Census could cost Iron Range representation at state Capitol

Mesabi Daily News

ST. PAUL- It’s likely that the 2010 census will force a legislative redistricting in northeast Minnesota that will merge Iron Range districts that are already amongst the largest in the state and cost the area political representatives in the Legislature.

Although the census won’t start for a couple months, the most recent estimates predict that northeast Minnesota has held steady or lost population since the last census, even while other parts of the state have gained population, according to a 2007 estimate by the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

“In some areas it may be a modest population loss, but in most of them it will be that they didn’t grow as fast as the state [as a whole],” said Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy. “When they go about redistricting, those seats will need to grow physically larger to add people, and the ones that have grown faster in the state need to get smaller.”

By Minnesota law, legislative districts must contain roughly equal populations. In the last House redistricting that was passed in 2002, the deviation between the least and most populous districts was only 574 people, or about 1.5 percent of the population in each district.

State House District 3A, represented by Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, is expected to be among the worst hit districts in the state. According to the 2007 population estimate, the district was already expected to lose almost 12,000 people. Anzelc’s is already the second largest district in the state at 6,816 square miles. It spans communities that sometimes have very different interests.

“You have to be able to represent the resorters and agriculture and tourism in Lake of the Woods, and you have to be able to represent the mining economy and the forest economy on the Range,” Anzelc said. “Our issues are so complicated and unique compared to the Twin Cities metro and agriculture.”

Rural areas, including northeast Minnesota, have been particularly hard-hit in recent decades, said Gillaspy.
“With less mining and more mechanization that means a lot fewer people hired, so that means a lot fewer people on the land,” Gillaspy said. “Urbanization is process that’s going on worldwide, not just here �” it’s pretty much a worldwide phenomenon.”

All Iron Range districts are expected to lose some population, although not as much as Anzelc’s district, according to the state estimates. The upcoming redistricting could potentially dilute some of the Iron Range’s traditional bond to the DFL Party or even pit current Iron Range politicians against one another in upcoming elections, Anzelc said.
That happened 10 years ago, when Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, and then DFL Rep. Joe Begich of Eveleth were cast into the same House District 5A by redistricting. Begich decided to retire rather than seeking re-election in a primary against a friend and fellow Range lawmaker Rukavina.

The job loss and resulting population stagnation in the area is one reason why the Range delegation puts such an emphasis on industrial job creation. Those jobs help preserve the Iron Range culture, Anzelc said.
“When you take mining and the wood products and you throw in tourism and hospitality, that takes you close to 90 percent of our economy,” Anzelc said. “We support mining, we support forestry because it’s the reason people are here; it’s what we do; it’s what we have.”

Redistricting is currently the responsibility of the Legislature, although each of the recent redistricting fights since the 1970s has resulted in lawsuits and final decisions by the courts.

Anzelc called it typically a “very, very messy process.”

A proposal that redistricting be taken out of the Legislature’s hands has caught on at the Capitol. It passed the Senate and is making progress with Republicans, said University of Minnesota Professor Lawrence Jacobs, who helped create the proposal at the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

The plan calls for a commission to be appointed out of the pool of retired appellate court judges that would put together a redistricting proposal that the Legislature could either approve or reject. Jacobs said it would ease some of the partisanship that’s run previous redistricting efforts off the rails.

“One of the concerns here that’s been expressed is that in democracy, voters choose their legislators,” Jacobs said, “but with advanced computer technology today, it’s possible for legislators to pick their voters.”

Nothing is decided yet. Whether northeast Minnesota districts are absorbed by other districts or merely enlarged depends on the results of the 2010 census, which will begin in March.

In addition to the threatened seats in the Legislature, Minnesota is also on the cusp of losing a seat in the U.S. Congress. But Gillaspy said Minnesotans have typically been at the forefront of the nation for accurately completing the census.

“We just want to be sure �- that we get a really great count and that there’s nobody out there that’s not counted,” Gillaspy said. “There are people that sort of live back in the forest and maybe don’t have a whole lot of contact with the outside world … we want to make sure they get counted as well.”