Sunday, August 30, 2009 By Aaron Brown
The Beatles behind us
By Aaron J. Brown
On Sept. 9, 2009, the complete audio catalogue of The Beatles will be re-released with digitally re-mastered sound. It’s another bucket of water in what has been a wave of recent nostalgia for the 1960s. This wave will not end until my largely inept Gen X/Gen Y boomlet generation manages to wrestle the remote control from the cold dead hands of the Baby Boomers. I am not optimistic. My people tend to emerge in public discourse only briefly, electing Barack Obama and then scurrying into the woods to mate.
The Beatles need not the praise of a regional writer from a mining town in one of the “M” states. This British rock band was a cultural force that shaped modern music trends and, with Hibbing’s hometown boy Bob Dylan, provided the soundtrack for a generation. Recently I listened to audio of their U.S. debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on my iPod. You’ve probably seen or heard what I’m talking about: young girls shrieking, weeping, cavorting and swooning all at the same time. Yes, today’s young girls also shriek at popular bands on TV or their tiny phones, but it seems increasingly likely that the objects of that shrieking are so large in number and short in shelf life that the swooning more closely resembles a bout of heartburn. Once it passes, they move on and so do we all.
In their time The Beatles so dominated the charts that even critics of their music had to acknowledge their effects on the industry and culture. Their popularity endures today, so much that knockoff groups still emerge four decades later. Even in the 21st century bands with more than or less than four members seem weird, don’t they? Well, that’s all worth mentioning but not what I’m here to talk about. It’s possible that all this nostalgia is not fully directed at The Beatles, their groundbreaking music and tumultuous era, but rather at the last time when the something like The Beatles could actually exist.
In today’s music industry more and more bands and singers are flooding the market, pouring through MySpace, Facebook and iTunes looking for a break, finding fewer outlets all run by fewer, but vastly more powerful people. Great examples of new music come out all the time, some become popular but none ever reach the stratosphere. In 2000, an album of Beatles #1 hits heard every day on the radio crushed a highly anticipated Garth Brooks country album like a cheap, overwrought cowboy hat. Even friends in low places have failed to vault the full framed Brooks past the Beatles in total record sales in the United States and, with the upcoming re-release of the refined Beatles albums, that’s probably how it’s going to stay.
There’s nothing as depressing as an unbreakable record, the sense that greatness stands behind us and all else is shadows. Maybe I just say that because I live on Minnesota’s Iron Range, where the past may never be released from our grip. Remember the ‘20s? ‘40s? Remember the ‘70s? Yeah, those were the days. Consider today’s wistful longing over The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Woodstock, Walter Cronkite, the Kennedy political dynasty, the mob, traditional family life and brightly colored, deeply impractical pants. These things do not represent infallible institutions, but rather they tell of a time when Americans and many around the world shared a story, even if they didn’t all agree with it. In our country today every shriek is followed by a loud boo and nothing is truly special, or sacred, even though we are all taught that everything is.
We are in the wilderness. We might be here a while. At least I’ve got the White Album to keep me company.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com or in his recent book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”
Friday, August 28, 2009 By Aaron Brown
Tune in between 10 a.m. and noon on 91.7 FM in northern Minnesota or streaming live all over the world at www.kaxe.org. If you miss the show you can listen to the archives at the station's website.
Monday, August 24, 2009 By Aaron Brown
Remember the good new days
By Aaron J. Brown
I’m still not old, but “young” is now a highly contextual adjective. I get carded less, but some. I still have hair but it’s slowly changing color, tracking toward the shock white foretold by my genes. As time passes I am beginning to appreciate all the cool things that human beings can do but that I can’t and probably never will.
Hold your retort. I know that effort and positive thinking can lead to great accomplishments. Nevertheless, I will never be a good dancer or a dynamic singer. Another skill that will probably elude me is the ability to memorize and recite verse in a charming and/or strategic ways. You know what I mean. This is the person who can drop a bible verse like a grenade, who can cite Keats in a way that makes girls and tweedy professors melt at equal speeds. All of this belongs to savants and a previous generation.
Most people had to memorize a poem, song or some kind of literary whatnot during their education. In school a portion of one’s brain is reserved for the rotating churn of information needed to pass tests, escape Sunday school or achieve rank in the Boy or Girl Scouts. Vast amounts of that information is purged like a bad taco later, which is why according to a recent Research 2000 poll, 26 percent of Americans today deny the scientifically proven existence of the prehistoric continent of Pangaea, while another 32 percent weren’t sure. This is one of the down sides of the “good new days.”
We all know that in the good old days young people were schooled, literally, in the art of memorizing great works. Which great works? All of them. The ones deemed important by the teachers, anyway. Students recited the classics (whatever that means) and quoted the oracles (whoever they were) and then they worked at jobs and had babies like everyone else since the dawn of time. This was considered education then, and it was, and it was great. And I can’t compete.
