HIBBING — Democrats on the Iron Range have long held control of Minnesota’s mining region, but despite recent gains by Republicans — particularly in the Eighth Congressional District — party leadership still see themselves as a resilient force.
Speaking from the empty bleachers of the Hibbing Memorial Arena prior to a recent hockey game, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley described the different faces that have cycled through the Range delegation since he was elected in 2006: Tony Sertich of Chisholm was the majority leader, Tom Rukavina represented the Virginia district and David Dill in the northernmost district near Ely and International Falls.
“Two of them aren’t with us anymore, and one of them isn't in politics anymore,” Winkler said, referencing the recent deaths of Rukavina and Dill, in 2019 and 2015, respectively.
Sertich was replaced by former Rep. Carly Melin, who stepped back in 2016 when current Hibbing Rep. Julie Sandstede won the seat.
Rukavina left the Legislature for county government. His move opened the door for Jason Metsa, who prior to 2018 ran for Congress. Rep. Dave Lislegard of Aurora won the seat that year.
Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls won a special election following Dill’s death and has remained in the seat since.
“It’s great to see year in, year out, a new group of legislators who work hard to represent their district and know their district like the Iron Range legislators,” Winkler added.
That work, especially coming off the heels of a successful session for the Range last year, has the DFL looking past results in the Eighth District that has transformed overall since President Donald J. Trump was elected in 2016.
The GOP is riding that wave heading into 2020. If U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber wins his re-election bid, he will be the first Republican to win a second term in the district since 1944.
Winkler said national politics will play a role in 2020, offering a lot of different on national issues, but statewide issues are more nuanced and impactful.
“When it comes to state politics, our job is to look after families and communities in Minnesota, and make sure families and communities are thriving,” he said, listing off education, health care and child care, among other things. “Up here we know a big part of that is mining, but it’s also a lot of other things.”
Within the DFL party, a divide exists over copper-nickel mining that has come to blows at times, but no anti-mining legislation was heard in the House last session. A few were introduced, Winkler said, but he pointed to relationship building as a key cog in the process of stopping those bills in their tracks.
He noted the freshman tour of the Iron Range led by Lislegard, which Winkler and House Speaker Melissa Hortman each attended. They toured United Taconite, PolyMet, the Port of Duluth and other areas of economic impact to the Range.
The first-hand experience opened the door for those who didn’t know much about the region and its biggest economic driver, and Winkler hopes it will translate into future sessions.
“In the Minnesota House DFL, we have made sure we are not pitting one part of the state against another, making sure the needs of the Iron Range are at the center of our agenda,” he said. “Nobody’s jobs are on the chopping block when it comes to our priorities.”