The Contender: Skip Sandman's bid for Minnesota's Eighth District

October 21, 2014

 

Jennifer Martin-Romme
Zenith City Weekly

If most DFL-leaning voters were honest with themselves, Skip Sandman’s platform is probably more in line with their values than any Democrat in Congress since Paul Wellstone.


Anti-war? Check.
Environmental sustainability? Check.
Corporations are not people? Check.
Sensible gun laws? Check.
A woman’s right to choose? Check.
Pro-union, a living wage, and affordable healthcare? Check, check, and check.


Known primarily for his staunch opposition to copper/nickel mining, the Green Party candidate’s views are more nuanced than single-issue, and more cohesive, with some surprisingly conservative twists.


Ray “Skip” Sandman—a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran and retired corrections officer, a husband, father of five and grandfather of 15—decided to seek elected office after he had a dream in which children of all races were playing together in Lester River.


The dream led him to a failed bid for Duluth City Council in 2013, where he had hoped to pass a water protection ordinance. That fall, Eighth District Representative Rick Nolan (DFL) voted for the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act—a 180-degree reversal on his campaign promise not to vote for mining “until it can be done safely.”


Sandman took his dream-inspired zeal for protecting the water, and filed to run for the Eighth District himself. In 12 days, he gathered the 1,500 signatures needed to get his name on the ballot.


With the Green Party’s endorsement and virtually no money, he’s cobbled together an ardent—and increasing—audience. His portion of likely voters has risen from about two percent to about seven percent in various polls since he joined the ballot in June.


Pegged as a spoiler for the DFL, Sandman rejects the idea that he’ll lure away Nolan voters, handing a win to Republican challenger Stewart Mills. “They will say that anyhow...I don’t care what they say. Rather than getting caught up in all that, there’s some real issues here. I’m in it for the water and I’m in it for your great-grandchildren. If somebody doesn’t stick up for them, who will?”


Uncompromising opposition to mining is Sandman’s signature issue, but, specifically, he opposes only copper/nickel mining, and only until independent, peer-reviewed science determines that pollution mitigation and containment technology is adequate to protect the water from sulfate and heavy metal runoff without requiring indefinite maintenance.


“Even PolyMet’s scientists are saying a minimum of 500 years before the water is usable. Other scientists say 4,800 years. The mine will come and go, but we’re left to deal with it when it does leak. No matter how much money they put into it, it will not be enough. What price do you put on water?”


Instead, Sandman proposes capitalizing on federal mandates to reduce carbon emissions, by investing in Northern Minnesota industries to serve the built-in customer base created by the cost of compliance. “By 2030, [President Obama] wants 30 percent carbon emissions done with coal fire plants. Where is that cost going to go as they begin to upgrade? It goes to the consumer [in the form of] higher electricity and energy bills.


“There is a company in Germany that produces a product called Archimedes. It’s a rooftop wind generator. In a three-bedroom house, it will provide 80 percent of the household needs for electricity. Why not have a company in Northern Minnesota that produces that? Why can’t union members install them and do the technical assistance? Those are jobs that can’t be outsourced, but in the long-range, we’re building that energy sustainability. We should also start looking into that with solar power.”


Sandman supports the Northern Lights Express train between Duluth and Minneapolis, but he would like to extend it to the Iron Range, with an eye towards a nationwide high-speed rail system. “It’s a mode of transportation that will kick in in time. As you look into the future, fossil fuels will begin to diminish and the price will go up. It’s better to be proactive than reactive...Plus, it brings jobs into the Eighth District that are going to last without endangering the environment.”

 

From there, Sandman often diverges—in whole or in part—from typical left-leaning politics, describing himself as pro-military, pro-gun, and with some serious misgivings about both Obamacare and single-payer health insurance.


“First and foremost, I’m not for war. I’ve been to war. I’ve seen the damage it does to our young men. But I also believe, like what’s going on in Syria right now and the ISIS group, something needs to be done to stop this stuff...What we need is to build a strong coalition that puts their people on the ground. I believe in the military. We need a strong military, but we don’t need to be the world’s policemen.”


He advocates diverting intelligence resources from spying on US citizens to targeting the threat of loose nukes and guerilla attacks by ad hoc terrorist groups.


Concerned about the high level of US debt to China, he would revitalize US exports, particularly in sustainable energy and medicine. (China is one of the reasons he opposes mining, believing that most of the precious metals will eventually be sold to feed the growing economy of our totalitarian trade partner.)

 

Sandman is “a supporter of the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms. Because, first of all, I’m a veteran and I’m a gun owner.”


That said, he believes in universal background checks and tighter restrictions on licensing people with criminal histories or untreated mental illness. “The NRA might get mad at me, but it only stands to reason that if we have a good strong background check, that may stop some of this stuff that’s happening with the school shootings.”


His bottom line with healthcare is affordability, and his concern with a single-payer system is that government determines which treatments it will cover. “I believe in everybody needing some form of insurance, but this stuff of [Obamacare] being affordable is BS. If you are a single person with three kids, the basic program is $300 a paycheck for you as an individual, and if you have three children, each child is going to have to pay 300 bucks.