I’m one of those misfits on the border between Generations X and Y. On the Iron Range the description is even easier: Punk. I don’t know Keats. I’ve read Shakespeare but can’t quote him. I can’t recite any poem at all, except that I know there are good poems out there for me to read and that I have read them in the past and could read them at any time in the future. On demand.
I’ve heard tell of a debate among historians whether human nature is constant or changing because of our modern media environment. I think humans are pretty much the same. The difference comes in how many stimuli bombard our minds at any given time. There was a period in history, a long one, where memorized poetry and prose was, in fact, not just a virtue but a pastime. If you didn’t like drinkin’ and shootin’ (or stabbin’), perhaps poetry would have been your thing. You could learn the great works and enjoy a sense of superiority in the world you created.
Times have changed. Today memorization is devalued and the Internet is to blame. The Internet provides boundless information upon request. You don’t have to dig through your closet, or the library or even the ancient ruins of an underground pirate shipwreck to read the “great works.” Frequently I’ve found myself writing something, remembering something I read long ago, and quoting the source material not from memory but from a 20 second Google search.
Studies have suggested that the future may not involve the memorization of the classics, but rather the education in how humans can use the entirety of all the great works posted online as a form of knowledge. After all, why commit something to memory when 100 times as many things are readily available upon request? All I am left with is a question. When my parents ran a business that transported senior citizens with dementia to their clinic appointments my dad told me a story. An old man riding in the back suddenly started reciting a poem. After completing his reading he paused, and then said “I haven’t thought of that poem since I read it in class 60 years ago."
My only fear is that when I reach that age all I’ll remember is a Facebook status update. “OMG, I love cheese.”
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him and read more at MinnesotaBrown.com. His recent book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is out now.
Sunday, August 23, 2009 By Aaron Brown
It's been a challenge not posting about various items that have cropped up in Iron Range media over the past month. I will store them up and release them at some point in the future in a long piece of passive aggressive fiction and/or commentary. One item I can't help but link to is this Graeme Wood story for The Atlantic about his visit to Hibbing on a quest to find the origins of Bob Dylan's unique accent. It's a well written, playful piece that works whether you like or hate Dylan (or Hibbing). It's amazing to me how 50 years after the guy left town he still inspires such passionate opinions from his classmates.
Though I have been blogging less I have been writing plenty. The column and radio essays have continued and I've made progress on my first novel, which I hope to finish in 2010. My work as a community college teacher has ramped up this week with the first day of class tomorrow. And I am in the planning stages for some very exciting social media and viral internet campaigns, including one for the holiday season sales of my 2008 book "Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range." The other is a super awesome secret.
"Overburden," by the way, won the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award for creative nonfiction and got the world's best review this summer from Wilderness News.
Saturday, August 22, 2009 By Aaron Brown
"Between You and Me" is a great show worth a listen any 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday mornings. You can hear today's program on the KAXE archives at www.kaxe.org.
Monday, August 17, 2009 By Aaron Brown
My candidate series is now nearing completion. Previous posts have included Tom Bakk, Paul Thissen, Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza, John Marty, Susan Gaertner and Tom Rukavina. Interviews are being scheduled with Steve Kelley and R.T. Rybak, leaving only Chris Coleman on the list after that. I expect to interview the whole group.
I met Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Minneapolis) at the Nashwauk Dairy Queen as she was touring my home district (Fightin' 3A, covering northern Itasca, Koochiching and Lake of the Woods counties) on April 12, 2009. The irony of a former Minnesota Dairy Princess doing an interview at a Dairy Queen was briefly noted. She had a small cone. I had a Snickers Blizzard which melted before I could eat most of it. But that's not what this is about.
"I have very strong skills for doing the job of governor," said Kelliher. "The job of Speaker of the House means you are an executive, a leader of a staff of 250 with a $25 million budget."
Kelliher quickly stressed specific legislative accomplishments as speaker to justify her candidacy three years after ascending to the speaker's chair with the DFL legislative landslide in 2006. Her top three included the 2020 renewable energy standard (signed by Gov. Pawlenty), the 2008 transportation bill (passed by overriding Gov. Pawlenty with the help of six Republican House members) and the advancement of the Legacy Amendment (the voter approved sales tax increase to fund outdoors and culture initiatives).
These three different accomplishments all involved bipartisanship, fervent negotiations and hard won victories, she said, examples of how she would approach the job of governor.
"These are statewide accomplishments that took earning the support of allies and the respect of foes," said Kelliher. "We need a governor who's going to be respectful of people, a leader people want to follow."
That's all the more important these days, she said.
