As people left the Chalberg Theatre Monday night, July 23, after two hours of debate among five DFLers vying for the 8th Congressional District seat, discussion ensued on whether the event offered clarity on candidate preference.

One man was overheard stating his opinion remained unswayed on which person should take on Republican Pete Stauber on the ballot in November. Two women exiting Central Lakes College in Brainerd together spoke of the choice appearing more difficult following the wide-ranging discussion on unions, farming, tariffs, opioids, student loan debt and health care, among other topics.

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"I thought I knew," one of them said. "But they were all so good."

About 70 people gathered in the theater for the debate sponsored by the DFL executive committees of Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard and Wadena counties, as well as the DFL executive committees of Senate District 5 and the 8th District. Candidates were Kirsten Kennedy, current mayor of North Branch; Michelle Lee, former Duluth television news anchor; Rep. Jason Metsa, current Minnesota House representative from District 6B; Joe Radinovich, former District 10B representative; and Soren Sorensen, a progressive activist from Bemidji.

Moderated by Mike O'Rourke, former associate editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, the debate appeared at times more like a panel discussion among those who mostly agreed with one another on a vast array of issues. President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans were roundly criticized by all, on everything from the so-called trade war with China and allies to farming policy to financial regulations.

Mining: job creator or environmental disaster?

A question probing the candidates' stances on environmental protections versus job creation revealed the starkest difference among the field. It prompted participants to use time set aside for answering the next question-concerning student debt-to expound further on the matter, particularly the proposed copper-nickel sulfide mining in northern Minnesota.

Metsa said environmental stewardship is important to Minnesotans and it's the responsibility of the state's residents to leave it in better condition for the next generation. A policy proposal he called the Northern New Deal aimed to make this possible. The proposal would establish a natural resources-based tax, Metsa said, in the model of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

"We could take a little bit of the profit from these (mining) companies and make sure that it's going back to our communities for economic development, for our schools and other needs," Metsa said. "With hard work and the investment, we can have a thriving natural resource-based economy while being good stewards still and leaving the state better than we found it."

Radinovich acknowledged the issue was central to debate among DFLers, describing the party as containing a blue wing and a green wing. He said the only way to assure the seat remained in Democratic control was to have difficult conversations about the future of natural resources. Keeping the seat blue and gaining control of the U.S. House would mean keeping the Environmental Protection Agency accountable, he said, and offer the opportunity to keep mining companies accountable to high standards and financial responsibilities. But he pointed to economic anxiety in the Iron Range and across society as an issue that must be addressed.

"What I think we need to do is make sure we're making investments in education and in our infrastructure to put people back to work and if we do that, we allow people to maneuver in this economy and not be encumbered by their placement, (and) then we're going to see a lot better opportunity for everybody," Radinovich said.

Lee took a strong stance against the copper-nickel mining and dismissed the argument it was necessary for job creation. She said science did not support the sulfide mining process in a water-rich area such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and once done, the pollution could not be reversed.

"Again, it's never been done anywhere in this world," Lee said. "There is no process that is going to be able to clean this mess up on such a large scale. ... People are always saying we need jobs. Well, I've been driving around in my 14-year-old car throughout this district and I'm seeing a heck of a lot of 'Now Hiring' signs, 'Workers Wanted.' And these aren't your little minimum wage jobs, these are good paying jobs.

"... We have to start flipping the switch on what we're telling our young people, giving them permission to go into our trades and vo-techs to learn these noble jobs."

Kennedy said the 8th District covers a large area and meeting the needs of all workers would be her goal as their congresswoman, along with strengthening federal protections through the EPA. She said state issues such as copper-nickel sulfide mining and Enbridge oil pipelines were in process, and that process should continue. But she said more assurances were needed on the impacts of such projects.

"Environmental studies are great. I want to see health impact studies. I want to know what the health of our communities is going to be like. I want to know that they're going to pay for it if they take something from us," Kennedy said. "We need to be progressive and revitalize our district, all of our district, into a place for the next generation of workers. We can do it by a federal infrastructure program, a green program that is fully funded. That is good jobs, it helps our cities that, by the way, cannot afford infrastructure costs, so our infrastructure is crumbling."

Sorensen set himself apart by noting he was the only candidate on stage who submitted comments as part of Enbridge's proposed Line 67, which would expand transport of oil from the Alberta tar sands. He said he worked with Native communities opposed to the line, displaying his brazen, unabashed environmentalism. Investment in renewables was the way forward for the state, Sorensen said, and should be invested in with gusto as the industry creates tens of thousands of jobs.

"We have not put our money where our mouth is when it comes to investing in renewable energy. In our towns, in Bemidji and Hibbing or these other Range towns, we invest multiples of what we put into that solar plant in Mountain Iron, we put that into hockey arenas," Sorensen said. "So we do need to stop tippy-toeing around, or what have you, with our investment in creating a climate we can survive in by making a just transition into something other than fossil fuels immediately."

Not done yet

In a rebuttal, Metsa said he supported mining because he supported miners, and the University of Minnesota's Natural Resources Research Institute is actively working toward improving safety of sulfide mining by testing bacteria capable of digesting the byproduct sulfate.

"For the last 100 years, our region has successfully met the challenge of mining safely and sustainably in taconite," Metsa said. "And if we work hard and continue to invest in new technologies and research, we can meet that challenge."

Radinovich backtracked to the question after a brief foray into student debt, noting it was easy to score political points by taking strong environmentalist stances, but the issue was more complex.

"We need to fight climate change, and those technologies-wind turbines, solar cells-they take copper, nickel, cobalt, vanadium," Radinovich said. "And so we have a real quandary here in how we access those minerals sustainably and responsibly in the 21st century."

Lee continued sharing her opposition to the mining project, noting her support of mining unions but also her deep concern for the toxic nature of sulfide mining.

"I'm not saying never, someday we will have the technology where we can go and extract those minerals," Lee said. "We are not there yet. One misstep could destroy the futures of many people."

Kennedy opted not to continue the mining conversation, instead focusing on adjusting education models to match the jobs a region needs as a solution to alleviating student debt.

Sorensen addressed Radinovich specifically, calling his comments slick.

"There is no evidence that renewable energy in Minnesota is constrained in any fashion by a lack of copper," Sorensen said. "...We have a great subsidy program for Minnesota-made solar panels. ... We need to really put our desire to survive in the future into really investing in renewables."

Radinovich shot back he was neither in favor nor opposed to any mining projects, but the fact that new technologies require precious metals was something that could not be ignored.

"We can't simply say it's never been done safely and that therefore we can't do it. Right?" he said. "We have to have the capacity to take these difficult problems head-on and figure out a way using the best science we can to either evaluate whether we can or cannot do them, and if we can't do them safely, then we shouldn't do them at all."

Primary election weeks away

The five DFL candidates for the 8th Congressional District will be whittled to one, who is expected to face Trump-endorsed Stauber in November. The primary election will be Aug. 14, and local ballots will contain several other races as well, including Minnesota governor and Crow Wing County sheriff.

Early voting by absentee ballot is available now through Aug. 13, by mail or in person. In Crow Wing County, in-person voting ahead of election day can be done at the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse.

Visit https://pollfinder.sos.state.mn.us to find the correct polling place.

For more information on elections, contact Deborah Erickson, Crow Wing County administrative services director, at 218-824-1051 or by email at elections@crowwing.us.

***UPDATE***

This story was updated throughout to correct the spelling of Soren Sorensen's name.

The Dispatch regrets the error.