“The Affordable Care Act is not affordable. Therefore, it needs to be—not totally scrapped—it needs to be taken out and re-examined. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to tweak it so that it stands up to its name: Affordable.”


•He would like the first piece of legislation he introduces to address student loan reform, because he believes the magnitude of unsecured student debt would make it easier to find a bipartisan solution.


•He supports legalizing marijuana, but not any other illicit drugs. (“I smoked [marijuana] once in my whole life. Once in the service, and it didn’t do a thing for me. What fun is that?”)


•He does not support a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision. He would rather see legislation to remove big money from politics, require transparency in campaign funding, and to revoke the corporate charter of any American business that attempts to relocate overseas to avoid paying taxes.


•He supports school vouchers (and is not persuaded by the arguments against them); endorses the Center for Disease Control’s protocol for handling the threat of pandemic viruses; and when asked who poses the greatest danger with a nuclear weapon, he scoffed, “Anybody with nuclear weapons is dangerous!”


Sandman’s smorgasbord of beliefs and policy positions comes with a steep—almost impossible—promise to voters: If he ever voted to override the will of the majority of his constituents, “then I’ll go around to each and every door, knock on it, and explain my point of view...That is a big commitment, but we have so distanced ourselves from what exactly our representatives are actually doing.


“The voice of the people has a lot of power and a lot of sway. I’m not just there; I’m there because they put me there. Each decision, before anything even comes up, is to bring it back to the people. People need to know what’s going on.”


What the Green Party lacks in funding and support, it offers in partisan flexibility. “I am not beholden to any camp. I’ve not made a decision yet on who I would want to caucus with...and that’s a very hard one, because I don’t believe either party has the ability, as we’ve seen, to sit down and talk with people. You have to be able to talk with your opponent to at least reach some resolution.”


Sandman is appalled by the attack ads Nolan and Mills have unleashed on one another, and he’s loath to criticize them himself. The only interview question he refused to answer was one that baited him to disparage his opponents.


“I don’t believe in that. They’re doing the best that they can and I’m going to do the best that I can. This mud-slinging and back-stabbing is well below a person that’s running for office...They’re both honorable men for just stepping up and doing what they’re trying to do and they don’t need to be personally attacking each other. I won’t go down that road.”


Sandman has gained enough momentum to receive grudging attention from the local and national press, invariably prefaced with the caveat that he can’t possibly win. “His chances of becoming a congressman are nil,” Eighth District DFL Chair Don Bye told the Washington Post on October 10. “All he’s doing is improving the chances of the Republican.”


Sandman is a long-shot, but independent congressmen are a lonely bunch. Only four Greens have ever been elected to Congress and, once in office, three of them changed their party affiliation. Currently, only two members of Congress are not from either major party—Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Both caucus with Democrats.


Native Americans have been even lonelier in Washington. Only ten have ever been elected to Congress, most of them from the Plains states and prior to World War II.


Sandman, an Anishinaabe elder and a member of the Fond du Lac Band, doesn’t believe racism has affected his campaign. “Hopefully, we have come forward in time enough not to judge people by what their skin colors are.”


But he acknowledges that the tendency in Native culture to frown on self-promotion as bragging is sometimes at odds with running for office. “My approach is I talk about the issues. I’m giving people a choice. I don’t try to build myself up.”


The humility shows—sometimes painfully. At the October 7 debate in Duluth, Nolan and Mills both turned in shamelessly self-aggrandizing performances, often exceeding their allotted time limits and taking constant potshots at each other.


Alongside them, Sandman’s deliberative and unpretentious style came across as diffident. His carefully considered opinions were shoved offstage the way a well-mannered child in a room full of brats doesn’t get the cookie if he waits his turn.


“I’m not a career politician. I want to be straightforward and honest with you because of the cultural beliefs I have: That if I put something out there, it’s going to come back on me.”


The real difference between Sandman’s campaign and his opponents’—the huge gaping chasm between them—is money. Nolan and Mills are neck-in-neck, each having raised over $1 million. Sandman’s raised $1,200 and recently spent over half of it on yard signs. His staff is five committed volunteers. His campaign commercial has 160 views on YouTube, the cost of airtime prohibitively expensive.


Filmed on the porch of his Lincoln Park home, children’s toys nearby and the sound of children playing in the background, the camera wobbles as Sandman explains the significance of the dream that launched his political aspirations:

In that dream, I was asked by a voice that said, “What are you going to leave the children?”
I thought about that for a while and what I finally
figured out is that they were talking about the water...
Now, in my dream, there were children of all colors and races, playing in the water, having fun...The water is sacred, and if that is allowed to happen, with the mining, is that it destroys everything in its path, and the children will not have nothing in the future.
It may not happen today, but I see myself as a
visionary, and I look forward to my great-grandchildren and their children. As a concerned citizen, I stepped up...to run for the Eighth Congressional District, because I believe, if nothing else, if elected, if I can save the water for future generations, I will have done something really important with my life.

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