"We are in a time of change, change in our economy and in our government," said Kelliher. "We need to be able to show people that another dollar spent means we're going to move the meter of expectations up too. ... We still have the ingredients to, as I learned in 4-H, 'make the best better,' but it will take time and a lot of hard work."
Hard work is something that resonates with Kelliher, who grew up the youngest of six on a dairy farm in southern Minnesota before becoming the Minneapolis state representative she is today.
"I've lived half my life in rural Minnesota and half in urban Minnesota," said Kelliher. She told the story of growing up in the 1980s, when family farms were failing amid spiking interest rates, falling prices and economic collapse. She said at the time she could feel a connection between what was happening there and what was happening up north on the Iron Range, where a similar situation in the mining industry was stratifying Greater Minnesota from the metro area.
She described a moment with her father at dinner one night. Her dad was the classic stoic Scandinavian father, she said, who said goodnight with a handshake.
"I remember in the 1980s, my father pushed his plate away from him and cried at the table," she describes. "He left to go for a drive and I asked my mother what was happening. Fortunately, she was very honest with me."
The farm was overextended with an interest hike on its operations loan, something happening all over farming country at the time. Most people had to sell their family farms. Anderson Kelliher's family managed to get through by scrimping, selling things and eventually divesting itself of the cows. Today her mother still lives on the farm. It's that first hand perspective on how policies and economic trends affect people that shapes her policy priorities today, she said.
"We need economic success throughout the state, an economic blueprint for each region and the state overall that works together," said Kelliher.
Here on the Iron Range, Kelliher remarked on the region's history and contribution to the state's economy and education system through mining revenue. On her visit to the western Iron Range that day Kelliher got a look at the region's mining economy, which is currently operating well below normal but that is showing signs of thawing in recent weeks. Her prescription for the Iron Range includes expanded broadband access in the rural areas, the streamlining of the Minnesota Pollution Control permit process and an educated workforce.
"Education is the base of all of this," said Kelliher, who also complimented early childhood programming in Itasca County for its integration with K-12 curriculum.
Education, said Kelliher, stands as her campaign's focus and her showpiece among the similar policy positions of the other candidates. She draws from her personal experiences with Minnesota's education system.
"My experiences (on the farm in the 1980s) really taught me the importance of a really good public education," said Kelliher. "Not just the education, but the access to activities and specialized programming. There are too many school districts where that's not the case anymore."
Included in that list are several districts that Kelliher saw that day. She met with Nashwauk-Keewatin school board members who are trying to figure out a way to weather a fiscal storm created by the state funding shortage, a failed operating referendum and declining enrollment. Fundamentally, Kelliher said the primary task of the next governor will be budget stability, likening the current situation -- with its massive deficits and declining revenues -- to a Tilt-o-Whirl ride.
"The hardest thing to do on the Tilt-o-Whirl is to fix your gaze on the horizon," she said. "In our case, that's the future. Doing that, focusing on stability in the future, is the most important thing we can do in Minnesota."
This interview took place on Aug. 12, the day before Kelliher files papers and released news of her impending official announcement. With at least 11 potential candidates vying for the DFL endorsement, primary nomination and the evenutal prize in the general election, strategy takes on even more meaning.
Kelliher is abiding by the June 2010 DFL endorsement and will not run if delegates endorse someone else. If successful in winning the endorsement, she would face a primary field that would include former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, who has announced plans to sidestep the endorsement process, and probably also former State Rep. Matt Entenza, who is seeking the endorsement but has said he would run anyway if others do not honor it. In any event, Kelliher believes she can compete at every level right now.
"I can win the endorsement. I can build a winning campaign. I can win a primary. I can win the general. Many can claim one of those things, I can claim all of them."
Central to that claim is that she raised $7 million for the House DFL caucus as speaker and brings experience in statewide organization that rivals any of her opponents.
"I'm confident in a dairy barn," said Kelliher. "I'm confident in a meeting with school board members. I'm confident in a room full of kids. I'm confident ina board room talking to business leaders. And I'm confident in a hockey arena as the mom of a goalie and defenseman. I'm part of all of these places and that's an important part of the path to victory."
Margaret Anderson Kelliher is currently the "highest ranking" DFL candidate in the race and deserves obvious attention for that. She has a host of other factors working in her favor right now and important hurdles to overcome, but perhaps smaller hurdles than many of her opponents.
First off, nice rollout. Her official papers were filed last Thursday when I know she was participating in a tour of Koochiching County in far northern Minnesota along the Canadian border. She was probably looking at Canada when a massive outflow of Tweets, Facebook invitations, press release e-mails and other information about her candidacy poured to Minnesota's DFL political class. That suggests a highly mobile, functional campaign.
