Q&A: Minnesota DFL Chair Ken Martin

By Jerry Burnes/Iron Range Today

Minnesota DFL Chair Ken Martin spoke with Iron Range Today last month about a wide range of topics from the Legislature to mining and the 2024 election. This transcript of this conversation was edited only for clarity and space.

On the DFL trifecta after the 2022 Election:

Ken Martin: “As I say, to a lot of folks, particularly folks in the Legislature, we have to use the power we have, when we have it, to make the biggest difference we can for as many people as we can. We have to see things through a different lens, and not just our own sort of self preservation. But really, since power seems to be fleeting, in Minnesota, we need to use the power we have, when we can to make sure we make lasting change. And that’s certainly seen in the last couple of months. 

It’s really pretty remarkable when you think about the legislation that’s passing and Minnesota codified abortion rights, passing the school meals program to a carbon free by 2040 bill, which puts us on a path to you know, really making sure we’re protecting our climate and creating jobs at the same time, to everything else that we’ve been able to do, which has been pretty significant. 

Minnesota DFL Chair Ken Martin (Courtesy of MN DFL)

And now, as we go into the second half of the year, really focus on the budget bills, which are quite substantial, of course, with a $17.5 billion surplus. And then on top of that, what we hope will be one of the largest bonding bills ever to pass in our state’s history, which will not only invest in  the critical infrastructure projects that have been funded for years now, but also help create 1000s of union jobs throughout the state. 

So we’re really excited about the progress. Of course, it’s been 10 years now of divided government that has meant 10 years of stalemate, so to speak, on really critical issues. The first half [of session] was marked by a lot of critical policy pieces, the second half of this legislative session will really be marked by a lot of spending priorities through the budget bill and the bonding bill.”

That first half of the session, it seemed like things were just flying into the governor’s desk. Did you get that sense from talking to people, too, that things were just moving fast? 

KM: Yeah, for sure. I think there’s two ways to look at it. 

One is that, you know, it’s too fast. And I know, I’ve heard that fatigue. I think the other way to look at it is luckily now, there’s alignments between our DFL legislators and the governor on these priorities. And, you know, the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of pent up unmet needs in the States. And there’s a lot to accomplish. Given the fact that for the last 10 years, we really haven’t seen much meaningful legislation moving through, given the gridlock we’ve seen in St. Paul. And so, you know, my feeling on it is, there’s been hearings, there’s been a lot of thought and discernment here. 

For sure, it’s not, it’s not right for people to say that these have just been, you know, rushed through. I will also say that, you know, this election this last election, certainly, there was a mandate from Minnesotans, you know, they they bucked the trend that Minnesotans typically do, which is to vote for divided government gave us a trifecta, and we have to deliver on the promises we made in Minnesota, and we’re certainly doing that.

Looking at the bonding bill, you mentioned, I see that’s hung up with the Republican Senate, what needs to go through for that to get done?

KM: “I think Republicans, if they vote for the projects that they voted for in the past, they’d be voting with the DFL here. It’s a shame — you and I have talked about this year before — Republicans have politicized bonding bills. In previous years, Democrats and Republicans would come together on bonding, because it was the responsible thing to do to invest in these infrastructure projects around the state and to do it at low interest rates and to save taxpayer dollars at the same time. And now, Republicans, even though just a few short years ago they supported many of these projects when they were in the Senate majority, they refused to support them now, because they don’t want to give the DFL a win. 

Look, we have a responsibility. Some of these projects have been in the queue for 10-15 years, they are costing taxpayers millions of dollars more now to complete these projects, and it’s just absurd that the party of fiscal responsibility isn’t doing the fiscally responsible thing, which is to fund these projects when we still have low interest rates and we can borrow the money at a cheaper cost and fund these projects while they’re still relatively inexpensive each year. We put them off as a year that we’ll see increased costs at the same time. 

