The DFL’s identity crisis on copper mining

July 9, 2014

Both Democrats and Republicans support mining, but what differentiates them—in theory—is that Democrats believe in enforcing rules and regulations to protect workers and the environment, while Republicans argue that it’s either jobs or the environment.


Yet the DFL consistently fails to articulate that position. At the State Convention in Duluth last month, numerous resolutions opposed to copper-nickel mining were replaced by a “compromise” that DFL Chair Ken Martin crafted and rammed through the Platform Commission.


The convention ultimately decided not to debate the proposal; Martin declared victory and trotted back to his metro home, declaring the party is united on mining and dismissing claims to the contrary as Republican propaganda designed to drive a wedge in the DFL.


But it’s not the GOP that uses mining as a wedge issue. They don’t have to. The harshest criticism of the DFL as anti-mining comes from within its own ranks. Iron Rangers scream the loudest that mining is a political football when they are, in fact, the worst offenders.


At the 2012 DFL convention, Range lawmakers pleaded for delegates to reject a resolution to delay copper mining until its safety could be proven, claiming the resolution would hamper efforts to turn the Eighth blue.


Meanwhile, those same lawmakers were using mining as a wedge issue against DFL-endorsed Rick Nolan in order to further the candidacy of Jeff Anderson—the lawmakers’ choice to replace Republican Chip Cravaack.


When Anderson realized his campaign to win the DFL endorsement had failed, he decided to use the mining issue to justify his decision to bypass the convention and go straight to the primary.


“After more than a year of campaigning,” he wrote in a public statement in March 2012, “I am convinced that anyone who strongly and unapologetically supports our 130-year history of mining, and a future of good jobs for our kids, cannot win the DFL party endorsement at the convention in this congressional race.”


Never mind that the party had endorsed Jim Oberstar 19 times, and that Nolan received early endorsements from two of the most respected leaders on the Range—Veda “Iron Lady” Ponikvar, former publisher of the Chisholm Free Press (known as “the voice of the iron miners”) and former state Representative Joe Begich of Eveleth, a retired steelworker.  


But since the truth did not work to their advantage, Anderson and his supporters continued to hammer away that “Nolan [was] anti-mining”—a charge that became even more ridiculous after Oberstar endorsed Nolan.


Anderson was quick to join Cravaack on deregulation of the industry, advocating for the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Act, which expedites the permitting process by gutting protections for workers and the environment. Nolan strongly opposed the bill and promised he would never support such legislation.


Anderson lost the primary, but he managed to firmly cement mining as a wedge issue in the November election by pushing the Republican argument of “jobs vs. the environment,” claiming that he and Cravaack were the only pro-mining candidates in the race.


If Range lawmakers lost all credibility with that stunt, then the party jumped into the pool of political expediency with them after the primary, and Nolan followed suit after the general.


Anderson’s punishment for running a primary campaign based on deliberately mischaracterizing the Eighth District DFL as a hotbed of anti-mining activists and claiming the Republican position on mining is the only acceptable one, giving the GOP ample ammunition to use against DFL candidates? The DFL hired him!


The DFL State Central Committee paid Anderson a total of $10,000 for consulting in state legislative races in September and October 2012, during which time Anderson became attached to Nolan at the hip.


Anderson and his supporters quickly changed their tune about Nolan, issuing a statement in September after an independent expenditure group launched ads echoing Anderson’s charge that Nolan was anti-mining:


Rick Nolan is absolutely right on this issue. Rick Nolan does support our mining industry and he’s going to work hard to make sure projects like PolyMet, Twin Metals, and our taconite industries take place.


They now referred to Cravaack as a shill for the mining companies because Cravaack supported the very same bill that Anderson had supported.


But this instance wasn’t the only time in recent memory that members of the Range delegation publicly sided with Republicans in order to flex their muscles.


State Representatives Jason Metsa of Virginia and David Dill of Crane Lake were so outraged that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would dare to force a mining company to abide by the law that they joined Republicans in introducing legislation that would nullify EPA regulations in Minnesota. They eventually withdrew their support, saying they were making a point.


Shortly after Nolan was elected, the Mesabi Daily News quoted him saying the EPA is not anti-mining. A barrage of letters to the agency and public comments to the contrary soon followed.  


Nolan touted his vote for the GOP bill that deregulates the mining industry, yet told those who were angry about his flip-flop that he really doesn’t support it.


He could have strengthened the DFL position on mining by holding firm on his assertion that we don’t have to sacrifice the environment and worker safety to have good paying jobs. That position had proven quite successful in defeating a primary opponent and an incumbent congressman. Instead, he rolled over.


Then Martin offended practically everyone with his heavy-handed approach to the issue, which led even mining supporters at the convention to complain that Martin’s so-called “compromise” sounded like it was written by Republicans in the Chamber of Commerce.


The Nolan camp and the DFL now find themselves frantically trying to convince disaffected Democrats that they are simply falling for the Republican “wedge strategy” if they stay home or vote Green—a tactic that would be completely unnecessary if party leaders and lawmakers had the political will to stick with a coherent position on mining instead of flopping around like fish on a dock.


A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Shelly Mategko is a trade unionist, former lobbyist, and a political activist from 1974 to 2010, with expertise in campaign finance and communications strategy.

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