ST. PAUL — For almost half a century the Iron Range delegation has been a prominent group of political
characters who frequently take center stage in Minnesota state politics.
Sporting a potent economic and historical cocktail based around a natural resource economy, the Rangers represent a unique political phenomenon of state officials standing united on a competitive political stage.
The Rangers have long been characterized as a group of fighters, and for good reason; there are plenty of issues to fight for, and they often face political obstacles that would intimidate most state officials.
Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL–Balsam Township, and Rep. David Dill, DFL–Crane Lake, are among the more experienced current Range legislators.
“Over the years as a lifelong Ranger, I have watched Range legislators come and go,” said Anzelc. “I have seen some who serve a short period of time, people who become veterans, and all of us have one thing in common: We are fierce and passionate about our region and area and people. We are loud, we are fighters.
“We have to be because we’re faced with a regional economic development challenge that is extremely difficult,” continued Anzelc. “We are getting smaller, poorer, less vibrant, and all Range legislators fight every day to turn that around, to make the Range better for the next generation.”
Though the makeup of the group is largely affiliated with the DFL, the Rangers don’t consider their party alignment the most important aspect of their political goals. It all comes down to the Range, whether you’re Democrat or Republican.
“I like to make my own decisions and exercise my own independent thinking,” said Anzelc.
“The Range delegation has always consisted of strong personalities, people who always feel passionate about their constituents. When it comes time to present a united front either at the Legislature, or in negotiations with the governor, we all try to present a united message.”
“Even though many of us have many different ideas, we argue those points vehemently and passionately between us, but when we walk out the door, because that’s how defending the motherland,” said Dill.
“I’m very pleased with how Representative Dale Lueck (R–Aitkin) has worked within the group, despite our party differences,” continued Dill. “We work together on common goals.”
In fact, said Dill, political diversity works into the hands of the Range Delegation. With members of both parties making up the group, the Rangers can make ties across the aisles in ways that would otherwise be difficult to forge. This has allowed senior members of the Rangers to end up in enviable positions on prominent committees.
“When we’re at the closest to the representation, we can have the most leverage,” said Dill. “Because the Range is a bit of an institution, there is respect between the Republicans and Democrats.”
“Because of our political seniority we always have had the ability to have senior members on committees even when we are in the minority,” continued Dill. “It’s been routine that the members of the Range Delegation have numerous significant committee chairmanships.”
Common goals are one of the central political strategies of the Rangers, who often face legislative opposition from other parts of the state.
While the Range and the metro area are both DFL political strongholds, their lawmakers have different ideas about issues ranging from gun legislation to the environment. Meanwhile, Republicans from other parts of the state have largely had an unsympathetic voting record.
“There have always been historically disagreements about the economic condition of northern Minnesota,” said Anzelc. “Where we are dependent upon our natural resource based economy ... versus the metro (which) is so much more diversified and not dependent on natural resources. There have always been stressful periods in our relationship.”
This opposition, said Dill, can make it difficult to take steps in the direction of diversifying an economy that otherwise is heavily dependent on natural resources. The allocation of the general funds can be a difficult process to watch.
“The issue since I was a teen was the diversification away from a one-industry economy that has been struggling through all these years,” said Dill. “Because of the low economic diversity, we face low property wealth in comparison to other areas. We have difficulty in raising money for public works. One million dollars in the metro area is a penny in the bucket, but in Virginia, Minnesota, you could do a lot.”
But even with what they’ve gotten, the Rangers have shown characteristic productivity.
The Taconite Production Tax, said both Dill and Anzelc, was a brilliant way to capitalize on a homogenous economic profile, one they credit to their predecessors.
When one becomes a Ranger, says Dill, there is a sudden passing of knowledge from the old generation to the new, and past Range legislators played a direct part in the political aspirations of both Anzelc and Dill, who cited the political careers of the Perpich brothers, Rep. William
Ojala, Rep. Bob Lessard, and Rep. Tom Rukavina.
Even though such figures have since left state politics, retirement from the Rangers is by no means a resignation, said Dill, who claims that he has regularly called upon past Rangers for advice on issues pertinent to the Range.
“We network to share information,” said Dill. “I call Tom Rukavina year round, often for the details of the taconite production tax. Regardless of whose in charge, when their majority party has just enough votes to pass a bill is when we’re most effective.
Neither Dill nor Anzelc have any doubts that new members of the Range Delegation will be a considerable asset in the years to come. DFLers Rep, Carly Melin or Hibbing and Rep. Jason Metsa of Virginia are among the more productive members of the House, and have made quite the political mark during their introduction on the state political stage.
“We’re very lucky to have exuberant members like Carly and Jason,” said Dill. “They have different ideas about how to mold the future; Carly in her first years passed significant statewide legislation, and Jason is always fighting for his community on the Iron Range on a wide variety of issues.”
“Both Rep. Melin and Metsa bring fresh energy new ideas, and new ways of solving problems that reflect their generation,” said Anzelc. “They reflect the millennial generation in their problem-solving techniques, and they represent young people in that way.
“On the other hand, they are expanding their knowledge of the Iron Range and experiencing the ups and downs of the range economy,” continued Anzelc. “Once they develop the knowledge and experience, they will be even more effective Range political figures.”