REGIONAL— Michelle Lee admits she doesn’t have much political experience. And she doesn’t have the most money or the most political endorsements of the five candidates currently vying for the DFL endorsement in the Eighth District .
But she does have a secret weapon in an era when most voters aren’t looking for more of the same: Michelle Lee doesn’t sound like a politician.
She knows what’s she’s up against and yet she exudes genuine optimism and an enthusiasm for retail politics. “I’m enjoying every minute of it,” said Lee, who took a break late last week to talk about the campaign with just over three weeks to go until the Aug. 14 primary that will advance one of the five candidates to a general election showdown with the expected GOP nominee, St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber.
It’s crunch time in the race and every day is another seemingly endless round of events and meet-and-greets across a congressional district that is larger than many Eastern states.
“I’m amazed at the reception I’m getting,” said Lee, the longtime news anchor for KBJR in Duluth. A recent internal poll by one of her competitors suggests why Lee may be getting a reaction from those she meets along the way. With nearly 40-percent name recognition in the district, she is known by nearly as many voters in the region as the rest of the candidates put together. That’s a bigger advantage in a general election, versus a primary, which tends to bring out more informed voters who are less likely to be swayed simply by name recognition.
But this year could be different. Lee said she’s amazed at the political engagement and excitement she’s seeing in people across the district. She said she suspects that primary turnout, especially among DFLers, is likely to be high this year.
And she’s taken a cue from another politician who proved extremely popular in the district two years ago— Bernie Sanders. Like Sanders, Lee is an unapologetic progressive, who firmly believes in universal, single-payer health insurance and free public college and university tuition. Sanders also eschewed donations from political action committees, relying instead on small money donations from a vast network of supporters. Lee, too, has relied on small donations, although her network is considerably smaller than that enjoyed by the Vermont Senator. Lee has raised just over $50,000 in the race so far, based on the latest campaign finance reports that came out this week. That’s less than the two leading fundraisers, Joe Radinovich and Jason Metsa, but it’s enough to give someone with her name recognition a credible shot.
“I haven’t raised as much money as some of the candidates, but a lot of people tell me they want big money out of politics anyway,” she said. “We are doing a different kind of campaign.”
Fundraising is likely to be less an issue in the general election campaign, since both sides are expected to spend millions on this hotly-contested race, which could decide control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
While Lee backs free four-year public college tuition, she acknowledges that a traditional college education isn’t for everyone, and she believes the country needs to lower the barriers for people to learn a trade.
“We don’t have a lack of jobs,” she said. “We have a lack of trained workers.”
She recounted a recent conversation with a woman who runs a trucking company in International Falls. Despite paying a solidly middle-class salary and full benefits, Lee said the woman is just one of hundreds of business owners across the district who can’t fill job vacancies.
“I think parents have a role to play in this, in showing what’s a noble profession,” said Lee. “We have to start telling young people that if they want to work with their hands, they should be going into the trades.”
And it’s not just young people starting out, said Lee. “We have to continuously be re-training people because the economy is changing so rapidly,” she said.
Technology is also changing rapidly and she said rural areas can’t be left behind. “We have to build up our broadband capacity,” she said. “If we can build out just like we did with rural electrification, imagine what that would do for our rural areas and for small businesses.”
Lee says she sees lots of heads nod when she starts talking about education and the economy. “There’s a multitude of issues in which I’m finding support from voters,” she said. “People also recognize that we have to fight the anti-union push from the right. We know how important unions are to workers.”
She said the two issues that still divide DFL voters are sulfide mining and a woman’s right to choose. She said the politics surrounding abortion, which have existed mostly in the background in the past several election cycles, have jumped to the fore since the announced retirement of Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. Lee said many of the women she’s hearing from are worried that the new court could overturn the 1973 decision that legalized abortion in the U.S.
She said she hears some excitement from those on the other side that more restrictions could be placed on abortions, although few expect that the procedure would be outlawed altogether.
On mining, Lee’s position is perhaps the clearest and most unequivocal of any of the candidates in the race. She’s a strong supporter of the taconite industry but believes that sulfide-based copper-nickel mining is too big a threat to northeastern Minnesota’s clean water to support.
“I feel strongly about it and I have never wavered,” she said.
Lee believes that sulfide mining will do nothing to even out the boom-and-bust nature of the Iron Range economy, and could negatively impact property values, and discourage the kind of new economic activity that could create a more sustainable economic environment. “That’s why I am really promoting the idea of sound economic growth that stabilizes the economy, rather than encourages more boom and bust,” she said. “It’s about good-paying, sustainable jobs, and protecting our natural resources, like our clean water.”
While her stand may hurt her prospects on parts of the Iron Range, she said she hears lots of support for her position elsewhere in the district, and even from some on the Iron Range. “I had a good reception at the Hibbing parade,” she said. “Although I noticed I got a lot more high-fives from women.” Lee said she’s not sure whether the issue helps or hurts her in the district, although she’s clearly picking up support from voters who agree with her on the issue. “I guess we’ll find out ultimately on Aug. 14,” she said.
“It’s ultimately up to the power of choice for the voters, and I’m hoping that people make the choice to exercise their right,” she said. “I don’t know how this will work out, but win, lose, or draw, I feel we’re getting our message out.”