- Minnesota Republicans have long accused Democrats of having a division in their party over Copper-Nickel mining; a major fracture between Unions and Environmentalist.
- Minnesota Republicans have a split in their party as well, an ever-widening gap between sportsmen (and women) and Republican politicians that seek to pick off Democrat votes on the Iron Range.
- Minnesota’s Iron Range is populated by a fantastic group of people who not only see work as a virtue, but mining as a lifestyle. As culturally conservative as the “Rangers” are, the majority vote Democrat, and that is not going to change.
- This should be a local issue, but water flows and many Minnesotans outside the Iron Range have taken positions against copper-nickel mining, which has the potential for sulfuric acid creation and leakage.
During the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, I ran as a Republican for U.S. Congress to represent Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District. I came excruciatingly close to winning both cycles in a district that had been represented by Democrats since World War II, except for one two-year term. My opponent was a very formidable and accomplished politician that held elected office before I was born. Beyond the standard two-party positioning, there was one issue that was very unique to the district that disrupted the standard party politics template. That one issue was copper-nickel mining, also known as non-ferrous metal mining or sulfide mining. The difference between copper-nickel mining and taconite mining are pronounced. If waste rock from copper-nickel mining is exposed to oxygen or water, it creates sulfuric acid. Alternatively, waste rock from taconite production creates much more harmless rust. There are two copper-nickel mining projects currently under consideration in Northeast Minnesota, one whose watershed would flow north to the Boundary waters, and other whose watershed would flow south toward Lake Superior.
As a candidate for Congress in 2014, I initially bought into the narrative of a “blue-green” divide in the Democrat Party, a divide that miraculously healed itself on Election Day. The “blues” being labor, and the “greens” being environmentalist, turned out not to be so divided, when everything was said and done they both overwhelmingly voted Democrat. I also initially bought into the narrative that the Republicans were unified in their support of copper-nickel mining, which turned out not to be the case. Some Republican activists were in opposition to copper-nickel mining and others didn’t care; fewer Republican activists than one might imagine are for it without reservation.
In the early part of the 2014 election cycle at a meeting of potential convention delegates in Pine County, Minnesota, I was listening to Republican candidates for Governor give passionate and animated speeches in support of copper-nickel mining. Waiting my turn to speak, I studied the room. Half the audience was confused, a quarter of the audience folded their arms and gave disapproving facial expressions, and the remaining 25% was earnestly trying to figure out how it applied to them. This was only one county away from the Iron Range, but their speeches might have well been in Klingon.
The part of Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District that I come from is Minnesota’s farm and lake country – Wadena, Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison and Hubbard counties. I have worked with and been friends with folks from all over our area for decades, so there is a lot of familiarity. Everyone either knows someone personally or has mutual acquaintances. In both the 2014 and 2016 election cycles that familiarity translated into access. There was no end to the type of people who privately contacted me to register their disapproval of my support for copper-nickel mining; well-known people in the fishing community, outdoorsmen, a representative of an ice fishing house manufacturer, and hunters. After the fishermen, the hunters were the most vocal. No one was angry, threatening, or obnoxious, but they had their informed viewpoints. The most pronounced was at Ducks Unlimited Banquets. Usually the person voicing their concerns about copper nickel mining would just state their position in a friendly manner and move on. You must keep in mind that everyone that approached me with their concerns were self-identified supporters or people I knew personally that tended to vote Republican.
To put things in context: at the Ducks Unlimited banquets that I am using as an example, they were raffling semiautomatic rifles, a few scary looking AR-15s, shotguns, and pistols, many of which could take high capacity magazines. There wasn’t anyone there that identified with Nancy Pelosi or Diane Feinstein. However, they were there for the almost singular reason of raising funds for the conservation of wetlands habitat. The idea of possible sulfuric acid run off anywhere in their state was a nonstarter. This attitude is not only shared by duck hunters, but by a lot of people in my neck of the woods that spends significant time in the woods or on the waters, which are most folks.
During my political campaigns I would counter the concerns of outdoorsmen regarding the potential environmental damage that copper-nickel mining might cause with an explanation of the science, engineering, standards, monitoring, oversight, assurances the acidity wouldn’t be severe, reverse osmosis machines that would treat any inadvertent discharge, and that financial surety would be provided should a cleanup be needed. Some of the time I would get a shrug and the conversation would continue to other matters, most of the time I would get a disapproving look, then assurances of support anyway, however a few times I got a conversation ending “…it isn’t worth the risk!” None of these people were Democrat operatives. Almost all I knew, or were known to me, to have a conservative bent.
I was supportive of these copper-nickel mining projects as Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District’s prospective U.S. Representative because of a belief that if the people of the Iron Range knew the risks and understood the project, which they did, then it would be my job as their representative to champion their cause. These people do not want to be retrained as machinists or computer programmers, they want to mine.
Now that I have turned the corner on political life and have assumed the mantle of a political and policy commentator, I have shifted to a more objective viewpoint. I still maintain it should ultimately be left up to the Iron Rangers themselves to decide, but as water flows so do opinions and political constituencies. The political reality is it’s not a local issue as there are many real downstream stake holders, and many more voluntary stake holders who are conservationists, environmentalist, outdoorsmen, or even concerned folks who visited the Boundary Waters once upon a time.
While I am certain that the narrative of Republicans being of a singular mind on copper-nickel mining on Minnesota’s Iron Range and Democrats being irreconcilably divided is untrue. I also am certain that there are many more single-issue voters amongst the Democrat environmentalists than there are amongst the Republican conservationists. For Republican leaning voters outside the Iron Range, it isn’t presently a “top five issue”, but for a lot of Democrat leaning voters, it is. However, as the various Republican leaning conservation groups discuss the potential risks of sulfuric acid entering watersheds because of copper-nickel mining, strong opinions are growing with right leaning voters as folks in greater Minnesota are asking themselves whether they would want copper-nickel mining upstream from them. Except for those solely representing Iron Range communities, Republican or Democrat, championing copper-nickel mining has become an increasingly politically risky thing to do.
I would caution any statewide candidate from supporting copper-nickel mining projects before they fully understand the political landscape. Republican or Democrat, they might lose many more votes than they would gain. Whether there are untapped votes on Minnesota’s Iron Range for Republicans or not is no longer my concern, although the people I had the pleasure of meeting there were the nicest group of folks ever. Culturally there is very little difference between the Iron Range and Cass and Crow Wing counties, where I live, politically it is night and day. Northern Minnesota is home to the finest people in the world. Yes, I am biased.