Will the real progressive in the 64B race stand up?

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Being a progressive means a courageous informed stand for issues and values. Yet lately, I have heard it used like the Jesus label. Progressive is not a brand that you claim by giving yourself the name. It is an act of being. Progressive is speaking out for an issue, it is persuading others. Above all it is leadership.

In the safely Democratic 64B district, does it mean anything to claim to be progressive? No, not really. All the candidates claim to be progressive, to love the neighborhood, to support education, to support gun control, to support minimum wage, to respect the DFL endorsement and to support all things Democratically Apple Pie. Where is the courage in the safe issues?

Courage was found in the last question of the day, asked by a gentleman in the back row – Where do you stand on Polymet? Only one candidate said the she would actually vote against it – Greta Bergstrom. The rest of the candidates said that they were “very concerned”, mealy words that were actually no commitment. Perhaps they meant to sound stronger, but when the bright light of a public forum presented itself, they showed a lack of fortitude. Some said they were opposed, but the words they used did not sound like that meant a vote-no commitment.

This is the way that I would have said it, in the allowed four sentences:

Polymet’s sulfide mining proposal is offering 350 LOW PAYING jobs for over 500 years of water containment issues that threaten our water supply. The range as well as the rest of the state needs 350 LIVEABLE wage jobs. I will work and vote to attract 350 LIVEABLE wage jobs with proposals that do NOT threaten our water supply or our environmental health. I will vote NO on Polymet’s sulfide mining proposal and YES to green industry.

When I see progressive leadership, I see Tim Waltz changing the minds of an auditorium of questioning people to a more progressive understanding. I see Mark Dayton saying that he will not over-commit. I see Rebecca Otto, the state auditor, not backing the leases recently granted for nonferrous mineral exploration. Where is the leadership in being “very concerned” in front of a very safe audience?

At the local senate meeting, all the candidates for 64B were given the opportunity to speak briefly at the Senate District 64 meeting. Then there were lighting-round questions where each candidate was supposed to answer a question in four sentences.

Greta Bergstrom’s answer to the Polymet question was that we should not be trading 300 to 350 jobs for more than 500 years of damage. She said that we can find better ways of creating the same number of jobs. Now she did mince by saying the word “probably”. However, she was the only person who talked about voting “no” which is stronger than mere opposition. This answer showed understanding, conviction and courage. I still wanted a stronger commitment.

The other answers:

Melanie McMahon said she would have to study up on it more, but she generally was against anything will have long term damage. This is the second time that I have heard this answer. My reaction is to want to say, “Come back to being a candidate once you have done your homework. Here is the most important environmental issue that this state is facing and you can’t bothered to be informed or have an opinion.”

Matt Freeman said “very high threshold” and “looking forward”. Those were very nice marketing words that displayed no commitment. There was no description or persuasion on the problem. In fact his use of the word “open” tended to make me believe that he would vote for it.

Matthew Bergeron demonstrated some understanding in talking of the labor concerns and the 300-400 years of water treatment (which is actually over 500 years). He was “not comfortable”. The “not comfortable” is far away from leading the charge. Does “not comfortable” mean you that you will shift uncomfortably in your seat when you vote yes? Just asking because “not comfortable” sounds far away from “vote no”.

Dave Pinto had my highest expectations because he prosecutes sex trafficking cases. He knew about the over 500 years in cleanup. He made a good point that 500 years was a long time. However, the commitment was “concerned and wary”. My gosh, those are the words I would use for crossing the street. Are those the words you ask for a conviction in court? I was so underwhelmed, probably because I had high expectations.

Beth Fraizer is also well recommended, so I could not wait to hear what she had to say. She “shared concerns” about the hundreds of years of damage. Those “shared concerns” sound like a few tough questions, not a “no” vote. A similar answer was reported in an interview on this blog:

“Potential environmental impacts concern me,” Fraser explained. “I can’t imagine supporting the proposals I’ve heard about.”

“But as a leader, I can’t just say ‘no’ to them,” she said. “We have to figure out how to support them with jobs and economic development that doesn’t do the environmental damage that mining does.”

The statement “I can’t imagine supporting the proposals I’ve heard about.” still does not sound like a commitment to vote no. There is no promise here. If you heard the answer to “Will you support the endorsement?” as “I can’t imagine opposing the endorsement” then you would hear many derisive comments in the audience. This is far from leadership, it is not even a strong commitment.

Gloria Zaiger said that she had a tough time adding to what was already said. She talked of jobs and hurting tourism. Her website speaks of opposition. It was the second best answer but it was still rather apologetic.

Just to be fair, I am including Tim Nelson’s summary of this question. Tim was looking for fun newsy bits, while I was looking for the commitment words. That means that we focused on different phrases. Here is Tim’s summary:

The question and answer afterward had a couple interesting points. All were asked about the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine proposed for northern Minnesota. None expressed any real support.

“I want to make sure we don’t do any environmental damage we can’t undo,” said McMahon.

Bergstrom questioned whether 300 jobs was worth potentially centuries of cleanup: “I don’t see a reason to vote for that,” she said.

Freeman said he was open to it, “but for me, the threshold would be very high to move forward.”

Bergeron called the employment “tempting,” but added that “there are a lot of things that would have to be worked out before I’d be comfortable supporting it.”

Pinto said he was concerned about the potential lengthy environmental cleanup, noting that 500 years of potential water treatment was daunting: “Think about what happened 500 years ago,” he said, by comparison.

Fraser said she thinks the state needs to find something else to revitalize the Iron Range. “I want to find other economic options,” she said. “How can we find alternatives.”

Zaiger was outright against it. “I sympathize with the need for jobs, but there hasn’t been enough research, and I am right now opposed,” she said.

Let’s see if we can make this question clearer:

A company wants to poison our water supply, creating high costs of water purification for everyone, creating health issues for everyone who can’t drink expensive purified water and driving out local businesses like brewing who depend on good quality water, all for 350 low paying jobs. Are you going to vote yes or no?

Does merely being “very concerned” cut it? It seems to me that a very concerned person could still vote yes. One can be “very concerned” about many issues and still vote for them. Look at our political representatives who were “very concerned” about war and torture who still voted for war and torture. All of the political representatives who are opposed to war and torture still voted for war and torture.

In fact, any conditions put on a commitment are signaling that the candidate is already looking for a way out to vote “yes”. Afterwards, they can say they had these conditions. If someone is already signalling compromise, what chance is there? Remember Obama started with a compromise position and then gave away much more. A compromise could look like the company goes ahead and then we get to sue them for 3 times the damage. Never mind that they were planning on bankrupting the minor holding company after 10 years no matter what.

Some political decisions can be undone or mended after the fact. An example of fix-it-later is the changes in driving speed. However decisions that change the quality of the whole state’s water supply cannot be undone. It is a decision like jumping off a cliff. If we don’t have strong commitment and leadership from a safe DFL seat to say no to Polymet, then we are doomed. Where is the progressive leadership to do this?