Not so in Princeton, Cambridge or North Branch. Not more than 20 years ago, these were sleepy farm communities. Now, these are the exurbs, where concrete reigns and commerce bustles and people commute to metropolitan jobs only to come home and do it all over again.
Greg Anderson and his wife, Terry, built an auto mechanic and body shop 31 years ago, while also maintaining a family cattle farm. Their son, Andy, works at the shop and is a combat veteran. Greg Anderson described Minneapolis as a place that has lost its way with people wanting nothing but trouble or social program handouts. He doesn’t blame Princeton’s newcomers for choosing the commute.
“We have changed so much,” Greg Anderson said of Princeton and the other communities along Minnesota Highway 95, describing farm communities that have “dwindled. … There are maybe 15 of us left.”
Big farming has taken over what’s left of that industry. The small farmer and small business owner - of which Anderson is both - is hammered by rising property taxes with every referendum for another new school.
As a man who’s trying to protect what he has, Anderson’s sold on Mills, and he doesn’t mince words about the governor or president. Obama’s “Cash for Clunkers” almost cost him his livelihood, he said, taking used cars he used to repair off the market.
“I’m pro-guns, pro-hunting and pro-business,” Anderson said, adding that he doesn’t recognize the DFL he grew up supporting, calling it “almost socialist” with “too many programs.”
Sondra Erickson lives in Princeton and is a Republican representing District 15A in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She’s on good terms with Anderson and is a bumper-sticker supporter of Mills. Intercepted on her own campaign trail, she described the southern half of the 8th District as fiscally conservative and almost “leaning Libertarian.”
“We’ve got a lot of believers in the Second Amendment,” she said. “People want to have control over their lives. Their values are determined by their hard work.”
If the 8th District had a capital, Duluth would be it. It’s the most populous city by far. And it’s a longtime bastion for the DFL - but recently for blessing and curse. With the district including more and more Republicans in the south, the DFL can no longer afford to be cavalier about its advantage in the Zenith City.
It’s in Duluth that Oberstar lost the 2010 election and in Duluth that Nolan won it in 2012. Oberstar won the city handily in 2010, but turned out only 20,371 voters in his historic loss to Chip Cravaack. Nolan got that total plus half in taking 33,014 votes in 2012. That was a presidential year, though, and Nolan understands that he’ll have to rally supporters here better than Oberstar did in his final go-round.
“It’s all about organize, organize, organize,” Nolan said.
Brown, the political blogger, predicted Sandman would gain 4 percent to 5 percent of what he called “protest votes from disaffected Democrats,” likely from among the most environmentally minded who favor Sandman’s firm “no” stance on precious metals mining.
“Nolan is targeting the 47 to 48 percent he’ll need to win,” Brown said, “but he can’t afford to lose his core Dems.”
As a Duluth resident, Sandman’s not settling for spoiler status. He’s campaigning harder than he did in his earlier bid for Duluth City Council. He and his campaign team recently spent 150 volunteer hours at Tribute Fest 2014, a weekend-long event in Bayfront Park to raise money for homeless veterans.
“I venture to guess both parties are accepting the same corporate money,” Sandman said. “I look at the war chests both parties have - $1.5 million, $1.3 million - for a job that pays less than $400,000 a year. Why not take some of that campaign money to buy backpacks for kids that can’t afford it? It’s a waste of money.”
The money it takes to win an election has made Nolan weary, too. He unveiled a “Restore Democracy Act” last week in Washington, D.C. It’s a seven-point plan to, in part, remove corporate money from campaigns and repeal the Citizens United court decision that expanded corporate personhood. Nolan has called it a “message piece,” harkening to his earliest days in Congress, representing the 6th District previously from 1975-81 as a self-proclaimed idealist.
“Mills and company spent over a million dollars in ads over the past year beating up on me, and it has taken its toll,” Nolan said. “The political scientists who study this stuff find that generally the person with the most money is the person with the most votes.”
Nolan’s act may be perceived by some as an admirable move to return democracy closer to the voters. But it won’t change the dynamics in this race.
So they compete for votes in a shared district this year, using this year’s rules.
As Mills has said, in 2014, that’s “nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to apologize for.”