Can Joe Radinovich speak to both sides in a divided DFL?
That’s the task he’s laid out for himself as he campaigns for the seat his political mentor Rick Nolan has held since 2012. Radinovich stopped by our office in Tower recently to talk about the race and the issue that has roiled the innards of the DFL party for at least the past two election cycles, and helped push Nolan out of a re-election bid.
Radinovich sees the divide over copper-nickel as the classic wedge, and it’s potent because it ultimately comes down to identity. He grew up near Crosby, on the Cuyuna Range, decades after the last of the mines there had closed. “But as far as I knew, I lived in a mining town. That’s how strong the identity was,” he said.
Community identity can change, but it takes time and it takes an influx of new people from different backgrounds to light the fire. We see that in process in a place like Ely, where there is no longer a clear consensus on the community’s identity, and where copper-nickel has become a dividing line that is far more a debate about tribal identities than economics. Radinovich has seen some of those changes in Crosby, as well, as a result of the new mountain biking park established on old mine spoils, which has brought some new businesses and vitality to a main drag that had seen little change in decades.
Radinovich, to some extent, walks in both worlds, having grown up in the mining culture while having worked most recently as chief of staff to the mayor of Minneapolis. He rejects things like boycotts of Bent Paddle beer as unhelpful and doesn’t necessarily see a new form of mining as answering the need for good jobs, given the rapid mechanization that’s occurring in the industry. “Thirty-five years ago, we had roughly fourteen and a half thousand ironworkers producing 40 million tons of iron ore,” he said. “Then thirty-five years later, we have four and a half thousand ironworkers producing the same amount of ore. Technology and mechanization are displacing those jobs.”
And it isn’t just mining, he notes. “The same thing is happening on farms and in factories and in the checkout aisle of the grocery store,” he said.
That transition is creating tremendous economic angst for those who work in primary industries, and Radinovich believes that Donald Trump was able to channel that discontent, to make the inroads that he did in the Eighth District. To a large extent, says Radinovich, the copper-nickel debate is really a stand-in issue for the economic anxiety being felt by workers in primary industries as the economy undergoes what many analysts believe is a transition far more profound for working people than the Industrial Revolution.
The question is, how do we as a society address those legitimate concerns? Radinovich said getting back to a focus on the primary issues that have long motivated Democrats is an answer to the economic challenge, which will ultimately resolve the political divide. “What unites Democrats and our coalition is our investments in education, health care, and protecting Social Security and Medicare,” he said. Radinovich believes that if we can ensure that people have basic security, in terms of their housing, food, public safety, and health care, they’ll be better able to take advantage of the economic changes and new opportunities that he sees as inevitable.
“We need to talk more about the real problem,” he said. “These changes are happening no matter what we want to do about it.”
Radinovich’s analysis is familiar to those who oppose copper-nickel development since they, too, have argued that the actual job creation from new mines is likely to be underwhelming at best. In that sense, Radinovich is speaking a language that opponents of copper-nickel can hear and understand.
Radinovich talks to copper-nickel supporters, however, by using an industry talking point that appropriates the “think globally, act locally” sentiments expressed for years by progressively-minded environmentalists.
Radinovich says the new economy, particularly the new, greener energy economy, will take additional resources to build, and that it matters where the material is sourced. “If we need copper-nickel, and other minerals in the future, how do we do it?” he asked. “It isn’t really so much about jobs. It’s about sourcing for the materials we need in the 21st century,” he said.
At a candidates’ forum in March, Radinovich cited the maltreatment of mineworkers elsewhere in the world, particularly in Africa, where child labor is often deployed in the mines.
It’s a sentiment that tugs at progressive heartstrings, even as it suggests an outcome that is entirely unrealistic. Let’s be clear— new mining in northeastern Minnesota will have absolutely no effect on labor or environmental practices at mines elsewhere. Mining companies care only about profit and they’ll continue to mine first wherever it’s the cheapest to do so.
Starting new copper-nickel mines in Minnesota won’t raise the labor or environmental standards in other countries. The globalization of the production and distribution of basic commodities has put exactly the opposite pressure on the industry and affiliated states and countries, having led, instead, to the weakening of environmental and labor standards as governments try to maintain competitiveness with lower-cost countries. There’s a reason the Minnesota Legislature is constantly seeking to weaken or prevent enforcement of the state’s pollution standards.
Radinovich is hoping to thread the needle on this issue. What is uncertain is how effectively any candidate can achieve that task given the pretty stark divide, and given other candidates who have staked out clearer pro- and anti-copper-nickel positions. Radinovich is an impressive candidate to be sure. He’s young, articulate, politically savvy, and having served as Nolan’s campaign chair last time, he is undoubtedly well-connected in the Eighth District. He’s raised considerable funding, second on the DFL side only to Jason Metsa, who has the backing of the mining industry.
The key question for many DFLers, particularly on the anti-copper-nickel side of the divide, will be whether to back former news anchor Michelle Lee, who opposes copper-nickel development, but whose initial roll-out has been a little rocky, or Radinovich. The fourth candidate in the race, Kirsten Kennedy Hagen, hasn’t gotten much traction.
Radinovich can at least feel confident that others have been successful in the district with his current position on copper-nickel, namely that it should be up to the established process to decide. That’s the same position that Nolan held for years and it seemed to satisfy most DFLers.
It was only once Nolan started backing legislation to override those processes and stack the deck in favor of the industry, that he lost a significant contingent of DFL support and sparked the endorsement challenge of Leah Phifer.
Whether Radinovich can reassemble Nolan’s fractured coalition remains to be seen. But he may well be the only candidate in the race who can.