“Arrest forthwith and take before magistrate, preferably in Duluth, all persons who have participated and are participating in riots in your county”
Minnesota Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist
June 30, 1916
In 1916, the Minnesota Republican Party was at a crossroads. Facing a possible war in Europe, discontent amongst farmers, expanding industrial corporations, and growing labor unrest, it was faced with a challenging choice. Should they follow the populist progressive principles articulated by Teddy Roosevelt, or shift back to “stand pat” Republican old guard philosophy? Minnesota had been a hotbed at the turn-of-the-century for the growth in the progressive movement. On a bipartisan basis, the principles of workers’ rights, agricultural co-ops, railroad and warehouse regulations, and other progressive principles found fertile ground for their development here in the Gopher state.
It was during this period of unprecedented growth in progressive policies that J.A.A. Burnquist first found his place in Minnesota politics as one of the young progressive leaders within the Republican Party. Things began to shift in his philosophy as he took the reins as governor in the face of labor unrest and the war in Europe. He and many in his party seem to take a hard turn back to the old guard philosophy. The above quote, widely distributed during the infamous Oliver Mine strike in 1916 on the Iron Range, was an unmistakable message that he and the Republican Party were going to stand with the industry giants and not the workingman.
This, along with several other moves of the time, most notably the creation of the infamous Minnesota Commission of Public Safety that trampled on the constitutional rights of Minnesota citizens during wartime elections, caused a significant realignment in Minnesota’s politics. The prairie populists and progressives moved into one of the most vibrant third-party efforts under the banner of the Farmer Labor Party. By the mid-1920s the Farmer Labor Party would win several statewide offices and legislative seats eventually winning the governorship in the 1930s during the depression.
It seems that Burnquist’s political miscalculation nearly 100 years ago was replayed once again by the Republican candidates for statewide office in 2014. Both the candidate for the governorship and the U.S. Senate came out as unabashed supporters of the corporate interests trying to expand mining near the Iron Range. Unfortunately, this new mining of sulfide ore is proving to be extremely dangerous to one of Minnesota’s precious resources, our lakes and rivers. Sensibly, state and federal regulators have been demanding that these corporations meet the highest standards, and advocates for protecting our environment are calling for meaningful cleanup funds to be paid for in advance by these mining companies.
Republican candidates decided to take a shot at supporting the mining companies in a misguided effort to pull votes to the Republican camp from the usually Democratic 8th Congressional District and, more specifically, the Iron Range areas. They had visions of winning the eighth district for Stuart Mills and using these newly converted voters to capture the statewide races.
So what result did they get from this unabashedly shelling for the mining companies? Well, pretty much nothing. Gov. Dayton won the 8th district in 2010 with 61.8% of the vote. In 2014 he won the district with 62.1% of the vote. They did do a little bit better in the communities directly affected by the mines. In 2010 Dayton won Ely with 59.6% of the vote, but in 2014 he won Ely with only 56.7% of the vote. In Hoyt Lakes where the Polymet mine is being proposed, Gov. Dayton’s total dropped off 9%, but he still won the little community with over 60% of the vote.
It seems like Republicans continue to be fooled by Iron Range politics. They repeatedly pander to policies that they think will shift votes in that region, but have yet to seriously penetrate the DFL stronghold there. The 8th district is changing and is considered by most a swing district with a DFL lean. This is not happening because Iron Rangers find Republican positions on mining attractive. The change is happening because of the loss of population on the Iron Range. The regions that have been redistricted into the traditionally DFL Iron Range district are the more conservative northern fringe suburbs of the Twin Cities and the more conservative Lake region around Brainerd.
Republicans would be far better off to fashion a conservative message on mining that better tracks with their conservative suburban and agricultural region voters. There is an easy message here. If we are not careful, these multinational megacorporations will do everything to shift costs back onto the taxpayers, most of who live around the Twin Cities, for cleaning up the messes they will inevitably leave. Further, they should look to protect the property rights of the citizens and business owners in and around the mines. This resource can only be removed once and we should be wise and do it right so that the state budget wins, taxpayers are not harmed, and property owners are protected.
That is a winning philosophy far closer to Republican Teddy Roosevelt than any Iron Range politician. A philosophy that could still win over independent voters of this state that supports Teddy’s Bull Moose Party when he last ran for president.