Minnesota's mining debate plays a key role in primary for open house seat


The tug-of-war between mining jobs in the state and environmental concerns took center stage in a primary vote way up in northeast Minnesota.

Koochiching County Commissioner Rob Ecklund won the DFL primary Tuesday night in a race to fill the Minnesota House District 3A seat following Rep. David Dill's death this summer.

The special election for the district – which is the state's largest, spanning 230 miles in northeastern Minnesota – is one of two legislative races going on this fall, and it is being closely watched around the state due to the controversial proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine in the district (more on that below).

Ecklund, of International Falls, secured 43.7 percent of the vote, beating out his competitors: Sawbill Canoe Outfitters owner Bill Hansen (37.39 percent); International Falls businessman Eric Johnson (9.61 percent); and Ely City Councilor Heidi Omerza (9.29 percent), according to the Secretary of State's Office.

“I have to work at the mill tomorrow night, but I hope to get down to the deer shack this weekend with the boys and relax a little,” Ecklund said after winning the race, the Duluth News Tribune reports.

All about copper mining

The big issue for Tuesday's primary was mining – it was framed as a regional referendum on the copper-nickel mine (something Dill was a big supporter of), the Ely Echo reports.

The Star Tribune called it a "symbolic battle as state government decides the fate of the industry by way of the long and rigorous process or regulatory approval."

The choice between Ecklund and Hansen pitted traditional jobs against the environment, the Pioneer Press says. Ecklund has called himself "100 percent pro-mining", the paper notes, while Hansen, an environmentalist, is among the few candidates north of Duluth in recent years who are anti-copper mining, the Duluth News Tribune says.

Johnson and Omerza had also come out in support of mining. The Pioneer Press breaks down how Ecklund came out victorious:

Ecklund, who has the support of Dill's family and labor unions, will go on to face Republican Roger Skraba (the former mayor of Ely and former DFLer) and Independent candidate Kelsey Johnson (a political newcomer and lobbyist) in the special election for the historically Democratic seat.

Skraba has been a vocal supporter of copper mining in the area, while Kelsey Johnson hasn't expressed a firm stance on the topic, the Duluth News Tribune says.

Skraba released a statement following Tuesday night's primary, according to Northland's NewsCenter:

“I want to congratulate Rob Ecklund on winning tonight’s DFL primary. I look forward to contrasting my vision of better paying jobs, safer roads and putting an end to wasteful spending with Ecklund’s vision of bigger government, higher taxes and support of the Minneapolis-based leaders in the DFL."

The winner of the Dec. 8 special election will finish out the rest of Dill's term, which runs through the end of 2016. Dill died of cancer in August.

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