Some Iron Range mayors surprised, disapproving of Trump endorsement
The endorsement that rocked the Northland — how it came to be, and what it means for those who weren't solicited to join it.
When six Iron Range mayors debuted their collective endorsement of President Donald Trump at Vice President Mike Pence’s appearance in Duluth last week, the news reverberated nationally and made it seem for a moment as if the entirety of the Range had swung red.
But that’s not the case, say other Range mayors who spoke with the News Tribune this week.
“It was surprising,” Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum said. “But we live in surprising times.”
Like other mayors who spoke on record, Weikum wasn’t contacted about the Trump endorsement, which was arranged, in part, by U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber’s reelection campaign, Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. said. Stauber had earned Cuffe's and three other Range mayors' endorsements in 2018 .
Cuffe joined Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson on stage with Pence in the port of Duluth on Aug. 28 to declare the Range mayors’ support. Eveleth Mayor Robert Vlaisavljevich, Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich, Chisholm Mayor John Champa and Ely Mayor Chuck Novak were the others to sign on with Trump.
“I endorsed President Trump for a number of reasons — the economy and mining is just one small part of it,” Cuffe said. “I stand by what I believe in, just like every other mayor stands by what they believe. It was a difficult decision to make (to endorse Trump), being a Democrat my whole life.”
Tower Mayor Orlyn Kringstad referred to Cuffe and Novak as “good friends and good counsel” as Kringstad himself has adjusted to being one of the newer Range mayors. Still, Kringstad didn’t like the Trump endorsement for the way it showcases those Range communities as homogeneous thinkers.
“It’s unfortunate,” Kringstad said. “It sort of identifies their entire towns as being supportive of one political party and one candidate and I don’t think it’s fair to do that.”
Range mayors hold nonpartisan positions. Multiple mayors said they’d personally endorse a candidate by posting a yard sign, but that they’d be loath to make such a sweeping gesture of a federal candidate.
“Most of the mayors involved care deeply about their communities, but this is the path they’ve chosen to follow on a national level,” Weikum said. “I see myself as a little bit more nonpartisan. I represent everybody who lives in our community.”
Being nonpartisan “enables us to better do our job for all of the citizens of our communities,” Aurora Mayor Doug Gregor said. “I personally endorse Biden wholeheartedly and make no secret of that fact.”
Keewatin Mayor William King said he wasn’t among those solicited to provide Trump support, and that he’s disgusted with both parties. Keewatin has an $18 million wastewater treatment upgrade riding on passage of a state bonding bill — something the split Minnesota Legislature hasn’t agreed to pass.
“I’m pissed off at all of them — the federal people can’t work together, the state people can’t work together,” King said. “It’s cost us a year of construction on our wastewater project. They should have common ground somewhere to keep construction projects going. There are a lot of us up here and around the state that are angry about that.”
Iron Range mayors are well-known to one another. They meet semi-regularly under the orchestration of the Range Association of Municipalities & Schools, or RAMS, a taconite assistance-funded, legislatively-chartered group with a board of directors from across the range, including Chisholm's Mayor Champa.
Cuffe said the impetus for the Trump endorsement began there.
“We did talk about it a little bit at some of our mayors’ meetings,” Cuffe said. “We got an idea of who was leaning toward Democrats and who was leaning toward Republicans.”
But some of the other mayors described RAMS as a policy-oriented group, and said the idea of Trump’s endorsement didn’t start there.
“As a general matter when we mayors meet periodically as a group it is not for political purposes or endorsements,” Gregor said, describing normal business as things like sharing concerns or petitioning the governor. “I would not feel comfortable soliciting other mayors to make a collective endorsement of Biden or any other candidate, but others may choose to do so.”
Steve Giorgi is the executive director for RAMS, and coordinates the mayors' meeting, which features more than 20 members. The last meeting took place in July.
“There was not, and has never been, a discussion about endorsement for president,” Giorgi said. “If it’s not happening at the mayors' meeting, it’s happening on the side.”
Giorgi posited that the Trump endorsement sprang up following Eveleth Mayor Robert Vlaisavljevich’s appearance in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention in August.
Immediately after that, Giorgi began hearing from mayors wanting to speak with Vlaisavljevich, a man known among the other mayors as “Mayor Bob.”
Vlaisavljevich did not respond to a News Tribune request for comment. Hibbing Mayor Rick Cannata also did not return calls for this story.
Giorgi also corrected the idea that the six mayors in support of Trump were all Democratic defectors, as has been billed on national television and in their endorsement letter with the line: “Like many in our region, we have voted for Democrats over many decades."
“B ob Vlaisavljevich ran in a DFL primary and served as (late state Rep.) Joe Begich's treasurer, and can say he was a Democrat," Giorgi said. "But some of others are taking real liberties. When you look at the myriad mayors we have across the area, there is no doubt it’s a mixed bag (politically)."
Giorgi acknowledged “frustration” among Iron Rangers with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party for the rigidity of its environmental platform, which asks to "recognize, protect and conserve clean water."
“It does make it a challenge, but across the board I still believe these mayors, on the state level, support the Iron Range delegation,” Giorgi said, referencing the DFL-dominated Range delegation at the state capital.
It's notable that an environmental impasse didn't prevent the United Steelworkers in District 11 from endorsing Biden in a rebuttal letter earlier this week aimed at the Range mayors' Trump endorsement. Steelworkers cited a lack of Trump leadership during the pandemic, tax cuts for corporations and tough contract negotiations in 2018 in supporting Biden.
"As a result of the pandemic, almost half of the workers at the Iron Range's mines were laid off," the Steelworkers' rebuttal said.
Hoyt Lakes Mayor Chris Vreeland is not one of the mayors who signed on with the Trump endorsement, but he favors reelection of the president. He called Hoyt Lakes a mining town without a mine, and said it's "very upsetting" the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine has not left the ground.
"I do believe Rep. Stauber and President Trump stand behind PolyMet, and it is our best chance to move this project forward," Vreeland said.
As far as his support, Kringstad described himself as a “raving centrist” who appears further left than he seems to those who go further right.
“I’m not surprised at not being invited to join in,” Kringstad said of the Trump endorsement. “The organizers would know where I stand.”