*We are continuing our Meet the Candidates conversations for the November 3rd, 2020 elections. We recently talked with Representative Rob Ecklund (DFL) from Minnesota House District 3A who is running for reelection, you can see his facebook page here.
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*KAXE/KBXE News and Public Affairs Director Heidi Holtan recently spoke with Representative Rob Ecklund. The following transcript has been edited for clarity. The audio of this interview is available at the top of this page.
(Heidi Holtan) Q: Rob Ecklund is the DFL representative for Minnesota House 3A. That includes Koochiching, Lake, and Cook counties, as well as the Bois Forte and Grand Portage Nations. Representative Ecklund, thank you for being with us today. Did I get the the geography correct of your region?
(Rob Ecklund) A: Yeah, I like to say that without my district, District 3A, Minnesota wouldn't have a point, so yeah, you did pretty well.
Q: Why are you running for reelection?
A: Well, I'll tell you, my country and my community have been so good to me, from my time in the military service to working full time at the paper mill in International Falls, raising my family. I'm fortunate, and I just like to work for my community and my district to give back. So that's why I'm running again.
Q: If you had to choose, what are two of the highest priorities you'd be working on for your district, if you're headed back to Saint Paul?
A: My number one priority would be working on broadband. I think with this pandemic going on, distance learning and all the challenges that we faced through this crisis, the number one need that we have for rural Minnesota is expanded broadband. If our children are going to have to learn this way....I would prefer to have in school, if we can safely do it. But I also know that we need to make sure that the staff and the students are safe as well. So, if we're going to have to learn this way, we need to make sure that we provide the tools to our citizens that they need. And it's just like a rural electrification back in the 1940s and 50s. It's no longer a luxury. It's a necessity.
Q: We're hearing a lot in the Grand Rapids area about how real estate is going so quickly that because of the pandemic, people are moving north. They feel it's safer, and they can work remotely, but not everybody can do that. And it's not just in places back in the middle of the woods, either, that don't have broadband, right?
A: Right. There's pockets of major communities in the Twin Cities area that don't have adequate broadband either. So we definitely need to expand that. I'm hopeful that there's going to be some more broadband money in the next CARES Act funding that comes from the federal government, but I will continue to strive for broadband. And then, the second biggest thing is to continue to advocate for the multitude of infrastructure projects that small communities in northeastern Minnesota face. From waterline replacements to sewer main replacements, to mountain bike tracks being introduced...all that kind of stuff. That's important to those communities to help them function. So, those are probably my two main priorities that I would be working on.
Q: As we are speaking today, there was an announcement that Governor Walz has called another special session, and is thought to be announcing another 30 day peacetime emergency. This is like many of the states around our nation that are still under those executive powers of governors. I wonder your thoughts on how the state of Minnesota has handled this pandemic?
A: I look at the numbers every day. I'm thankful to see the last two days that the numbers have been down significantly from what they have been a few prior. I'm hopeful that that's a trend that's going to continue, but I think the governor has done a terrific job overall in managing this peacetime emergency. Hindsight's always 20/20. Are there some things that he could have done different or better? Absolutely. We're all human, but overall I think the governor and his administration have done a terrific job, and I expect that his peacetime emergencies will be extended at least through October, after we're done on Friday.
Q: Tell us a little bit about what it was like being in the legislature during the pandemic. Those infrastructure needs of northeastern Minnesota that you mentioned...were those to be part of a bonding bill that was supposed to be happening last spring, or where is that at?
A: Yeah, that's a great question. That is what I am talking about. It's called capital investment committee for the people that belong to it, but that's my nickname. The commonly known name is bonding, because we sell general obligation bonds to satisfy the debt. It's all kinds of projects. I think there's an arena in Grand Rapids, if I'm not mistaken, that was in the bonding bill and in International Falls, we have an overpass on a county road, and some airport money for the International Falls airport. There's just a lot of good projects that our communities need all across the state that needed to be done, and it's being held up for ridiculous reasons, as far as I'm concerned. Forty-nine of the 50 state's governors have emergency powers, and all the emergency powers started on the same day as President Trump did on March 16th, with their emergency declaration. There's nothing different happening in Minnesota (from what's) happening across the country. So, this fight over peacetime emergency powers, I think, is just a political ploy and, we need to take care of the citizens of the state, number one.
Q: You know, the divided political times that we are in have led to some things that are affecting people and jobs in northeastern Minnesota. I saw you were part of the rally for the Minnesota correctional facility in Togo. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about those types of repercussions, of not being able to do the job of a legislature right now?
A: Well, you know, that could have been done. The House passed the supplemental budget bill, the Senate did not. And if the Senate had passed that supplemental budget bill, it's my understanding that total would not be on the cutting block right now. That was part of the funding and that's something of a project. So, it is politics. For some reason, there's a disagreement between the two bodies on what should go forward. And, unfortunately, the state of Minnesota, citizens of Minnesota, are struggling for it.
Q: We are talking with Representative Rob Ecklund. He's the DFL representative for Minnesota House District 3A, running for reelection. A lot of times you hear jobs versus the environment, especially in northeastern Minnesota. Those things usually shouldn't be pitted against each other. But, what are your thoughts, since you have a background, as you said, in the timber industry and mining...tell us how you approach new things on the range and also keeping the land and water safe.
A: Well, my approach to it is very simple. And, I'll name the names: Polymet and Twin Metals are the two big controversial things right now. And my approach to the both of those projects has been that they are the legal lease holders and mineral rights holders for those projects. They have the legal right to be able to pursue a mining plan. And with that mining plan, they submit it and then it goes through the environmental review process, through all the agencies. And, if they can prove that they can do this project safely, environmentally sound, then it goes forward. But if they cannot pass our rigorous review process that we have in the state of Minnesota, then it shouldn't go forward. And, it's as simple as that. I'm firmly on the side of let science take the role. And let's see if this can be done.
Q: You represent two tribal nations within that district. What are the priorities there? What is your relationship like with tribal governments?
A: I work very hard to build a relationship with both tribal government...Chair Chavers [of the Bois Forte Tribal Council] and I, I think, are becoming very good friends, and the new chair at Grand Portage, Chair Deschampe... He and I have gotten to know each other when he was a County Commissioner, and through my time at the legislature. And I worked very hard to cultivate some friendships on both tribal councils as well. And so I think if you inquired of my relationship from the members of the two bands that they would speak very favorably.
Q: It's been impressive to see the level of transparency when it comes to COVID-19 in schools and protecting elders. I haven't seen as much out of Grand Portage, but out of Bois Forte, they seem like they're working very hard to make sure they're keeping everybody safe.
A: I was at an event there actually. It was called the American Indian Classic, and it's a fundraiser at the golf course at Fortune Bay, and the stuff that they've put in place...there's a fairly large number, but you can really spread out on a golf course. You're not in anybody's way or anything like that. It was a very well done event and masks everywhere. I was very impressed to see how they did that. And we had a lot of fun besides.
Q: That's Representative Rob Ecklund. He is running for reelection to Minnesota House District 3A. You can find more information at robecklund.com. Thanks so much for your time today.
A: Thank you. Have a great day.