ST. PAUL — It’s back.
Then again, the copper/nickel mining issue, hasn’t really gone anywhere for more than a decade.
Same supporters; some opponents; same misinformation often voiced against it; same strong emotions stirred on both sides.
So as another statewide political campaign for the governor’s office kicks into gear, copper/nickel is once again a blessing for Republicans and a political land mine for the DFL Party.
The party of left wing environmentalists faces what has become a traditional dilemma — try to walk the tightrope between its Twin Cities region money- and activist-base and what has been a strong DFL “We Support Mining — Mining Supports Us” blue collar voting bloc on the Iron Range.
But the days of blind Range voting allegiance to the DFL Party are history. Consider this: State Sen. David Tomassoni’s district is in the heart of DFL country. Yet, it was carried by Republican Donald Trump not Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
That reflects a troubling trend for the DFL and rural Minnesota, according to Tomassoni.
There were 21 rural DFL senators in the Legislature in 2009. Now there are seven, he said.
“The map is going ‘Red’ (Republican) and keeps creeping towards us,” Tomassoni said. “Meanwhile, rural Minnesota keeps losing ground.”
Those voting results are not lost on the GOP.
When it comes to the copper/nickel mining issue, Republican candidates are unequivocal in their support of both the PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt and the Twin Metals venture near Ely.
Not so, however, DFL office seekers.
They often give a standard, “Yes, I support copper/nickel, if it can be done safely” answer, even though the projects continue to meet and exceed state and federal rules and regulations for permitting and operation.
Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul responded to a request for comment with a general statement that we can have both clean water and mining jobs.
“When it comes to questions that pit water and jobs against each other, we must ensure that we have clear science-based processes that include strong financial assurances.”
State and federal processes already do that.
And one DFL gubernatorial hopeful — State Auditor Rebecca Otto — has even opposed exploration, not mining at this point, of copper/nickel deposits.
That’s something that plays well with metro DFL liberals; but not so on the job-needy Iron Range. It’s projected that PolyMet and Twin Metals would provide thousands of direct jobs and many, many more in spin-off employment.
Opponents, however, argue the environment would be soiled. But state and federal regulators have determined otherwise.
It’s still more than a year until Minnesotans cast ballots for governor, but candidates are already plentiful.
On the Republican side are 11 candidates. Of those, former GOP state Chairman Keith Downey and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who was the party’s unsuccessful candidate against Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014.
There are currently six DFLers in the race — U.S. Rep. Tim Walz of Mankato, Legislators Tina Liebling of Rochester, Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, and Erin Murphy of St. Paul, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, and Auditor Otto.
Walz, the only DFLer considered from rural Minnesota, has publicly supported a land exchange of about 50 square miles of state school trust land currently within the federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The state’s public schools would benefit. But it has opposition from environmentalists who say it would allow more logging and mining near the BWCAW.
It’s difficult finding comment from other DFL candidates on the issue or copper/nickel mining in general. But not so Otto.
As a member of the state’s Executive Council — comprised of the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and auditor — Otto voted against awarding leases for copper/nickel exploration in the region in 2013. The leases only allow companies to drill holes in the ground to extract mineral samples to judge the value of certain deposits.
She immediately used her vote against copper/nickel mining as a fundraising tool, especially in the Twin Cities area, and continues to tout her decision, which she has said was to protect Minnesotans’ welfare.
She also contends she is not anti-mining.
The slate of DFL candidates could still grow.
Lurking as “uncommitted” may be the most electable of DFLers — Attorney General Lori Swanson.
A spokesman for Swanson, in a recent telephone interview, repeated Swanson’s previously stated position on running — or not.
“She feels campaigns are too long. Lori will run for something next year,” the attorney general’s spokesman said, referring to either re-election as attorney general or taking a shot at governor.
Swanson, who has family ties to Orr, spends considerable time on the Iron Range and is very familiar with issues affecting the area, including copper/nickel mining, of which she has been a supporter.
As a member of the Executive Council she has voted to issue leases for nonferrous mining.
Tomassoni said he intends to withhold his support for a candidate. He will wait and watch as the process works its way to an eventual nominee.
But the state senator said the gubernatorial election is a critical one for the region.
“People are really fed up with those in the Twin Cities area lecturing us and telling us how to live our lives. We have the cleanest water in the state and we’ve been mining for more than 130 years.
“Yet we are told ‘do this and don’t do that’ when it comes to mining that built this great state and country.
“Iron Rangers are pi_ _ _ _ off. They’ve had enough,” Tomassoni said.