Kelliher is not assured the DFL's endorsement next June. If she underperforms in the caucus and local convention process she might bust at the state convention, but more likely she'll be a strong contender. Here's why. 2010 is going to be very different than 2008. Turnout at caucuses and local conventions will be much lower and much less dominated by new delegates. That's an environment that favors name recognition and a bit more old school political calculation than even 2008. While, as I've mentioned, DFL delegates and later primary voters may seek an "outsider," Kelliher represents something of a go-between among many groups.
Kelliher's initial strength lies in her role as speaker. Though many superdelegates may back other candidates on the first ballot, she represents a logical choice on future ballots because she is essentially a co-worker and known commodity. Her gender will offer some hope to many delegates who hope to break Minnesota's unfortunate streak as a state that has never elected a female governor. Though Susan Gaertner has an equal claim on that mantra, she'll have to survive the first ballot to cash in on it.
While her initial strength might be her speaker's office, Kelliher's connections between a rural upbringing and an urban existence will resonate with many, including the suburbanites who have made the same switch. Kelliher seems to have learned that a good biography, or rather autobiography, is becoming a more and more important part of the identity politics of our day.
Kelliher is probably right that she represents a candidacy that could compete not just for the endorsement, but in a likely primary against Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza as well. (Entenza is, however, aggressively seeking the endorsement and will likely be a factor at the convention). Of all the candidates whole-heartedly honoring the endorsement outcome, Kelliher is among the best positioned to compete against what will likely be the well-funded campaigns of Dayton and Entenza. She is not assured victory in that scenario but could probably raise as much or more money than some of the alternatives.
Kelliher's biggest early challenge will be in assembling committed delegates. The district she represents is in Minneapolis where tough hometown rivals R.T. Rybak and Paul Thissen will compete. St. Paul and the suburbs also have their share of candidates vying for hometown favorites. That means Kelliher (like everyone else, including the dual Iron Range candidacies of Tom Bakk and Tom Rukavina) will have to build up the difference in places like Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud and farm country. What what? Farm country. Kelliher's farm heavy narrative might be more than a charming back story.
Her biggest challenge probably comes in the hypothetical general election. As she faces a yet unknown Republican opponent in a year that will be more akin to 2004 than 2008, she'll have to answer for how Gov. Tim Pawlenty gamed the legislative process so well last year. (I think he was wrong to do so, but he did score political points). If I were picking candidates in a political vacuum it might make sense to go with somebody less associated with the 2009 session who can also raise money and do the job. Any candidate would face attack ads. Kelliher's would be about the failed 2009 session and her status as an insider in DFL politics. Politics, however, abhors a vacuum and Kelliher's connections make her a contender. Like every other year with a contested primary DFLers will just have to figure out the general election when they get there.
As to her style, Margaret Anderson Kelliher is a very skilled one on one communicator. She draws people in with her personal story. About the only criticism I can offer is that she tracks toward platitudes in some policy matters. I haven't seen her give a speech in person yet, but we'll all get to see her do that over the next year. Her and 10 other people. I hope you like speeches.
Summary: With an explosive debut, a powerful position and a compelling story, Margaret Anderson Kelliher is a first tier candidate. The gravitational force she'll fight will be the unpopular conclusion to the 2009 session.
(As we approach the end of this series fans of one candidate or another should know that I plan on a final post that details the potential path to victory for all of the candidates after the conclusion of the interviews).
Sunday, August 16, 2009 By Aaron Brown
Blinded by berries
By Aaron J. Brown
So I’ve been picking raspberries lately. I moved out to the country a few years ago so I guess I should have started this sooner. All the cool rural people pick berries.
Cool takes on a different meaning when you live in the country. In a city, cool means knowing the best restaurants, the hot music spots, the hippest coffee joints and the best place to see “Of Mice and Men” performed as a ballet in the street by reformed gangsters. That’s nice and all, but you can’t make jam. I mean, jam the preserve, not jam the vague term used by people with marginal talent at playing musical instruments. In the country, coolness is knowing the names of birds and the location of berries. Berries are, at their core, free food. Birds know this. Bears know this. People who know this like to point out the retail price for much of what cityfolk buy in the grocery store, or worse yet, the fancy chain grocery store where their fancy children shop.
When I was a kid, my great-grandmother had a patch of berries by her place. I remember running down the rows of raspberries, gorging myself on as many as possible. Then my family sold the lake place with the berries and I spent the rest of my childhood in various swamplands, where the only kind of berries you found had already been digested by something halfway up the food chain. I lived in town for a time after that and then we moved to the country, where nature’s bounty again entered my life.
I’ll admit it’s taken a few years to get into the natural rhythm of the berry world. Our first few years out here we let a lot of berries go unnoticed. Maybe that was a good thing because those unpicked berries turned into a forest of raspberry bushes all over the countryside by our house. The abundance of berries, their red siren colors calling out from along the roadside, is the reason I first started taking a bucket out with the boys when we would go for our walks. Before long the berry picking became more than a ruse, but rather an obsession. After my first day of adult berry picking I noticed something that expert berry pickers say is a very real phenomenon. You know how bright lights burn into your retinas so that you see them even when you close your eyes. Well, after a day of picking, when I would close my eyes I would see berries – big, red, hanging berries dangling just within reach. They were real enough that at night I would feel like reaching for them.
