Meet Senator Tom Bakk - DFL Candidate for Senate 3 in Lake, Cook, St. Louis, & Koochiching Counties
*We are continuing our Meet the Candidates conversations for the 2020 election, which ends on November 3rd. We recently talked with Senator Tom Bakk (DFL) from Minnesota Senate District 3 who is running for reelection. He is running against Chris Hogan (R). You can hear our interview with him here.
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*KAXE/KBXE News and Public Affairs Director Heidi Holtan recently spoke with Senator Tom Bakk. The following transcript has been edited for clarity. The audio of this interview is available at the top of this page.
(Heidi Holtan) Q: Senator Tom Baak is the DFL candidate for Senate District 3. The district includes Lake, Cook, St. Louis, and Koochiching counties, towns like Cook and Ely International Falls, Grand Marais, and Two Harbors. Senator Bakk, thanks for being with us today.
(Senator Tom Bakk) A: I'm happy to be on with you. Don't forget Hermantown, Proctor, and those townships on the north side of Duluth.
Q: I should quiz you to name all the towns! That would be almost impossible, wouldn't it?
A: What's interesting about that, is you get down here in the Twin Cities for a session, and most legislators only have one school board. They share a set of county commissioners. They might only have a couple of cities. And you get to us rural areas, and we might have seven or eight school boards, and four sets of county commissioners that are all yours, not someone else's. So it's much, much different. We really depend on local government officials for input, because those districts are so big.
Q: So why are you running for reelection?
A: Well, I probably could have retired. I'm 66 now. A lot of people keep working because they're not eligible for Medicare, but I am. But I think the principal reason that I decided to seek another term, is because this next legislature will draw the redistricting boundaries; the lines that we'll live with for the next decade. I think I have enough influence and seniority, tenure in the Senate to have a pretty good impact on what those lines look like. And I just want to make sure that rural Minnesota doesn't get short-sheeted in this redistricting plan. You know, we have a metropolitan legislature now. It happened just a couple of election cycles ago, where there are more metropolitan members than there are rural ones now, as the state's population shifts to what used to be called the 7-County metropolitan area.
Now you often refer to it as the 12-County metro area. Some people say 13-County Metro area as it expands out into the suburbs. So, who draws the lines and how rural Minnesota is impacted [depends on] who gets paired up. And that's very, very important. I think most people probably aren't aware of that.
In addition to the legislative boundaries, we draw the congressional boundaries also. So we'll draw the 8th [US] Congressional District. In the event that, when the census comes out, our population hasn't grown enough, we may actually have seven congressional districts, not eight. So that makes rural influence very, very important as we shrink the number of members we send to [the US] Congress, which could very well happen in this census cycle.
The politically correct thing is to probably say I got grandkids, and I want to make sure we fund education, and do what we can to make sure everybody has health insurance. All that's really, really important, but how we're treated for the next decade by the legislature in St. Paul is somewhat dependent on what these legislative districts look like.
Q: So, I'm hearing that you recommend everyone fills out their census. There is still time.
A: Absolutely, it's very, very important. It affects the funding that our state and counties get from Washington DC. [That's] based on the census. It's very important when it comes to funding from the federal government for transportation and other programs.
Q: So you mentioned this rural/urban divide, but there's also - in the last legislative session and the special sessions that are happening - a divide between the parties, especially when it comes to Governor Walz and his executive powers. What's your take on that? How has it been to be down there during this?
A: Well, we spend some of our time at home, and conduct business and committee meetings through Zoom meetings, which is very difficult. I think Governor Walz's intentions were good at the beginning, with shutting the state down and trying to get a handle on this pandemic. We did not have the infrastructure in place, the ventilators, all the protective equipment that we needed in Minnesota. So to slow the spread of it all, he decided to close everything.
Now in hindsight...and I actually, on the floor of the Senate, got up in one of the last in-person sessions that we had in March and said, "There'll be plenty of time to criticize the governor with hindsight, but right now let's just all follow the recommendations of the CDC and the Department of Health." And I still feel - to the extent people can follow those recommendations: no large gatherings, social distancing, wear a mask - we will just get out of this pandemic earlier and get some of the normalcy of our lives back. Whether it's going to church, going to sporting events together, having our restaurants at full capacity, having our businesses operating at full capacity...that's just not going to happen until we get our arms around this pandemic.
So I know it's uncomfortable, but I just encourage everybody to participate in following those recommendations. But like I say, in hindsight, I think Governor Walz probably... Had we had known that the modeling was way off and how fast it was going to spread - we had modeling from the University of Minnesota; what they expected would happen - now that we know that model was so far off, it clearly should not have been a one-size-fits-all. Small, rural main streets probably could have stayed open without endangering the public. But we didn't know that at the time.
So the benefit of hindsight is a valuable thing to have, I guess. Not that we're going to go through something like this again, but, you know, I've been frustrated with the emergency orders also. I have, every special session, made a decision to vote to support the governor's use of executive powers. Forty-nine governors have that, or some version of that, so that you can respond immediately to hotspots and things when they come up. So I do think that's still important. I'm anxious for the legislature to get back into session, because then there won't be a need for emergency powers any longer. And I wouldn't support the use of emergency powers once the legislature is back in session because the legislature can act pretty quickly when people are actually in St. Paul in and around the Capitol.
