Minnesota lands on new leases for Hibbing Taconite
Jerry Burnes/Iron Range Today
New mineral leases were approved Thursday for Hibbing Taconite — not those leases — to expand the mine’s ore body out several months.
Minnesota’s Executive Council, which consists of the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and auditor, unanimously issued the leases without discussion.
“On behalf of our more than 2,000 employees in the State of Minnesota, we would like to thank the MN Executive Council for the approval of the mineral leases that will allow Hibbing Taconite to extend operations another 9 months through 2026,” said Lourenco Goncalves, chairman, president and CEO of Cleveland-Cliffs, through a statement Thursday.
The amended leases don’t solve the long-term problems Hibbing Taconite faces as it inches toward the end of its ore reserves in 2026, but the company said it’s looking beyond the Band-Aid solution for the mine.
Cliffs has applied for the state mineral leases at the former Butler Taconite site in Nashwauk after the Minnesota Supreme Court in January declined to take up a legal argument from Mesabi Metallics, which was stripped of the leases by the Department of Natural Resources last year.
“We remain confident that, once we obtain the state leases to add to Nashwauk land already controlled by Cleveland-Cliffs, we will then be able to extend the life of Hibbing Taconite for decades,” Goncalves added.
Cliffs, U.S. Steel and Scranton Holding Company, an entity formed in 2020, have so far expressed interest in all or some of the leases. The DNR hasn’t set a timeline on when the leases will be resolved and final approval would land back in the decision making of the Executive Council.
Mesabi Metallics said in January it would explore avenues to keep the largely defunct project in Nashwauk moving forward, and said it was in advanced discussions to form a joint partnership that would “provide hundreds of million dollars of additional equity funds and will allay any concerns that the project will not proceed as intended.”
As of Thursday, the company has yet to join the fray to regain the leases or provide more details on its potential partnership.
Cleveland-Cliffs set to reopen Northshore Mining in April
By Jerry Burnes/Iron Range Today
Northshore Mining in Silver Bay and Babbitt will reopen in at least a partial capacity by early April, with workers set to return to the job site as early as next week.
Local and statewide elected officials were notified of the plans Monday and recall notices were sent to workers this week.
Cleveland-Cliffs confirmed Monday that it notified some employees, but a company spokesperson said they “will provide more details when we decide when and at what capacity this operation will be brought back online.”
Northshore was idled last May due to demand and a royalty dispute, impacting 450 people, and Cliffs anticipated the mine and processing plant would reopen in the early second quarter of this year.
The royalty dispute between Cliffs and Mesabi Trust arose in February 2022 when Lourenco Goncalves, chairman, president and CEO of the mining company, called the royalty structure “ridiculous” and that it would idle Northshore. He also cited the ability to produce DR-grade pellets at the company’s Minorca Mine in Virginia, reducing the need for iron ore pellets.
Mesabi Trust reportedly agreed to renegotiate terms of the royalty agreement, according to local officials, prompting the potential restart of the mine.
Cliffs didn’t provide an update on Northshore during its Feb. 14 earnings call, but said it anticipated nearly $2 billion in savings on its steelmaking costs, in part from reduced maintenance and idle time at its operations.
Extended unemployment benefits for Northshore miners was among the first bills signed into law this session by the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Time Walz. The bill was authored by a northeastern Minnesota delegation of Sens. Grant Hauschild, Jen McEwen, Rob Farnsworth, Justin Eichorn, and Kari Dziedzic and Reps. Dave Lislegard, Roger Skraba, and Spencer Igo.
Hauschild said he was encouraged that the process to reopen is beginning.
“I heard from numerous miners who were impacted by this closure who said they wanted to get back to work,” Hauschild said through a statement. “While we were able to get them a bridge in unemployment extension until April with my recent bill, my primary goal has always been to reopen these two plants. I’m glad to say that we’re one step closer to making that happen.”
Cliffs is ready to drive the automotive inventory comeback
By Jerry Burnes/Iron Range Today
Cleveland-Cliffs has set its sights on the auto industry as one of the company’s keys for 2023.
The steelmaker announced Tuesday that it secured fixed price contracts with automakers, a move that could put Cliffs in the driver’s seat when automakers begin to rebuild their inventory in a post-pandemic era when supply chain issues have started to resolve.