That might be why I have taken up picking with even greater fervor through this raspberry season. While I love the taste of raspberries, my interest is somehow more primal than specifically necessary. I don’t need the berries, I want them. I want them because if the supermarket is overrun by rioters, the way cable news would have us believe, I can always count on the sustenance of berries.
While jogging last week, I scaled a small hill to access a berry patch, not to collect berries but simply to eat them. Eat as many as possible. I was supposed to be exercising. Berries have fiber, I said. That’s a good thing. After consuming some big, red berries I leaped like a tiger to the ground below, twisting my ankle and ultimately hobbling back home.
I have learned much about berries this year and the ways of the woods. Most of all, I have learned respect.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. His book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is out now.
Friday, August 14, 2009 By Aaron Brown
You can hear "Between You and Me" from 10 a.m. to noon on 91.7 KAXE in northern Minnesota or streaming online all over the world at www.kaxe.org. It's a great slice of life show that combines humor, stories and the unique culture of northern Minnesota.
Friday, August 14, 2009 By Aaron Brown
"Anderson Kelliher believes that education is the most impo PUT DOWN YOUR BROTHER PUT HIM DOWN NOW STOP SCREAMING STOP BEING NAUGHTY."
That wouldn't help anyone. Anyway, the Kelliher post is up Monday. We had a good talk and the rollout of her campaign sparked some interesting observations. I hope to finish the other three interviews before the end of August completing the DFL set. You can see the old interviews in the sidebar along the left of this page.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009 By Aaron Brown
Before I get into my conversation with Tom Rukavina, let me disclose that I've known him since I was a 16-year-old campaign worker for the DFL and that he and my family go back a ways, too. (He goes back a ways with everyone's family on the Iron Range). I am maintaining my pledge to remain neutral for the rest of this year but my conversation with Tom was a good deal less formal than my other candidate interviews. We met Aug. 6 at the Sawmill Inn in Virginia, Minn.
"This is a wide open race," said Rukavina. "Anybody has shot at the convention. There are a lot of us running who don't have a million bucks in the bank who need the endorsement and I've got as good a shot as any."
His primary appeal?
"I'm a common man and I always have been," said Rukavina. "I live in the woods, I built my own house and ran my own sawmill. No one defends their constituents as well as I do. Now I want to defend the whole state. I think I can win a statewide election. I can bring back some of the lunch box types who have left and still appeal to the suburbs."
Rukavina, serving his 12th term in the House, has been a teacher, logger and -- as he often mentions -- milk truck driver. He's well aware of his reputation in Minnesota politics, the passionate and sometimes quirky voice of the Iron Range. A core progressive on economic, educational and health care issues, Rukavina has also broken with the DFL on issues related to land use and personal freedoms such as his opposition to the smoking ban and gun control. His Iron Range bonafieds have made him a popular figure in this region, drawing 78 and 80 percent support in his last two elections, one of very few to outperform Jim Oberstar. But at the dawn of his gubernatorial campaign, Rukavina touts his ability to work with the opposition.
"I passed a minimum wage increase when we were in the minority," said Rukavina of his landmark 2005 legislative victory. "I can work with a lot of different people and I'm not going to turn my back on Republicans and independents. They'll be in my cabinet. I'll take advice from both sides of the aisle.
Rukavina describes himself as belonging to the "Farmer Labor" wing of the Democratic Farmer Labor party. Central to his campaign message is an old Farmer Labor Party pamphlet from the 1930s that he's been carrying around lately. The bill lists issues like helping people on relief, the needy and elderly and the phrase "our youth deserve a place in the economic sun." As chair of the House higher education committee Rukavina is well aware of the challenges facing young people in a weak economy.
"Our kids graduating from college today are terrified about the job market," said Rukavina. "I'm not going to be afraid to raise these issues."
With that comes his talk on taxes.
"I'm not going to be ashamed to talk about revenue and taxes (as a solution to the budget problems)," said Rukavina. "This governor is a fraud as far as I'm concerned. He's raised taxes and done a lot of harm along the way."
Rukavina is referring to Pawlenty's adherence to a "no new tax" pledge that held state income taxes while property taxes, fees and other local revenue collections increased by large amounts. His criticism of Gov. Tim Pawlenty is not new. He and Pawlenty have had famous sparring matches since their days together in the House of Representatives. Rukavina believes that Pawlenty's national ambitions caused him to wreak long term havoc on Minnesota's finances for short term political gain.
