Joseph R. “Joe” Begich, who combined a deep love of the Iron Range with a long public career in politics as a city mayor and state representative, died Saturday morning in Eveleth. He was 89.
The cause of death has yet to be disclosed.
Begich was among the best-known figures in Range politics and navigated the State Capitol as an impassioned and fiery advocate for topics related to mining, labor and the DFL. He set the table for no-nonsense political figures like former State Rep. Tom Rukavina, who died earlier this year.
“Joe was a man of courage throughout his whole life and his support for the people of the Iron Range was unwavering,” said State Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, who now represents constituents in Begich’s and Rukavina’s former district. “Joe laid the foundation for what it takes to represent our way of life and the region we all love.”
Begich was born in Eveleth in 1930, a Catholic of Crotian ancestry and later an Army infantryman with a knack for speaking his mind.
He came of age on the Range over the next two decades as the economic activity of the small town on the Mesabi Range peaked during World War II. He graduated from Eveleth High School and the Northwest School of Agriculture, worked as a grain and livestock farmer and served in the U.S. Army for more than four years in Korea.
He was elected mayor of Eveleth for four terms between 1965 and 1974 and then climbed the ranks as a DFLer to the Minnesota House of Representatives, where he served Districts 6A and 6B from 1975 to 1992. He participated on several committees, including Environmental and Natural Resources, Labor-Management Relations, Taxes and Transportation.
Friends and former colleagues said Begich was a champion for the Range’s tradition of mining and fierce labor advocate. He espoused Range self-reliance and was a fixture on the DFL political scene, once jabbing his finger into the chest of former Republican Congressman Chip Cravaack over a policy disagreement during a public town hall.
“Rep. Begich leaves behind a legacy as a champion for the Iron Range and fiercely fighting for all Minnesotans to have the opportunity to succeed. He was dedicated to ensuring people can attain good jobs and get paid fairly for the work they perform, and have access to the health care they need,” said Iron Range delegation members Lislegard, Julie Sandstede of Hibbing and Rob Ecklund of International Falls, in a statement. “In good times and in bad, he was deeply passionate about strengthening our way of life on the Range, especially while recognizing our rich mining heritage. Joe was a fountain of wisdom and always had plenty of honest advice for elected leaders who followed him. He will be missed greatly.”
In 1992, Begich wrote a cutting letter to former Republican Sen. Earl Renneke of Le Sueur. “I just found out that you are retiring from the Senate after a long career of doing nothing but criticizing everyone else. ...You constantly threw vicious attacks on the Iron Range for no reason other than dirty politics and a coverup for your shortcomings as a ‘do-nothing’ senator. ...I wish no bad luck, but I hope after you read this, you start to choke.”
Legislative redistricting would force Begich and into a newly created District 5A. But he decided to step down and pass the torch to his friend, another hot-blooded politician from the Range in Rukavina, of Virginia.
While serving on the boards of Eveleth Health Services Park, Camp Chicagami children’s camp and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the longtime employee of Erie Mining Co. was not known to ever soften his actions or words in the political arenas of the Legislature, or later as an appointed citizen member of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
In 2010, he took then-IRRRB commissioner Sandy Layman — the current Republican state representative of House District 5B — to task for allowing the governor to propose to transfer $30 million from the agency’s trust to help bail out the state’s budget deficit. The trust fund had been accumulated through a taconite production tax in lieu of property tax in addition to a state general fund tax. “This isn’t right, and commissioner, you didn’t do your job as commissioner to fight for the Iron Range,” Begich said, reportedly banging his fist on the conference table, according to a Mesabi Daily News report from the meeting. He went on to request that she be impeached, referencing the impeachment of former president Bill Clinton. The impeachment did not move forward.
In 2014, Begich again spoke his mind following the death of former GOP state senator and IRRRB leader Jim Gustafson from Duluth. “Gustafson brought on all kinds of problems,” Begich told the MDN at the time. “He was sent up to disrupt the Iron Range.”
And then in 2016, he penned a letter to the editor in the Star Tribune, writing that he was surprised at then-Gov. Mark Dayton’s opposition to the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mining project. “Governor, I care deeply about the Iron Range. I was born here and lived here for my entire 86 years, except for the years I spent in the U.S. Army [in Korea]. Let me die as a proud Iron Range DFLer. Reverse your decision on Twin Metals.”
But Begich always supported Rangers.
He publicly backed a Hibbing DFLer in 2011 for replacing former state Rep. Tony Sertich for House District 5B. “I believe that Carly Melin is the one to fill those shoes. It is time to pass the torch to a new generation and she will carry it well.” He added that Melin “represents the future of the Iron Range and the ideals and values.” Begich wrote an open forum letter in 2016 to the Hibbing Daily Tribune in support of then-Chisholm Mayor Michael Jugovich making a successful run for St. Louis County Commissioner. In 2018, he wrote letters in support of Lislegard’s political run as well as the successful re-election campaign of another longtime Range politician, Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm.
“Joe Begich was a legend and he’s not replaceable. There will never be another one like him,” Tomassoni said. “He was a champion and fighter for the people on the Iron Range, the likes of which we’ll never see again. And we’ll miss him dearly.”
Two years ago, the St. Louis County Board passed a resolution naming Highway 101 running through Eveleth after Begich. The proposal was fronted by Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township and Rukavina.
Begich was married to Carol and had one daughter. His brother, U.S. Congressman Nick Begich of Alaska, died in a 1972 plane crash. His nephew is former U.S. Senator Mark Begich, also of Alaska.
“St. Louis County has lost a friend with the passing of Joe Begich. While we mourn his death, we celebrate his life and draw inspiration from his legacy of public service as a legislator, mayor and Army veteran. He was a champion for his beloved Iron Range and for our citizens, in particular miners,” Nelson said in a statement on behalf of the board. “Two years ago, when we renamed the section of Highway 101 that passes by his home as Representative Joe Begich Highway, he told our commissioners, ‘It’ll be nice to finish off my life by this new road.’ What a privilege it was to honor him in this way.”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar also remembered Begich, pausing from her 2020 Democratic campaign for president to say: “I am proud to have had the opportunity to call Joe as a friend. I will always remember Joe as a champion for the Range and preserving Minnesota’s tradition of mining, education and health care,” she said in a statement. “My thoughts are with his family, his friends, and the people of the Range whom he spent so much of his life fighting on behalf.”