We’re in a different situation as it relates to unemployment. Everyone that’s working is pretty much working. But we know through this infrastructure package that we will be able to create thousands of good union paying jobs throughout the state at the same time by investing in these infrastructure projects. So I don’t know what the issue is for Republicans on this. It really, at the end of the day, doesn’t cost the state of Minnesota anything and helps save money, because these are projects that are going to have to be funded at some point. And you might as well do it right now, while you can, and now the Democrats and the DFL have decided we’re gonna use some of the surpluses — $17.5 billion surplus — to do a cash only bond. And no, we prefer not to do that, right. We prefer to borrow money at low interest rates, because that’s the responsible thing to do. If the Republicans aren’t gonna play ball, then we’re just gonna do it ourselves with cash, and fund these important projects.

By the way, most of these projects are in greater Minnesota, most of these projects reside in districts that are controlled by Republicans. It makes no sense for them to vote against their own districts, yet they continue to do so.”

That was actually my next point. We see benefits of the bonding bill around the Range and the smaller towns. This from a party perspective, especially for a DFL that struggles a little more in these rural areas. Can you just speak to that point a little more?

KM: ​​”Well, it certainly opens up the door for us to make the case to those voters that they keep electing people who are voting against their interests. I’ll use the 8th District Congressman as a perfect example of this right.  Pete Stauber, who says he’s for creating jobs on the Iron Range for creating jobs in the 8th District, and when it came time to support the bipartisan infrastructure bill, he voted against it. He was voting against projects in the Senate and in his district. 

Of course, it hasn’t stopped him from running around the district and taking photo ops and acting like he voted for those projects. The reality is, that’s the same with this money. Every Republican who votes no is voting against their own constituents. And we’re certainly going to remind their constituents of the fact that when push came to shove, these Republican elected officials had an opportunity to support people in those districts, they refused to do that.”

Another issue that gets political at times is copper nickel mining, it’s a new mining out here. Is there a bridge to the gap within the DFL on this topic?

KM: “I think it’s important to recognize that the DFL has always supported taconite mining and continues to support miners. And  there is a divide in our party for sure, I hope that we can find the right path forward on this as it relates to copper nickel mining. 

And I don’t know, right now, obviously, what that looks like. Certainly there’s a divide within our party as there is a divide within communities throughout the state on this issue. I think we have to recognize that we can protect the environment and create jobs at the same time. And we have to find that sweet spot and, and make sure that we recognize that this is a really important region of the state, that this is a really important industry, and that at the end of the day, our party has always supported miners and always supported their livelihood and supported their right to organize and support the right for them to exist. 

This current debate over copper nickel mining will probably continue for some time. There’s still debates, both federally and in the state, about the responsible way to do that. But I would imagine, as we continue to move forward, that we will figure out a way to  do both, which is to allow folks to mine responsibly, while also protecting the environment and creating jobs. 

So I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. You know, this is something that has been a real sticky wicket, I would say for, for not only the DFL but frankly, for communities throughout the state and country.”

We haven’t talked since November, so what was your takeaway? On the Range elections, especially. Grant Hauschild’s seat was pretty much a toss up from the start. But Rob Ecklund losing was surprising to many.

KM: “I think it was surprising to me as well. And what we saw — and frankly why it was probably the most surprising is —  Koochiching County, which is really Rob’s base, really swung the other way. We lost quite a few Democratic votes there, out of Koochiching and International Falls. When you look at that race, and the really narrow margins there, if we had done as well as we had in the past and Koochiching County, Rob would still be in a state house. And so we have to figure out what happened there. 

I think, in the House 3B race, which is Mary Murphy’s race, which was also a very narrow margin, the reality is there that her opponent [Natalie Zelanskar] very successfully used her length of service against her. The fact that she had been there, in her opinion, too long. Reality is, I think without that argument, we would have won that seat, and I do think that moving forward that we will pick that up. That is probably one of our top pickup opportunities as we go into 2024.