"I'm not going to praise Sarah Palin for much but at least she stepped down when she set her sights on higher office. I've taken this guy on for years. I've been the voice of the DFL caucus on this issue and I think people appreciate some straight talk in this day and age."
Rukavina, like many of the DFL candidates, believes economic strength is more related to educational quality than tax rates. Rukavina's job creation platform includes some provision for job incentive programs, but is much more focused on higher education as an economic driver.
"We have totally neglected our standing in the United States (on higher education and research) and how higher education has benefited our quality of life," said Rukavina. He cites the possibility of expanding the use of electric vehicles for government agencies and the familiar refrain of using green energy production as a job creator. All of this, he said, comes from the initial research done at places like the U of M, along with predictions about economic trends.
Rukavina cites the University of Minnesota research back in the 1930s and '40s that led to taconite production technology used on the Iron Range since the 1960s. That development saved the region from total detestation.
"Agricultural and mineral research has benefited the whole state and it's important to keep that machine going," said Rukavina.
That's where Rukavina waded into the sometimes controversial waters of new mining initiatives in northern Minnesota. Proposed copper and nickel mining, along with other nonferrous mineral extraction, is key to the state's economy, said Rukavina.
"We need to mine copper and nickel to get the minerals needed for this green economy," said Rukavina, who points out that new technologies increasingly rely upon the minerals at stake in this debate and that mining them here would be more responsible than mining them elsewhere.
Rukavina said his ability to work with the interests of mining companies along with their workers demonstrates his ability to work with the state's business community, despite his pro-union reputation. He said the Iron Range economy is a living example of a close relationship between industry and public officials.
"The Range can be used as an example," said Rukavina. "We've added value to our products. We've made (economic development) mistakes, but we've had successes too. When you add value to a product, whether its corn, soybeans or iron ore, you become competitive."
He further believes that the public incentives for high speed internet connectivity will allow more options for businesses and workers in greater Minnesota, citing the success of the Department of Revenue center in Ely.
"No absenteeism, little turnover," said Rukavina. "Blue Cross and Delta Dental have found the same (on the Iron Range). We need to get more of those kinds of businesses and opportunities to the places that need them.
On his campaign strategy, Rukavina remains mum.
"Why would I tell you my strategy?" he asked, the first of the DFL candidates to reject the premise of the question.
He is adding staff soon, he said, and has been on the phones trying to raise funds. Rukavina believes he'll go to the convention with $250,000, enough to run an effective if economical campaign, he said. He has vowed to abide by the endorsement and will support the endorsed candidate if it's not him.
"I don't have millions, but I have you and you're worth millions; that's what I've been telling people," said Rukavina.
The primary blight on Rukavina's record, a 2004 DUI conviction, remains on his mind and the lips of critics. "I tell people I don't have any skeletons in the closet," said Rukavina. "People already know about them."
Fundamentally, Rukavina hopes that voters and delegates find resonance in his straight-forward style and deeply working class background.
"I know what it is to drive a milk truck or a garbage truck for a living," said Rukavina. "I know how it feels to wake up sick with the flu but you work anyway because no one else will do your job. I've been without health insurance when I had a couple of young kids. People in my district know me well and seem to like me. I'll compare my record with anyone, Democrat or Republican."
Rukavina's strategy can be summarized quite simply: populism. Not just any populism, but rarefied, high-fructose, 80 proof cooked-up-from-a-homemade-still-back-in-the-woods populism. Having grown up around an Iron Range political universe in which the Napoleon-sized Rukavina casts the longest shadow, I can tell you that Rukavina is not acting when he talks about this driving the milk truck and sticking up for regular folks. His claims about constituent services are valid; he does an extraordinary job fixing glitches and opening doors for people who might lack political power or notoriety.
Along the same lines I remain in awe anytime I've been in public with Rukavina. Perhaps unsurprisingly everyone seems to recognize him, but he also seems to know most people he sees, too. Whether on his side or not, Rukavina retains the ability to spar, joke and converse with almost anyone. He knows people's names. He knows their parents' names. He knows their grandparents' names. That, in a nutshell, is Iron Range politics and why, regardless of the 2010 outcome, here he will be regarded as a Range political legend. I get the sense that he's genuinely looking to do more for more people in a higher office.
When I talk to friends about Iron Range politics I often describe Rukavina as a Shakespearean character. On one hand he is a skilled politician with a strong voice who genuinely cares about people. On the other are his tragic flaws: a lack of verbal discipline and a demeanor that often strolls past good natured criticism into what some consider brow beating. Rukavina dismisses that notion, but the sentiment remains among some outside of politics. Just like the Iron Range itself, you've got to know the back story to properly understand Rukavina. Many voters in this state have a woefully inadequate understanding of the Iron Range and will probably begin 2010 with an inadequate understanding of Tom Rukavina as well.