Lourenco Goncalves, chairman, president and CEO of Cliffs, said during the company’s year-end earnings calls that he’s expecting a larger sales volume to the auto industry in 2023 compared to 2022, with what he described as a “significant but modest” price increase in line with inflation.
“Automotive is the most exciting steel consuming sector in 2023,” he added. “The age of cars on the road, consumer backlog, low unemployment rate and inventory levels continue to point to growth in automotive sales and production over the coming years. Particularly now, when they have finally improved their supply chains.”
The focus on the auto industry means Cliffs plans to double down on its blast furnace operations, bucking the industry trend that is moving toward electric arc furnaces (EAFs). Automakers require highly-specified steel for their products that EAFs can’t produce.
Along with the materials, Goncalves cited other countries also relying on blast furnaces for the industry and the U.S. importing iron ore and sinter feed to make the necessary, and specific, steel products.
“That’s why Cleveland-Cliffs does not need to, and does not plan to invest in new EAFs beyond the five EAFs we already operate,” he said, later noting the company is able to use hot-briquetted iron (HBI) in its blast furnaces.
Car prices have risen about 30% in the last few years, largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic that created high demand and low supply. While the supply chain issues have started to resolve, automakers have yet to ramp up production of new vehicles.
Cliffs is making a bet that car companies will look to increase their inventory in the coming years, which would be a boon for steelmakers supplying the sector. Goncalves is also predicting that the newly-formed fixed costs, combined with the company’s ability to deliver specific steel products on time, will put Cliffs in a good position to feed the industry’s output.
“Clients had to worry about a lot of things, but there was no steel disruption from Cleveland-Cliffs,” Goncalves said.” The steel was always there. Automatic. We are good at that.”
No update on Northshore, HibTac
Goncalves didn’t provide an update on the idled Northshore operation in Babbitt and Silver Bay, but the company’s IRS filing reported that it “will restart no earlier than the second quarter of 2023.”
The second quarter begins in April, which matches the latest timeline the company provided for its restart after idling it in early 2022.
Cliffs also didn’t provide updates on state mineral leases at the former Butler Taconite site in Nashwauk, which the company wants to gain access to in order to expand the lifespan of Hibbing Taconite.
Cliffs was expected to express formal interest in the leases with the state Department of Natural Resources, and U.S. Steel, the minority owner of HibTac, was expected to be interested. It is unknown how many companies have formally applied for the leases with the DNR.
“We plan to discuss the developments around the Nashwauk site with our stakeholders, including the governmental agencies involved,” a U.S. Steel spokesperson told Iron Range Today. “We consistently seek out opportunities that will support our business, and the Iron Range is fundamental to our strategy.”
Virginia man faces 3 felonies after arrest near Rock Ridge school
A Virginia man was charged Thursday with three felonies after he allegedly threw rocks at construction workers outside North Star Elementary on Tuesday.
Michael John Broker, 31, was ordered to be held on $50,000 bail Thursday by Sixth District Judge Andrew R. Peterson as prosecutors charged him with second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon, threats of violence with reckless disregard and fifth-degree drug possession.
He remained held at the St. Louis County Jail in Virginia.
According to court records, Virginia police responded to the North Star Elementary construction site around 11:35 a.m. Feb. 14, where a worker reported a man threw rocks at a construction, threatened him with a pipe and went toward a white trailer near a downtown hotel.
Officers located Broker walking toward a U-Haul truck, which he allegedly jumped into the back of and closed the door. After police forced the door open they placed Broker under arrest and allegedly found a small bag of methamphetamine and a pipe.
After interviewing the worker, according to court records, police learned that Broker appeared from alley behind the library and allegedly began screaming obscenities while throwing rocks at the crane. The worker told Broker to stop, but he reportedly continued yelling: “You’re a baby killer! You’re a baby killer! Is that what you’re into? I’m going to f*****g kill you!”
Broker then allegedly ran to a trailer and grabbed a large pipe, around 5 feet long, and approached the worker holding it with both hands, yelling “I”m going to kill you.”
He did not attempt to enter nearby Virginia High School, according to Rock Ridge Superintendent Dr. Noel Schmidt, who said the school would review its safety procedures.
