Down through the years, some of the most storied backroom fights at the Legislature have occurred not between Democrats and Republicans but between the Iron Range and Twin Cities contingents of the DFL. The Range has always been a prominent force at the state Capitol, first through its economic might as a mining center and later by more subtle means: the high average seniority of its members, the area’s status as a critical bloc in any statewide DFL majority. And its delegation has long tussled with legislators from the cities over power and dollars.
There is erosion on the horizon for the region’s standing in the legislative balance of power; population declines have many predicting a loss of seats in the 2012 round of redistricting. Which makes it all the more ironic that the stars could be aligning for a 2011 Iron Range leadership sweep in the legislative and executive branches that some lawmakers find unpalatable.
By most accounts, the accession of House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm to the speaker’s rostrum is already a foregone conclusion – provided the DFL maintains a majority after November 2 – and Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook is rumored to be eyeing another run at the Senate’s top leadership job. While Bakk has said he doesn’t plan to challenge current Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, even his current position as head of the Taxes Committee is a formidable power base, particularly in a year marked by an historic budget deficit. And despite Bakk’s public demurral about wanting Pogemiller’s job, some caucus members privately say he has he has given mixed signals to colleagues, and will probably run if he’s able to enlist enough support.
The last DFL governor in Minnesota, Rudy Perpich, also hailed from the Range, and current DFL gubernatorial nominee Mark Dayton sat in his cabinet as commissioner of economic development. Dayton still cultivates his Range ties, as attested by his choice of Duluth Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon as his running mate. Many DFLers in both chambers take it for granted that there would be extensive ties to the Iron Range in any Dayton administration.
The power quarrel is a common one at the Capitol, particularly between metro area legislators and politicians from the Iron Range. Both sides are quick to point out leadership positions each group has held over the years, and both will say the other has been the dominant force in St. Paul.
“Do you think they were so concerned when there was a Speaker and a Senate Majority Leader from Minneapolis?” Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said. “I don’t think so.”
But the worry from metro and some southern Minnesota legislators is not about being on a lower rung of the leadership ladder, they say, but the “bullying,” machine-style politics of the Range, coupled with its lawmakers’ propensity to do what’s best for their districts and not necessarily the state as a whole.
“I would be uncomfortable with a lot of Iron Rangers in positions of extraordinary power, as they have traditionally not supported the sharing of resources around the state,” one metro legislator said. “I would fear that their sole aim would be to drain a lot of resources for the Iron Range out of the rest of Minnesota.”
State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said there is an “underlying current of anxiety” among some legislators regarding too much power focused in the Range delegation.
“The anxiety comes from that long history of the Iron Range’s team spirit. They stick together and they have one voice, and they have believed that their part of the state is struck by economic hardships,” she said. “Both [U.S. Sens. Amy] Klobuchar and [Al] Franken have also weighed in from Washington on behalf of the Iron Range, and that’s where you get the sense of this enormous political clout. No one wants to alienate them.”
The economic status of the range has improved considerably from last summer, when unemployment rates in cities like Hibbing and Virginia were upwards of 17 percent, the highest in the state. The numbers were a direct reflection of a massive downturn in the local mining economy. The picture is a lot sunnier this year, with unemployment rates in Cook County running as low as 4.9 percent, and Itasca and St. Louis counties running between 7.4 and 9 percent, not too far above of the state’s 7 percent rate. Economic improvements suggest that Range politicians will not be as pressured by dire straits next session.
But since the mining economy’s steep decline in the 1980s, northern Minnesota lawmakers have generally gone for any promise of jobs in region. And Range pols – more than lawmakers in other areas – are lauded by constituents for every little thing they can bring home in good times and bad, state Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said.
“In my district, people just want good education, health care and transportation,” she said. “Rangers sneak little things into bills right and left, top to bottom, year after year, like Chinese water torture. Every little thing they can get, from the smallest to the largest project, is really important to people up there.”
The Duluth News Tribune’s editorial board recently cast its endorsement for Sertich, a “rising political star,” saying the region needs a powerful lawmaker to bring home the bacon: “With the state budget bleeding billions and the economy still as shaky as the Swinging Bridge at Jay Cooke State Park, the Iron Range and Northeastern Minnesota needs a rep in a position of power in St. Paul.”
Several issues in particular have come up as perennial Capitol sparring topics between metro legislators and the Iron Range, including the Excelsior Energy plan and the environmental impact of mining nonferrous metals – copper, nickel, platinum and others – from the region’s rocks.
The Excelsior plan aims to produce jobs by building a plant that creates energy through gasification technology. The process breaks down coal for energy rather than burning it directly, a method that cleans the coal of many of the usual impurities. But a buyer for the high-tech power has been more than elusive, and a proposal to make Xcel Energy a major buyer has been a point of contention.
“That project has never happened, and some of us have believed for a long time it was because they don’t need that energy up there, and the bill was going to force us down here to buy that energy,” Hausman said. “But we don’t need that energy either.”
Concerns aren’t coming just from metro area. More generally, Democratic Rochester Rep. Kim Norton worries that Iron Rangers often leave southern Minnesota out of the picture.
“Folks in my community have some concerns about the libertarian bent and the sometimes laser-beam focus that some of the Iron Rangers have about their own community,” she said. “They worry the southern part of the state could be left out.”
For DFL Iron Range blogger, professor and newspaper columnist Aaron Brown, the range’s biggest problems are on the horizon, as numbers continue to show the area diminishing in population. He thinks the area stands to lose seats in the next round of redistricting in 2012.
“The economy is bad, but not in an unusual way,” Brown said. “The mines are kicking up and we are in a treading-water kind of place right now. Our problems are long-range and out-of-sight systemic demographic problems that will eventually turn into economic problems and then political problems for the DFL. It’s the dripping pipe up in the attic.”
Making a case for rangers
Ask Range politicians Rukavina and state Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL- Balsam Township, and they will tell you that any fears of a Range-heavy legislative leadership are unfounded.
“We’ve always had strong tenures at the Capitol, because the Range people have a tendency to keep their politicians in office so that they can have some clout,” Rukavina said. “But all of us who have been in power or held chairmanships have been very fair in helping people across the entire state.”
Rukavina, who has been mentioned by some as a potential commissioner if Dayton wins, noted that one of the pieces of legislation he is most proud of used a pool of Iron Range money to fund scholarships for students across the state.
Anzelc said festering fears that northern Minnesota has too much political clout is “foolishness” based on the fact that Iron Range legislators are “effective” and “passionate.” “We are good legislators, we represent our people well, and usually we stay a while,” he said. He added that the area provides much of the state with public, open land for hunting, fishing and other recreation. “We are just expected to welcome the state’s citizens without anything in return, and that’s just not how this works.”
The worries that Sertich would have an Iron Range-first outlook as speaker of the House, meanwhile, are far from universally shared among caucus members.
“I would always watch out for a Ranger that gets into the room and has power,” Greiling said, “but I don’t think that’s the way it would be with either Sertich or a Dayton-Iron Range administration. [Sertich] runs a really civil caucus. He doesn’t have the flavor of the obnoxious, in-your-face Range legislator. He is cut out of a new cloth.”
She also said it would be a bad idea for Sertich, who is young and ambitious, to cut his time short as Speaker by being “piggy” with Iron Range projects: “The quickest way for him to be a one-termer is to focus on the Range, so he will have to mind his Ps and Qs about that.
“Tony will have to answer questions from the caucus regarding how he is going to be fair to everybody. But I think he will have good answers to those questions and he will follow through.”