Rukavina seems deeply enthusiastic about this race but is behind his opponents on the organization of his campaign. He's just staffing up now and has yet to establish his exploratory website. It doesn't help that a political opponent of some kind owns the domain tomrukavina.com and is using it against him. Rukavina is correct in working out his finances first, but needs to catch up on the basics very soon.
On the trouble of there being two Iron Rangers in the DFL race -- Rukavina and State. Sen. Tom Bakk -- I agree with Tom (both of them, I guess) that there isn't anything wrong with having more greater Minnesota candidates in the hunt since the field is so overwhelmed with Minneapolis and St. Paul area names.
Remember, there are only about 50 delegates that are officially "Iron Range" in origin. Even if they split, the eventual endorsee will need to do well elsewhere anyway. In some ways, the ability to close the deal interpersonally next June in Duluth might be what puts the eventual winner over the top. I actually have no idea if this is good or bad for Tom Rukavina.
A year is a long time in politics That's the cliche, anyway. If I had to take any kind of guess at the 2010 political climate I'd predict an angry electorate. Democratic interests like progressives and labor will be either disappointed or riled up about shortcomings in the federal health care bill. We've already seen the deep anger bubbling up on the Republican side with the coordinated disruptions of town hall meetings and just a general sense of fury on Fox News and talk radio. An improving economy will ease some of the anger, but not all of it. Something about this year's governor campaign reminds of me of an edgier, darker, less predictable 1998. That was the year we elected ex-wrestler and uber-populist Jesse Ventura. Add to this the fact that the GOP also has an open race for its nomination. Additionally, the winner will inherit what might be the worst budget situation in Minnesota history. Rukavina is the closest thing economic progressives have to a street fighter and, under a divine alignment of the stars, he could catch fire in 2010.
Tom Rukavina is the true heir to the Farmer Labor tradition in Minnesota DFL politics. You will not find a more interesting and passionate speaker about issues like the economy, education and health care. He will have very little money and a long row to hoe in winning over delegates from outside the Iron Range. He is a distant long shot, a self-described "wild card," but the rocky, unpredictable political climate of 2010 earns him the official title of "dark horse" in this wide open race.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009 By Aaron Brown
Monday, August 10, 2009 By Aaron Brown
Sunday, August 09, 2009 By Aaron Brown
A legacy of words and dreams
By Aaron J. Brown
I share a unique experience with many, if such a thing is possible. One day a while back I was invited to the home of B.J. and Leona Rolfzen to talk about preparations for Dylan Days that particular year. B.J. Rolfzen as many in Hibbing know, was a longtime English and literature teacher for Hibbing High School and Hibbing Community College.
The visit began with a taste of Leona’s homemade cake and coffee in the kitchen. After a time B.J. and I adjourned to his furnace room office in the basement, to the desk where he graded thousands of papers, essays and tests produced by two generations of Iron Range students. Older and more fatalistic than he was during his teaching days, Rolfzen played a song on his CD player. The tune was “Not Dark Yet” by Bob Dylan.
“I was born here and I'll die here against my will … It's not dark yet, but it's getting there,” sings Dylan.
Dylan, the music legend known in his hometown of Hibbing by his original name Robert Zimmerman, was Rolfzen’s student in 1957 at Hibbing High School. This happenstance of history is why the Google search “Bob Dylan teacher” generates the name B.J. Rolfzen at #1. For decades, Rolfzen and everyone else who knew anything about Dylan’s time in Hibbing was hounded by the national press and fans for interviews. For decades, Rolfzen declined. He didn’t want his comments about a past student to be misconstrued, not for Dylan or any other student. Eventually, as the fullness of Dylan’s impact on American music and writing began to be realized, he agreed to talk to reporters and fans.
Always referring to Dylan as “Robert,” Rolfzen described the misunderstood Hibbing boy who showed an unusual interest in literature to dozens of writers and hundreds of fans. He didn’t do so for money or his own fame, but to acknowledge the power of great literature to propel anyone to fame and to recognize the talent of a student for whom he still felt pride. More than anything involving Dylan, Rolfzen enveloped the conversation in talk of poetry.
This talk in B.J. basement will always be a special memory for me but it is made, perhaps ironically, somehow more special by the fact that countless others – writers, Dylan fans, and former students enjoyed a similar experience with Rolfzen. The stories are perhaps not identical, but always focused on sharing a life lesson (with poetry) with any person who wandered to his doorstep.
Just over a week ago Rolfzen passed away at the age of 86. His well-attended funeral was held last Saturday. The speakers at the funeral and Dan Bergan’s fine column in this paper last week all properly expressed the way many who knew B.J. felt about his loss, his inspiration to others and his impact on local education.