Broker faces up to 17 years in prison and is due in court again Feb. 27 for a Rule 8 hearing.
Read the full complaint:
Smith visits East Range to Celebrate Joint Water Project; $4M in federal funds secured
By Leah Ryan/Iron Range Today
It was a mild January morning as U.S. Sen. Tina Smith met with East Range leaders near Giants Ridge. The snow hung heavily on the tree lined road and ice covered Lake Mine Pit, which was the focus of the meeting.
“I think today is a pivotal moment in our project. It is wonderful seeing everything coming together, financially.” said Jodi Knaus, manager/clerk in Town of White, moments before Smith (D-Minn.) arrived. “The engineering is done and we are ready to go out for bids, hopefully, sometime in 2023.”
Knaus went on to say the Joint Water Project is a great project for the East Range region. “This is Phase 1 of a multi-year project. We are very grateful to have legislators and leaders supporting this project.”
Smith attended the Joint Water Project update meeting and celebrated her and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s efforts that secured federal funding for the project.
“Senator Klobuchar and I worked very closely together on the congressional designated funding that has produced the dollars for this project. And I think that really matters because what it means is essentially what happened is the best ideas, the great ideas that come from communities get percolated into the federal funding system in exactly the way that it should because you’re going to know way better than we are, or anyone in Washington D.C. is going to know, about what your community needs and why does it make a big difference for this community, ” Smith said, explaining the best ideas for federal funding come from the community level. “So having worked at the local level and the state level and now the federal level… I think this is exactly the way this kind of effort should work. The Joint Powers Board is such a great example of local and regional cooperation and collaboration to take care of business and do the really good work that needs to get done. Congratulations to all of you! I’m excited to think about the impact that this is going to have not only for good, clean drinking water and water treatment but also for the jobs and economic development it is going to provide in the community as well.”
Smith congratulated the Joint Powers Board as a great example of communities working together and advocating. “I know that you all are really good at solving problems. To me, that is exactly what is happening here. You are solving a really important problem. Thank you.”
Wacootah Grille was closed for the snow season but was reopened for the event. A U-shape of tables faced posters describing the project with enlarged maps of the area in which the room sat. The tables were full with members of the East Range Joint Water Board, which was established in July 2021, including: Doug Gregor, Chair and Mayor of Aurora; Jon Skelton, Vice Chair and President of the Board for Town of White; Dave Skelton, Secretary and Treasurer; Dennis Schubbe, Aurora member-at-large; and Clark Niemi, Township member-at-large and Foreman for Town of White.
Smith listened to the board from her seat at the table.
“Congratulations, this has come so far,” said Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum. “I also want to acknowledge this is the water source for the city of Biwabik. We are going to share a water source and sometime in the future we hope to share even more closely.”
Weikum concluded stating how critical it has been for the project to secure the federal funding.
During the roundtable discussion, Gregor and Weikum stated that an emergency water plan has been put in place in case there is another situation that jeopardizes Biwabik water, as happened in 2018.
A new face at the table was Luke Heikkila, who has since started at the city administrator of Aurora. He has experience working both in Aurora Public Works and for the past six years has been on the board of directors of the Minnesota Rural Water Association.
Hoyt Lakes Mayor Dave Zins said he doesn’t see Hoyt Lakes joining the project in the near future but stated it is good for his city to have the option.
“I just feel that anytime we can get help from financial aid, especially for small communities where we don’t have a tremendous tax base than a lot of bigger cities,” Zins said. “I think we need to rely on central federal funding to help us out with projects, such as the one we’re going to talk about today.”
He added “if the finances are there” then he would support opting into the project. “I mean, if the taxes are going to have to go up to raise the cost to cover it, we would definitely have to have the backing of the community.”
Ida Rukavina, the new commissioner of Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation, added: “This makes sense. Earmarks make sense because of projects like this in rural areas. It just makes sense. Rural residents deserve clean water.”
Extra chairs were brought in to accommodate residents of the area, employees of the East Range municipalities, labor representatives and RAMS members, including former executive director Steve Giorgi.
“This project is a model other Range communities need to learn from,” Giorgi said. “The communities recognized a problem and are pulling resources together to look long term…We do better if we pull together. This is encouraging. Projects like this are so easy to support at the federal level and it does better for the whole region.”
