As Donald Trump Jr. embarked on his father’s campaign tour Wednesday in Duluth — the third visit by a Trump administration or family member in three months — Democrats organized a virtual conference on Zoom to address the president’s increased interest in the state and Iron Range.
It wasn’t an official convening of surrogates for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Instead the DFL called on its regional leaders and broader party heads to deliver a unified message, while Dr. Jill Biden, the candidate’s wife, appeared in Prior Lake that same day to campaign against President Donald J. Trump.
“The simple truth is, [President Barack] Obama and Biden inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression and they turned it around,” said retired Eighth Congressional District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, referencing regional employment rates. Calling the president a “scoundrel” Nolan said, “Trump has put us back to the worst we’ve ever had.”
Trump Jr.’s visit comes less than a month after Vice President Mike Pence appeared in Duluth and about two months after his sister, Ivanka Trump, appeared with Eighth Congressional District Rep. Pete Stauber at Duluth Pack.
The stumps are part of the president’s push to flip Minnesota in November, where he lost in 2016 by about 50,000 votes, a narrow margin attributed to big gains in rural Minnesota counties. Trump lost St. Louis County by about 13,000 four years but won the Eighth District by more than 56,000 votes.
Last month, Eveleth Mayor Robert Vlaisavljevich and logging industry representative Scott Dane of Gilbert both spoke at the Republican National Convention.
In his recorded speech, Vlaisavljevich said Democrats turned their back on the Range. Today’s national Democratic party, he added, has been dragged “so far left” and members “can no longer claim to be advocates for the working man.”
That notion was challenged by Democrats on the virtual conference call Wednesday with Nolan pointing to his own work with the Obama-Biden administration to enact tariffs that doubled the price of iron ore during an industry downturn in 2015 and reopened all six Range mines by the end of 2016.
“Then Trump comes in and claims credit for it all,” Nolan said. “That was not his credit.”
In Duluth, Trump Jr. said it was Biden who harvested blue collar jobs through supporting bad trade deals, despite the losses in manufacturing and logging experienced over the last several years.
“Donald Trump is the first guy to get a trade deal done with China,” Trump Jr. said. “Donald Trump is the guy bringing manufacturing jobs to America.”
Pence’s visit last month to Port of Duluth struck a heavy tone on the Iron Range mining industry, accusing Joe Biden, the former vice president and Democratic nominee challenging Trump, of trying to “shut down mining on the Iron Range.”
A letter endorsing the Trump-Pence ticket by six Greater Minnesota mayors was also unveiled — signed by Larry Cuffe of Virginia, John Champa of Chisholm, Chuck Novak of Ely, Chris Swanson of Twin Harbors, Vlaisavljevich and Andrea Zupancich of Babbitt.
The mayors considered Trump’s win as “something wonderful” and praised him for his claims that he “stood up to China, implemented tax cuts and fought for the working class.”
“Now, four years later, the Iron Range is roaring back to life and for the first time in a very long time, locals are hopeful because of this president’s policies and willingness to fight for us,” their letter read.
A rosy picture of the Range prompted leadership at the United Steelworkers to rebuke the mayors, writing in a letter of their depiction: “Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.”
USW International President Tom Conway, District 11 Director Emil Ramirez and District 11 Staff Representative John Arbogast authored the response and endorsed Biden, saying he has “long been a friend of workers and our union.”
Novak, of Ely, would later tell The Timberjay that he didn’t review the letter before it was sent and said of a thriving Iron Range, “Do you think I’ve gone off my rocker?”
Pointing to Steelworkers in the crowd in Duluth, Trump Jr. asked what they thought of the union’s leadership endorsing Biden, which was met with a chorus of “No.”
He continued: “That’s what we’re up against — a union whose workers are going to be overwhelmingly pro-Trump, but they’ve been bought an paid for by the Democratic party for decades.”
Residents in Chisholm rallied ahead of a Wednesday city council meeting at the same time Trump Jr. was set to take the stage in Duluth. They opposed their mayor, Champa, signing the letter of endorsement using his official title, noting Chisholm and three other cities represented in the letter voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to precinct data from the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office.
St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Musolf of Hermantown, who is also an Iron Worker through the union’s Local 512, pointed to an unstable market for local businesses and manufacturers in the region during the virtual conference Wednesday. Mulsolf was elected to the board after Stauber left the county for Congress in 2019.
Not only did Range mines experience layoffs with more than 1,700 miners out of a job earlier this spring — and about 300 workers at Keewatin Taconite going through an indefinite idle — but Duluth was impacted by the economic woes of the coronavirus pandemic with Verso paper mill also closed for the foreseeable future.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development show the state’s unemployment rate above 7 percent in July 2020 compared to 3.5 percent at the beginning of the year, peaking at 9.4 percent in May. In the Duluth region, that peak unemployment rate surpassed 11 percent.
“The notion that everything is great is belied by the facts,” said Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, on the virtual call Wednesday.