Looking back it can safely be said that Rolfzen was the right man to be teaching English on the Iron Range during the years he taught. Not just because he happened to catch a young Bobby Zimmerman in his class and open his mind to the power of words and poetry, but because he did so for all Iron Rangers regardless of who they were or where they were from.
I spoke with another of Rolfzen’s students, State Rep. Tom Anzelc, who represents eastern and northern Itasca County. “Genteel” and “polite, almost to a fault” were his initial words.
“He always saw the potential in all the students from the locations, the working class kids, and the ability of the arts and the written word to change their lives,” said Anzelc. “Beyond the confines of Hibbing Junior College one would never have expected to meet a teacher like B.J. Rolfzen in Hibbing. He was first class.”
As we watch yet another economic cloud furrow around the Iron Range, just as was the case in the late 1950s, remember that the spirit of the Iron Range has always been augmented by the work of people like B.J. Rolfzen, a good man doing great work to expand the opportunities and understanding of men and women of all means. His loss will be felt deeply by many. The need to continue his work is tantamount. To quote one of B.J.’s favorite William Carlos Williams poems: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more or contact him at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. His book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” recently won this year’s Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.
Saturday, August 08, 2009 By Aaron Brown
Thursday, August 06, 2009 By Aaron Brown
First up is a conversation with legendary Iron Range lawmaker Tom Rukavina whose recent exploratory entry into the race poses a major wild card at the DFL convention. I have a hard time hiding my personal sympathies toward Rukavina as I have worked on his campaigns since I was a kid, but I'll try. We meet today.
After that, I am close to securing an interview with House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher during her visit to the Iron Range next week. Kelliher's campaign is drawing early preliminary support and will be a force to reckon with. I know a lot of people who'll be with her, too. What a world, what a world.
After these interviews, by my count, I'll only have three or four more to complete the series. There better be a toaster or free pizza on the other side of this mountain.
Sunday, August 02, 2009 By Aaron Brown
The long fade
By Aaron J. Brown
There’s a moment during any popular song in which the singer, songwriter and/or producer essentially agree upon the following : 1) This song is pretty much done, but that 2) This song must not yet end. Bruce Springsteen did a lot of songs like this, as have most of your garden variety gansta’ rappers. We’ve been introduced to the tune, the tempo, the refrain. We can sing the chorus. We’ve lamented the woeful fortunes of the New Jersey working class and/or popped a cap in what or whoever needs poppin,’ respectively. And yet, the beat still thumps, the band didn’t get the memo and the lead singer is left saying either “uh, huh” or “hey, baby” over and over again, as though it were planned.
I have come to the bitter conclusion that many of the same truths now apply to summer. For a Minnesotan who may have been accidentally frozen in a block of ice last January and thawed today, the experience would be similar to catching the last 40 seconds of “Dancing in the Dark.”
Some disclaimers here. I live here year round and I work in the education field. These factors mean that summer as a season is a highly limited commodity. You get a specific number of weeks before the workload spikes and the temperatures drop. Summer is what many residents look forward to all year long, which means that we sometimes experience a strange combination of performance anxiety and sensory overload when the warm days finally arrive.
And then there are summers like this one in northern Minnesota, where the warm days are few and far between. Our Alaska friends who spend their summers here have been complaining because they would have been warmer hanging out with the caribou. It reminds me of some of the cold, wet Minnesota summers of yesteryear, where there were few opportunities for swimming, playing outside or riding my bike. (I was about to tell you the years, but then I decided to save those details for a time in the future when most people were not yet alive to see them).
But one thing has remained the same about this summer compared to any year in memory. It has gone too fast. It’s another application of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. What you want to last won’t, what you want to leave remains. Come to think of it, that could also qualify as a “Theory of Relatives.” Anyway, summer is supposed to be the island of refuge for Minnesotans, the justification for our choice to live here instead of Arizona, California or Florida. These are the places for our classmates, our siblings and our neighbors who are weaker than us. Weak, weak people who cannot stand the winters anymore, or the economy, or our Charlie Brown professional sports teams. We who remain, we are strong, but oh how we need a good summer to get us through the year.
Summer is a time for projects but we have now passed the tipping point where only weekend jobs enjoy any hope of completion. If you haven’t started digging that elaborate underground bomb shelter or building that 32:1 replica of Devil’s Tower that’s been on your mind ever since you saw those lights in the sky, well, you might have to wait a year.
Indeed the song of this summer is winding down. The docks are already out on the water. The kids have been swimming and we’ve consumed a watermelon or two. The Fourth of July was a blast and we saw those old friends of ours at the street dance. Or were those drifters? Either way, it was fun. This week we took in the county fair and the back to school ads in the paper and on TV are getting louder and more insistent. There is more summer, but not much more. The music is getting quiet and the voices are getting louder.
Hey, baby. Uh, huh. Yeah. Uh, huh.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. His new book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is out now.