We knew after redistricting, the way the lines were drawn, that it was going to be tough to hold on to all those seats on the Range. And, of course, we did hold Dave Lislegard’s seat, we were hoping we would keep the Senate seat there and keep Julie Sandstede. We did not. Part of it was the changing nature of those districts as I said, and part of it is the politics around some of these controversial issues and political issues that affect the Range.

But I will say this, I haven’t given up on the Range. And I know, some folks have. I haven’t. I believe we can win there. Our party is a party of working people, our party is the party that continues to not only support working class people and their right to organize, but it’s going to continue to stand up and fight for people in rural communities. And as much as the Republicans, as we were talking about earlier, they support greater Minnesota and rural communities, their vote says otherwise. And so I think the more they continue to vote against their constituents, the more of these Republican representatives, including on the Iron Range, give us an opportunity to win those seats back.”

Looking at Lislegard and Hauschild’s victories, do they have  brands that the DFL can build around going forward up here?

KM: Yeah, for sure. I think there’s no doubt about it. 

Dave has been successful, because he’s been able to speak authentically about issues that concern the Iron Range. I think that that’s true. 

Now Dave and Grant, as it pertains to the Northland and Arrowhead region, they both I would say are, for lack of a better word, somewhat independent. They certainly represent our values, but they’re also gonna buck the party and stand up when it makes sense for their districts and for their constituents. I used to work for a guy named Paul Wellstone who really represented that same ethos as an independent Democrat, someone who’s going to champion people all over the state. I think that’s true of Dave and certainly Grant. They’re not going to toe the party line, they’re always going to put their district and their constituents first. I am really grateful for their leadership. 

Those are the types of Democrats that we’re going to be recruiting up there, similar Dave. similar to Grant —  people are going to stand up for their districts.”

What are you looking at for 2024?

KM: We obviously have to hold our house majority. We have to expand the House majority actually. That’s our goal, is to expand and to win the presidency and re-elect Senator Amy Klobuchar and pick up some congressional seats. 

We feel we have a great opportunity in CD8 to win that congressional seat. We feel like some of the spaces we can expand our house majority across the state are in northern Minnesota. As I mentioned, 3B is a good example. We believe in the Range.We can pick up that seat that Julie Sandstede used to hold. And we believe that the Eighth District will continue to deliver votes for us to continue to win the statewide races including re-electing President Joe Biden Senator Klobuchar. 

So for us, again, in some ways the ground zero of the 2024 elections will be what happens in the 8th Congressional District. We’re going to be spending a lot of time out there.”

Real quick on CD8, if you could, what would the perfect candidate look like for you in that race?

KM: Well, I think we had a good candidate last year and Jen Schultz. I think the reality is we need more time to run against Pete Sauber. Jen ran a really strong campaign, but it was hard in a year where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a lot of our national partners were focused on just holding onto the incumbents, right? And our midterm election, they weren’t really supporting challengers the way they should have. It really hurt Jen’s ability to actually compete against Pete Stauber. 

I believe that’s going to change in 2024. I think the DCCC recognizes that in a presidential year their turnout is going to be higher. In a presidential year, they have an opportunity to put a few more Republican seats in the play and not just focus on incumbents and protection. For us to win the house back, we’re going to need to flip seats and certainly CD8 seems like a tailor made seat to do that. Stauber is definitely vulnerable, and continues to vote against his constituents’ coalition that delivered him. The election a couple of cycles ago no longer exists for him, particularly amongst labor. Most of the labor unions who supported him in the past, have stopped supporting him, not just  because of his vote on the infrastructure bill, but also his votes on the PRO Act, which creates a great opening for us.

With a few more resources, in 2022, Jen Schultz would have won that race. Unfortunately, she didn’t get that. She will get that in 2024 if she decides to run again, but if she doesn’t run again, we’re gonna have a good candidate ready to go.”

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