Q: That's Senator Tom Bakk. He is running for reelection for Senate District 3. Let's talk about the mining industry, where we're at right now. What are your hopes for the future in your district?
A: We're producing about 40 million tons of taconite pellets a year. I think we're at probably 39, something like that right now. That's pretty consistently what we've been doing, going back even into the 1970s. So we're producing about the same amount of taconite pellets that make virgin iron in our blast furnaces as we have for decades. Unfortunately, automation, bigger equipment, technology changes have allowed the companies to be able to produce those pellets with fewer workers. And that's kind of true across the entire economy, as things become more automated.
I don't know for sure what the acquisition of ArcelorMittal by Cleveland Cliffs is going to mean for the Range. You know, we're going to be back down to two companies. US Steel and Cleveland Cliffs will be the only real mining companies we have left on the Range. I haven't met with Cliffs yet, to know what their plans are.
We were hopeful that they'd have some interest in pursuing the Nashwauk site that Essar India started to develop, and that project kind of fell apart for lack of financing. But Cliffs owns a big chunk of mineral rights, right alongside that Essar project. I think it's a natural for Cliffs to pursue developing that property. It'll be interesting to see what happens. At some point, the state's gotta make a decision. If we just continue to extend the state mineral leases on that Essar site, or not, or are we going to assign them to somebody else? The law says the mineral leases should be assigned to the company most likely to develop the resource. And unless Mesaba Metallics, at some point here, can show us that they've got a financing plan and have a real progress, I don't know that it's in the best interest of the state to continue to let them hang onto those leases, when it could be somebody like Cliffs is more likely to develop the resource and create the jobs associated with it.
Of course, we've been talking about copper-nickel mining since I was a kid. And I think back in like '76, we actually thought it was going to happen. There was a project called Amax over by Babbitt, and then it didn't happen. But there's a number of companies exploring. We have a gigantic deposit of non-ferrous minerals, things like copper, nickel, platinum gold, silver, cobalt, palladium in our rock in northern Minnesota - the largest undeveloped reserve in North America - and one of the largest in the world. And the reason it hasn't been developed is, it's relatively low concentration.
And there are other places around the world that have higher concentration, so there's not as much waste. Polymet is the first company to enter the permitting process. They have all their permits. Those permits have been challenged by some people that don't want to see mining continue in northern Minnesota. So they're at the Supreme Court right now. The state is defending it's permitting. I think Polymet and the state of Minnesota will prevail against the people who are anti-mining. I'm hopeful that by this time next year we'll actually be under construction there. That would be a major diversification of the Iron Range's economy to get into a whole other product line of minerals. So I'm pretty hopeful. The Twin Metals project - that's the one that you hear a lot about - just submitted a mine plan almost a year ago; eight months ago, maybe; that is maybe a decade away or more from happening.
There is a great amount of work that goes into the modeling for the Environmental Impact Statement. It's going to take a long time, and that's okay. You know, we have to make sure that when we authorize new mining projects, that we don't do any damage to the watersheds. So making sure that these projects can be done in a sensitive way to the environment is critically important. You don't want to miss anything in the environmental review process, but Polymet has been through all of that; 15 years of it. Their project is open pit. The Twin Metals project is actually an underground mine. So there's very little surface disturbance. Probably about half of the waste is going to be put back underground. That's where it came from, that's how underground mining is done. But there's a lot of inference from around the world.
These mining companies these days are global endeavors. I think we're going to get into the next generation of mining, but it's not going to replace iron ore for a long, long time, because iron ore's an awful big industry. Eighty percent of the ore that goes into new steel comes from Minnesota, and there's about 20% in the country that comes from Michigan. And just so people know what our taconite goes into, it goes to blast furnaces, largely in the lower Great Lakes. It's made into steel there, finished steel. There are no impurities in it because it's brand new steel. What that means is, it can hold a coat of finished paint. The electric arc furnaces that use scrap can't do that. There are impurities that come through the paint.
[When} you're looking out over your windshield, you're looking at Minnesota iron ore, or very likely. [There's an] 80% chance it's Minnesota; 20% chance it's Michigan. A car body, things like appliances, same thing. They've got to hold a finished coat of paint. So that's why you see the Range's economy struggled during the recession. Actually we're the front end of recessions because when consumers decide to delay purchases of a car - delay replacing their appliances - right away the Range slows down because the steel mills know what their order book is, and they start turning off the raw materials coming in. So we're generally on the front end of recessions. And at the back end we're one of the first areas to recover, as the manufacturers order books and crude. So mining is still very, very important. It's the entire region's economy, when you figure the vendors and the mining people that actually work in the facilities. It's around 12,000 jobs or so. So that's pretty significant. They're all jobs to support families,
Q: That is DFL Senator Tom Bakk, running for reelection in Senate District 3. Thank you for your time today. It was good to talk to you.
A: Well, thank you. Have a nice day.