Conservation Minnesota

The Naval Battle That Gave Us the 8th Congressional District

“We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”

US Naval Commander Oliver Hazard Perry

September 10, 1813

tumafeatureThese are the famous words scrawled on the back of an envelope by the commander of the US fleet on Lake Erie to his commanding general, William Harrison, the leader of the US forces in the Northwest during the war of 1812 with the British. It was on that day that Perry’s fleet won the decisive naval engagement on Lake Erie, taking command of that critical inland sea. His report was slightly mistaken in the chaos following the battle, in that he actually captured two ships, one brig, two schooners and one sloop. Nonetheless, it still was the decisive naval victory of the war, earning him the title “Hero of Lake Erie”. He later was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his courage and leadership during the battle.

What does this 1813 battle have to do with Minnesota? Well, Minnesota’s biggest congressional district battle of the 2014 election in the northeastern 8th Congressional District likely would not be happening if it were not for the success of Perry’s fleet 201 years ago. At the end of the Revolutionary War, Minnesota’s northern border was set generally along its present course; but prior to the war of 1812, the region we now know as Minnesota was a far-flung wilderness. Part of the reason the British took to the war of 1812 was to expand its borders in the western region further to the south.

At the early part of the War of 1812, the British were winning decisive victories all over the western region. They easily captured the major fur-trading fort at Mackinac Island and even conquered Fort Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin. In the early negotiations, buoyed by their victories, the British were pressing for a new US/Canadian border further to the south. One line would have traveled through present-day Little Falls, Minnesota and another would have been as far south as St. Paul.

When word of the decisive naval victory on Lake Erie reached the negotiators at Ghent Belgium in addition to the British failing to take Fort Erie and Baltimore, the British backed off of their demands and settled instead for a status quo border in the West. The Treaty of Ghent therefore preserved Minnesota’s claim to its present 8th Congressional District thanks to the naval victory on Lake Erie.

The congressional battle over the 8th Congressional District is turning into one of the most significant congressional races in the nation. It is definitely the most talked about in Minnesota. During the heyday of mining and shipping, the 8th Congressional District was dominated by blue-collar labor politics being mostly made up of Duluth and the Iron Range. With loss of population in Duluth and the Range, redistricting has created a new 8th Congressional District that extends down to the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities and into the West, covering the more conservative Brainerd and Bemidji Lakes area.

Both major party candidates are actually from this western fringe of the district. Congressman Rick Nolan returned to Congress, beating Chip Cravaack, a Tea Party insurgent who himself surprised political pundits by taking out long-term congressional icon James Oberstar. Nolan’s competition in this 2014 election is coming from Brainerd native Stuart Mills of the famed family that owns a large car dealership and the Fleet Farm store chain headquartered in Brainerd.

The permitting of the dangerous new sulfide mines south of the present Iron Range has come into play in this race. A very clear analysis of how mining is playing in the race was articulated by up north blogger Aaron Brown in a recent opinion piece in the Star Tribune where he said:

“Republicans up and down the ticket have reinvigorated their pro-mining attacks on the DFL ticket, claiming that DFL incumbents have done too little to advance mining despite their stated, albeit nuanced, support of new mining projects in Northern Minnesota. This had happened months ago but had subsided for other issues. Now it’s back in the daily soundbites and the subject of GOP press releases. As I’ve written before, votes that would actually turn over mining are highly localized. MN-8 is no longer just the “Iron Range” district, and the DFL’s base in Duluth is actually motivated by anti-mining sentiments. I did say, however, that mining could be an issue if the election came down to 2,000 votes or less, and that’s looking quite possible. It might even be likely.”

Therefore, though mining is talked about, it will likely not be the major factor on vote shifting between the major parties. What Brown doesn’t mention is the third-party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman running under the Green party label. Recent polls have him picking up about 5% of the vote, mostly from liberals in the Duluth area, due in large part to his strong opposition to this dangerous mining being allowed in and around our iconic Boundary Waters. This issue will cut significantly into Nolan’s base. Therefore, Nolan’s nuanced support for the mine may actually cost him the election in the end.

On election night keep your eye on the 8th — it is the battle to watch.

About John Tuma

John Tuma
John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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