Before the end of the meeting, Giorgi reminded community leaders of the dig once resolution and encouraged preparatory laying fiber for future broadband projects.
Joint Water Project
The project came about with Aurora and the Town of White becoming in immediate need of a new water source and water treatment.
“A few years ago, we landed on the plant will be in Aurora and the water source will be Lake Mine,” said Knaus, while explaining the long process up to this point. “The citizens that live in the Scenic Acres Development Area are going to be getting much needed water and fire protection.”
Two of the three wells in Scenic Acres have failed. Currently, over 30 homes are serviced on one well. There is not enough water to flush the system, which has led to discolored water.
“Fire is an issue,” explained John Miettunen, a resident of Scenic Acres. “Our system would run out of water in two minutes.” Another issue would be if a major break occurred. These could both lead to catastrophic losses, physically and financially.
For close to two decades, their needs and those of their neighbors have been researched and planned. Finally, all the hard work is going into action.
The Joint Water Project is planned in two phases. Phase 1 will include water for Aurora and the Town of White. Phase 2 will expand to include Biwabik and Hoyt Lakes. The working assumption is that both phases will eventually be completed to include water access across the East Range. Therefore, Phase 1 includes creating capacity and laying the groundwork for Phase 2. This is more efficient and cost effective.
The proposed water treatment plant is designed to be constructed mainly of concrete, to last decades, and accounts for future expansion in Phase 2 to allow for the addition of Biwabik and Hoyt Lakes. The design also utilizes modern equipment while the treatment process is familiar to existing operators and similar to facilities in the area.
The project includes a vertical caisson-style pump station on the shore of Lake Mine where the intake pipe will be a minimum of 50’ below the water surface; below the future low water level of Embarrass Pit. During Phase 1, two pumps will be installed with room for an additional two pumps to be installed during Phase 2.
The Joint Water Project has been divided into five tasks, with the first two already completed: preliminary design, final design, permitting and regulatory approvals, bidding services, construction phase services. This final task is estimated to begin in early 2024.
The estimated construction cost will be about $20.4 million. The total project cost is estimated at $25 million increased to $30 million with inflation.
Funding initiatives are at various stages of applied, pending, approved and secured totaling $25 million. Estimated community contributions are up to $5 million (see chart below).
Federal funding is playing a big role in the project after Smith and Klobuchar (D-Minn.) secured $4 million for the Joint Water Project, among others in the region.
“This is a celebratory moment to be able to help with federal dollars and all the incredible local support and cooperation to get this water project off the ground. They will be putting bids out this spring,” said Smith after the meeting. “Sen. Klobuchar and I worked closely together to get the federal congressionally designated funds to get it going. This is exactly the way it should work community cooperation and we can help make sure the federal dollars are there. I just want to say, a lot of times small towns and rural places feel like they can’t tap into the resources at the federal level. And, you know, if you have a small town with a city clerk- how are you going to know what rent money there might be or how you can participate in that. And that’s the thing that I think we’ve been able to break through with this project that is really critical.”
The meeting was Smith’s first stop of the day on her tour celebrating projects throughout the area. Following the East Range, she visited Chisholm where $1.2 million in federal funds were given to the United Way to build childcare facilities in Chisholm and Ely. Then, she traveled to Grand Rapids where $350,000 of federal funds were invested in improvements for the Boys and Girls Club Greenway facility. The regional funding package also included $1.3 million for the Ely Area Ambulance Service Joint Powers Board to build a centralized emergency response facility.
Although Ely was not on her tour of the region, Duluth was. There Smith attended a ribbon cutting event for a housing project.
“The Iron Range deserves strong federal partners and I’m proud of the work we did with local leaders to bring these investments here,” said Smith in a press release about the projects. “From making important water infrastructure improvements, supporting emergency response services, increasing access to child care, and expanding housing and shelter resources, these projects are going to have a real, positive impact on people’s lives.”
“This federal funding will have a real impact for communities across the Iron Range. From investing in emergency response services and improving water infrastructure to increasing access to affordable child care, these projects will address key issues impacting Minnesotans on a daily basis. I am proud to have worked with leaders from across the Iron Range to secure the resources for these projects, and I look forward to seeing all the good they will do,” said Klobuchar in the same press release.
