Minnesota DFL’s divide over mining may come to a head at state convention

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DULUTH, Minn. — As the DFL convention in Duluth enters its second day Saturday, delegates will debate more than 100 items that will set the party’s agenda this year. Among those is a proposed ban on copper-nickel mining, also called copper-sulfide mining, which lacks a proven track record of complying with state and federal environmental laws.

Following a failure to bring such legislation forward this year at the Capitol, the issue may come to a head this weekend, with what looks like a choice for the DFL — promote mining and union jobs, or protect the environment.

Historically, the DFL has sought a balance on mining issues in the Iron Range. However, the issue has been fertile ground for the St. Louis County Republican Party, whose pro-mining and increasingly pro-union stance has attracted growing support from unionized miners and working-class voters in northeastern Minnesota. That has led to frustration in another DFL core constituency, environmentalists.

DFL party leaders declined to comment on the proposed mining ban and surrounding issues, saying it is an agenda item that delegates will discuss this weekend.

Two centers of power

The two traditional centers of DFL power in Minnesota, the Twin Cities and the Iron Range, are increasingly at odds over how to manage the state’s natural resources, said Pete Marshall, communications director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, an environmental advocacy group.

While northeastern Minnesota has generally focused on labor and mining, the Twin Cities portion of the party has worked to conserve the wilderness area, Marshall said, adding that while he’s seeing more people moving toward clean water initiatives in the Iron Range, he has also seen people shift right on socially conservative issues in the Northland.

“On a statewide level, it’s a safe gamble for (the DFL) to oppose clean water acts because the environmental caucus is pretty much a captured constituency,” Marshall said.

Supporters of the legislation have pushed for about a decade to have the issue debated by legislators, according to Marshall.

“Minnesota is uniquely blessed with the amount of water we have, and we need to take some active measures to protect it, given all the threats that are there,” he said. “I think the DFL leadership should at least hear out what their constituents say, hear out what a lot of their supporters say about clean water and not be afraid of the issue.”

Other issues

Despite its history as a DFL stronghold, the Iron Range has, in some ways, moved away from the DFL during the past decade. Iron Range Republicans have increasingly become outwardly pro-union, and social issues such as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and opposition to racial and gender equity programs in schools have allowed them to make some inroads in the region.

Such issues, playing out at the ballot box, could threaten the DFL’s thin margins in the House. Adding on to the urgency of party messaging in an election year, Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, will not seek reelection to the Minnesota House of Representatives this fall, leaving a possible seat for Republicans to target.

Another topic sure to be brought up this weekend is the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza. There are at least five resolutions by local party members regarding the war that will be brought up during the convention. Some call for a ceasefire or ending financial support to Israel until it complies with international law, while others are focused on the right of Israel to exist as a state.

“We welcome different opinions on a whole host of issues, including Gaza and what’s happening in the Middle East,” DFL Party Chair Ken Martin previously told Forum News Service. “There’s a lot of different ideas and thoughts on that issue within our party, and you’ll see that talked about (during the convention).”

The DFL, especially in Greater Minnesota, has a tough needle to thread this election, according to Hamline University political science professor David Schultz.

“How do you support economic development, which may include mining, but at the same time, essentially an agenda that is pro-environment, especially as it is being pushed in the Twin Cities amongst some of the activists?” he said.

While Republicans face something of an identity crisis, Democrats have seemingly failed to come to a resolution on the mining and environment issue, according to Schultz.

“The Republicans can’t figure out who they are and what they stand for, but they know what they’re against,” he said. “Democrats are fighting the same fights they’ve been fighting for at least a quarter-century at this point.”

Copper-sulfide mining issue at the Legislature

That fight was highlighted earlier this year when Sen. Jennifer McEwen, DFL-Duluth, took part in a public hearing to address copper-sulfide mining. She told Forum News Service at the time that corporate interests have kept the issue of copper-sulfide mining off legislators’ tables.

“There’s a lot of anger and frustration amongst clean water activists in Minnesota with DFL leadership in general, and there’s good reason for that,” she said.

That anger stems from the lack of a hearing in the state Senate on what is known as the “Prove It First” bill, which states that before a copper-sulfide mine in Minnesota can be permitted, there must be independent scientific proof that a copper-sulfide mine has operated elsewhere in the United States for at least 10 years without causing pollution and that a mine has been closed for at least 10 years without causing pollution.

McEwen, a co-author of the Senate bill, said the Legislature has not heard a bill regarding copper-sulfide mining in at least a decade, which she called “legislative malpractice.”

“The fact that we have had the Democratic Party leadership in the administration, in the Senate, in the House now, for a number of years and we still haven’t had that hearing has a lot of people very upset,” she said.

The type of mining the bill seeks to regulate is different than current iron and taconite mining in Minnesota, according to McEwen.

“We are simply asking this industry to prove that they can do this safely before we would consider permitting their projects in such a water-rich environment with so much at stake,” she said.

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