Rock Ridge students organize Iron Range winter clothing drive
Editor’s note: The winter coat drive is, in part, being run by our daughter. But what good is having parents who run a website if they can’t help you build the interview and marketing skills, and to help boost your community-focused project? Exactly.
Jerry Burnes/Iron Range Today
VIRGINIA — Iron Range winters can bring a harsh, bitter cold along with them. Not a big surprise to residents of the area, but a group of students at Rock Ridge High School noticed not everyone in the area is ready — or can be — for the yearly elements.
So they decided to do something about it.
Savanna Burnes, Kendall Collie, Ava Dodge and Daunte Gooden have organized a winter apparel around Virginia next week, with three drop-off locations and two community centers set to receive the collected winter gear. The drive came about as part of the Leos Club at the school, which asks participating students to do a community-focused project.
People can drop off winter apparel — hats, gloves, jackets, boots and more — at Virginia High School, the Virginia Community Foundation or Ken Waschke Auto Plaza (both locations) from Jan. 23-27, with donations going to The Salvation Army and Bill’s House in Virginia. Items can be gently used and for all ages.
“We want to help different organizations that help people so we can ensure everyone can feel comfortable this winter,” Gooden said.
There will also be collection boxes for check and cash donations to go toward new winter gear.
“We wanted to do something that could really benefit those in need in our community,” Burnes said. “The people that need these items will benefit, but I also believe the people that donated will benefit, because by doing something nice, it makes you feel nice.”
She said the apparel drive experience has been a good one all around by teaching their team leadership skills they will need later in life. They also hope the drive will “open the eyes of the other people in the community” and let them know there are people who can’t get what they need at all times.
“Perspective is the experience of a lifetime,” Gooden said. “Understanding and getting a personal view of the diverse amount of struggling people around our towns sets us off with an understanding of gratitude — to have a slight understanding of being in someone else’s shoes.”
Burnes added that she hopes the goals of the Leos Club and the service projects can help bridge the gaps of the older and younger generations on the Iron Range by helping them work toward a common goal of solving the community’s problems.
“I think that the older generations just need to be a little bit more open to change,” she said. “And I believe the younger generations can just be nicer to each other. Everyone is just so invested in social media that they almost forget about the real work and the problems in our community. I believe that we should all come together to solve them.”
Analysis: Slim margin in Minnesota Senate a tipping point for mining reform bills
Jerry Burnes/Iron Range Today
A set of bills that would significantly alter the landscape of mining in Minnesota and the Iron Range face an ominous path through the Legislature, with a key senator standing in opposition and the standard partisan divide ready to tip the scales.
One of those efforts — Senate File 167 and House File 329 — would enact mining restrictions on state land in the Rainy River Watershed and squash Twin Metals Minnesota’s proposed underground copper-nickel mine near Ely. The other, S.F. 167, would transfer the responsibility of mining promotion from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The latter bill does not have a House companion.
The bills are far from unexpected considering the DFL trifecta and have helped provide Republicans and mining advocates with the fodder they need to rail against the new DFL majority in both chambers and the executive branch, but those cliches need not apply here in the end.
Democrats hold a 34-33 seat majority in the Senate and with Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, already out against both bills, passage through the high chamber will seemingly rely on a Republican breaking from the ranks to swing the vote back.
Until that vote is secured, the standalone versions of the bills are dead on arrival and spell out a perilous path if added onto larger bills that could require a party-line majority to pass. Senate Republicans have pushed bills deemed as overregulation of the mining industry before, but have never supported a straight-up ban or new regulatory agency. With the caucus focused on winning the two remaining Iron Range seats in future elections, it has no margin of error for defections on the issues.
Even with the larger Democrat majority of the House the companion bill will find tough sledding. Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and previous House leadership have not allowed anti-mining legislation to reach the chamber floor in an attempt to keep the House above the fray and in part as a nod to her close partnership with Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora.
The unfavorable route forward underscores Hauschild’s comments after the election, rejecting the idea that Democrats were given a mandate by the voters and instead embracing working with legislators “with good ideas” no matter their ilk. Representing a portion of the Iron Range, him and Lislegard watched Republicans knock off two longstanding DFL incumbents in November and secure an open seat, before taking the two Democrats down the wire. At times Republicans tried to link the two Democrats to the their DFL counterparts who oppose copper-nickel mining proposals.
Efforts to stop mining in the Rainy River Watershed are also hitting roadblocks beyond St. Paul. In Washington, a new GOP majority in the House makes it unlikely that U.S. Rep. Betty McCollumn, D-Minn., can get her bill to stop the Twin Metals mine over the finish line.
Meanwhile, Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., who represents the mining region of the state, is calling for Congress to look into the Biden administration’s decision to rescind federal mineral leases from Twin Metals, while also proposing his own measure to limit the timeline of environmental reviews.
Back locally, the Senate files were sent to the Environment, Climate and Legacy Committee, which Hauschild and two of the bills’ co-authors, Sen. Kelly Morrison and Sent. Jen McEwen, also sit on. The House bill was sent to the Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee.
Analysis: Iron Range shifts its politics, but only so far — for now
Jerry Burnes/Iron Range Today
The political landscape of the Iron Range shifted largely as expected Tuesday night as Republicans took control of the delegation’s majority for the first time in modern election history, but found themselves in the minority statewide.
What ripple effect those results have on the region’s political future and the upcoming legislative session are left for pure speculation at the moment. While Republicans have gained steadily on the DFL since 2010, it took the party 12 years and two open seats to finally — mostly, at least — flip the script on election night, producing less of a wave and more a tide that turned red.
GOP incumbents won expected races centered in Itasca County, where Sen. Justin Eichorn easily prevailed and Rep. Spencer Igo defeated DFL incumbent Julie Sandstede by 7.5 points in House 7A, a district combined due to redistricting. Rob Farnsworth also won by a solid majority over Ben DeNucci in Senate District 7, a margin of 7 points, in a seat formerly held by the late Sen. David Tomassoni.
“[Senate District 7] was a solid win for Republicans in the heart of the Mesabi Iron Range,” said Aaron Brown, a writer and college instructor in Hibbing, to KAXE. “That’s probably, for Republicans, one of the big headlines. That marks a significant shift in a district that, in recent memory, I recall being Democratic by 30, 40, 45 points. That shifted quite a bit.”
A more surprising result came in House 3A, where Republican Roger Skraba currently holds a 15-vote lead over DFL incumbent Rob Ecklund. The margin was the narrowest in the state Tuesday night and will head to an automatic recount. In 2020, Sandstede prevailed over the then-challenger Farnsworth following a state-funded recount, so the door isn’t closed on Ecklund.
Yet, the historic nature of the seat — representing the far northeastern parts of the Minnesota including International Falls, Ely and Cook County — speaks volumes to the ground gained by Republicans since 2010.
The late DFL Rep. David Dill won his first effort at the seat in 2002 after Tom Bakk was promoted to the Senate. Among those Dill defeated was Skraba, who ran that year as an Independent and finished second, topping the Republican nominee Tom Porter.
Four years later, Dill would run unopposed.
“The culture has shifted,” Brown said. “That shift is now built in. I see the region as Republican-leaning for the foreseeable future, but it wasn’t a blow out — none of the races were blowouts for the Republicans.”
Democrats found victories in the House 7B race with incumbent Dave Lislegard narrowly defeating challenger Matt Norri, while Grant Hauschild won a highly-contested race against Andrea Zupancich in Senate District 3 to replace Bakk.
Those wins underscore some of the sentiment toward Democrats felt on the Iron Range, which tilted toward Republicans almost across the board in statewide races, largely on issues of mining, Covid-19 restrictions and the economy.
Where DFLers like Ecklund publicly adhered closely to party-line politics in supporting Gov. Tim Walz and Jen Schultz, the Democratic nominee in the 8th Congressional District who lost to incumbent Pete Stauber by around 12 points, Lislegard and Hauschild largely avoided the fray.
Both cited a campaign that played up their labor and mining support, with a boots-on-the-ground approach that got their message to voters in the region. Hauschild was among the top Senate candidates when it came to fundraising and estimated he knocked on more than 10,000 doors, but added it wasn’t one issue that brought voters his way.
“We ran an independent campaign that avoided extremes and was no nonsense,” he said. “Clearly that’s something Northland voters wanted. Voters resonated with somebody that won’t toe the party line and wait for directions.”
Lislegard pointed to experience in the Legislature, leading bills that delivered local government aid, bonding projects and taconite municipal aid dollars to the Iron Range, while being a fervent supporter of PolyMet and being on the forefront of calls to use a Nashwauk ore body to save Hibbing Taconite.
“It’s working hard for the Iron Range, our mining industry, our communities, working-class people and the elderly,” he said. “I believe they trusted me to put the needs of the district first and I believe they understand the importance of experience and effectiveness.”
Experience was a theme of the campaigns for Lislegard, Ecklund and Sandstede as multi-term legislators, considering the departure of the retiring Bakk and the death of Tomassoni, leaving an extensive leadership gap in the Iron Range political scene.
Bakk acknowledged as much when he endorsed Liselgard, Ecklund and Zupancich, promoting their legislative and city government chops. The sign off from the former DFL majority and minority leader in the Senate was expected to carry weight among voters, not only because of his own political career as a longtime Iron Range champion, but Bakk left the DFL with Tomassoni to form an Independent caucus in the Senate in 2020.
It was largely seen as a rebuke of the party, which declined that year to retain Bakk as a party leader in the chamber, and had grown more vocally averse to potential copper-nickel mining projects in the region. Bakk stepping into the races was viewed locally as independent voice lending his support in the contested 2022 election.
But on Tuesday night, Bakk-endorsed candidates went 1-for-3, with Lislegard pulling off the only victory, pending the Ecklund-Skraba recount.
“Northlanders don’t want a kingmaker,” said Hauschild, who was endorsed by Bakk’s predecessor, the late DFL Sen. Doug Johnson. “They want who is best for them.”
Brown cited Lislegard’s staunch pro-mining stance and broad base of support among business and labor groups on the Range as key pieces in retaining his seat, despite the shifting trend, and pointed to Hauschild’s campaign strategy.
Both Senate candidates raised massive sums of money — more than $250,000 combined. But Hauschild, the relative newcomer to the wider political scene of the region, outperformed Ecklund and longtime DFL Rep. Mary Murphy — both of who lost — to win a race framed early on as the Iron Range candidate versus the Duluth area candidate.
“The DFL should pay attention to how Grant Hauschild won that race when it looks at some of these other northern Minnesota House and Senate seats they lost,” Brown added. “He ran a modern campaign. He was very active, heavy on online and offline media buys … Hauschild was just a little better at figuring out where those undecided voters were.”
Zooming out, Democrats across Minnesota — mainly in the metro region — celebrated winning full-party control in St. Paul for the first time since 2014, including all seats in the state’s executive branch. The victories leave Lislegard and Hauschild in the minority at home, but in the legislative majority, providing an immediate chance to utilize their consensus-building style of politics.
At home, Republicans are poised to have majority rule of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Advisory Board for the first time. The board consists of state senators and representatives from districts with at least one-third of the residents living in the taconite assistance area covered by the IRRR.
Pending the House 3A recount, Republicans would hold 5-3 control of the board with Eichorn, Farnsworth, Igo, Skraba and Ben Davis from House 6A. Lislegard, Hauschild and a senator appointed by the Senate Majority Leader, now a Democrat, would represent the DFL. If Ecklund ultimately prevails, it becomes a 4-4 split.
IRRR Commissioner Mark Phillips said he doesn’t expect a partisan split when the new makeup of the board convenes next year. In recent history, the political divide in St. Paul hasn’t translated to the IRRR, which mainly deals with community and economic development issues.
Years ago, when the board acted in less of an advisory role and more in the decision-making process, politics could have been a factor, he added. But that dynamic largely changed recently when the IRRR was reformed to a state department, thus moving the board to an advisory position rather than chief decider.
Phillips noted the incoming makeup of the board was “essentially what we had with Bakk and Tomassoni caucusing with Republicans” after making their switch to Independent.
“I see very little disruption,” he said. “The issues we bring to the advisory board are not really political, at least they haven’t been for the last eight years. In past years, maybe, but now it’s community and economic development projects, and that doesn’t usually cross over political boundaries.”