Archive | July, 2017

Food for Thought

14 Jul

People fall flat on their face or shine not because of their great ideas, but because of certain traits of character which suddenly acquire great importance in the actual practice of politics in these extremely tumultuous times.

-Kanan Makiya, as told to George Packer in The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq

Makiya was an exiled Iraqi intellectual who had grand, noble plans for a democratic Iraq after the American invasion in 2003. Reality, of course, made mincemeat of these intentions. As brilliant as his ideas were, few of them had any grounding in Iraq’s political reality or the U.S.’s botched invasion plan. He spoke these words with regret some time after the invasion, when it became clear that, even if the end result would be passable—which it might yet be—it will have come at a ridiculous human and financial cost.

As someone who spends no shortage of time wrapped up in ideas, this is worth remembering.

Oh No We’re Already Talking About 2018 Congressional Races

11 Jul

It’s never too early to start handicapping congressional races! (Ugh.) Pete Stauber, a Hermantown resident and current St. Louis County Commissioner representing the exurban areas around Duluth, will seek the Republican nomination challenge incumbent Democrat Rick Nolan (presuming he runs again, as he seems all but certain to do) in Minnesota’s eighth congressional district. This district is one of the more politically interesting in the country, and produced the most expensive congressional race in the nation in 2016. I also live in it.

On paper, Stauber is probably the most dangerous possible opponent for Nolan. While a solid Republican, he has some centrist credentials, and is very popular in a county board seat that otherwise tips a little to the left. His announcement speech sounded more like that of a Chamber of Commerce conservative with a common touch than a right-wing firebrand. His resume sounds like it was designed in a lab to be a friendly moderate conservative who can win MN-8: police officer, working class roots, self-made man through his small business stake, veteran wife, past hockey stardom. His most obvious shortcoming is a lack of the deep pockets that Stewart Mills has, and he could face a disadvantage if Mills decides to give MN-8 a third try. There is also real room for someone to give him a primary test from his right, and if that happens, it could alter the character of the whole race.

Stauber also has something going for him that recent Republicans haven’t: he can put the Duluth metro area into play. He has deep roots here, and his family name is littered all over local politics. Chip Cravaack and Mills effectively ceded Duluth to the DFL; Mills didn’t even bother opening a campaign office in the largest city in the district. This struck me as a grave error; even if they have no prayer of winning the area, just trimming off a few votes here or there could have made the difference in some razor-thin elections. I doubt Stauber will make that mistake, and this election could come down to Hermantown and Proctor and Duluth Heights instead of Hibbing and Grand Rapids.

Looming over Stauber’s run, of course, will be the perception of President Donald Trump. I wish all politics were local, but these national indicators matter an awful lot. Stauber did endorse Trump a year ago, and if 2018 turns into a Democratic wave year, you can hear the attack ads already. On the other hand, if El Presidente manages to chart a course free of major scandals and musters an unorthodox, not-just-GOP-boilerplate politics (and/or the Democratic Party’s outrage machine goes overboard), his relatively strong showing in MN-8 two years ago may boost a supporter. The real question is whether Trump’s 16-point win over Clinton in MN-8 was an anomaly or a signal of things to come, and that has a lot to do with the direction the Republican Party decides to take in relation to its President. (The same is true of the Democratic Party’s tack now that it’s out in the wilderness, though less so in a district with a well-known incumbent who runs a pretty tight ship.)

Rick Nolan won’t go down easy. The Republicans’ inability to dislodge him in 2016 was a testament to the congressman’s strength as a political operator. There isn’t much room to attack Nolan on mining, which is the main wedge issue in the Iron Range swing areas of the district, and he walks the tightrope of bringing home some bacon to the district without losing his folksiness. The DFL still has the superior campaign machinery in the region. And if the Democrats do reclaim the House, Nolan now has some seniority, which would wield a lot more influence than a rookie Republican looking to find his position in a much more heterodox caucus. (Say what you will about Nancy Pelosi or winning battles but losing wars, the House Democrats have pretty much voted as a bloc for over a decade, while the GOP delegation has been riven by division since its populist wing arose in 2010.) The Stauber name also probably doesn’t mean much in North Branch or Brainerd; this district is so large that a local dynasty means little in some parts, for good or ill.

I hate to feed the horse race cycle this early, but it’s all become real, and we have a long way to go here. This is also a fascinating district, and one that could break different ways based on its various scattered parts. To set the table for this long campaign slog, I’ll break MN-8 into four distinct regions:

MN 8 Districts

  1. Red MN-8. Seven rural counties and a piece of an eighth that consistently vote Republican, and have done so even since before this district began its rightward drift. With the exception of Crow Wing County they are sparsely populated, but combined they account for nearly 31 percent of the district’s population, which is a plurality of the four groups I’ve identified.
  2. Blue Collar. These are the rural parts of MN-8, including five counties plus northern St. Louis County, that form a collar around the Duluth metro. They have traditionally been bastions of the DFL, but have all shifted rightward in recent election cycles. That shift is in different stages across the region; it’s basically complete in Aitkin County, and still has a ways to go on the heart of the Iron Range, which covers central St. Louis County and eastern Itasca County. But these areas all share a white working class identity, economies heavily dependent on extractive industries, and an unstable political climate that includes both some rising Republicans and some well-entrenched DFLers. These areas, for fairly good reason, have gotten all the attention as the swing zones in recent elections, and forms nearly 29 percent of the electorate.
  3. Blue MN-8. Basically, the Duluth metro (southern St. Louis County and Carlton County), plus Cook County, which is rural but doesn’t vote like it, and is so small and unique that it doesn’t fit well elsewhere. These areas are solidly Democratic, going over 60% for Nolan in 2016, though there are certainly some swing votes to be found in the exurban areas. It makes up 26 percent of the electorate.
  4. Exurbia. Chisago and Isanti Counties, which straddle the north end of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro and enjoy some economic spin-offs. While only 14 percent of the electorate, they’re interesting and distinct for a number of reasons. One, they’re wealthier than the other rural parts of this district (and the urban parts, for that matter, save a few pockets in and around Duluth). Two, both Chip Cravaack and Stewart Mills, the two Republican candidates for MN-8 in the last four election cycles, were from here. Three, Nolan outperformed Hillary Clinton by a very large margin here, which I’m not really sure how to interpret. Point being, I think there are more votes up for grabs here than most may realize. For that matter, these counties are also growing, while population in much of the rest of the district is flat or shrinking. (The other growing areas are spread out pretty evenly, including red Crow Wing County, contested Itasca County, and in the Duluth metro.)

We’ll revisit this whole scheme in November 2018 and see which way each one broke relative to past election cycles. For now, though, I’ll keep my attention on the elections are actually happening this year.

Plying Lonely Waters

6 Jul

Northern Minnesota does the Fourth of July right, with Duluth’s best-in-the-state fireworks display and the magic of Iron Range street dances. This year, though, the only fireworks I saw came in a vivid late-night lightning display, and the only dance was a jig to dodge the swarms of mosquitoes and dislodge an army of ticks. I spent it in the Boundary Waters.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a million-acre wilderness along Minnesota’s border with Canada set aside for seekers of relative solitude on a network of lakes and rivers. Only a handful of lakes allow motorboats; on the rest, it is just canoes, with portage trails set between lakes with primitive campsites featuring a fire pit and a latrine. The efforts of countless conservationists, most notably Sigurd F. Olson, set this region aside in the 1970s as one of those bastions of the earth that display as little human impact as possible, an ethos captured in the BWCA’s three-word catchphrase: Leave No Trace. Those old battles over the status of these lakes long predate my birth but linger in downtown Ely, the BWCA gateway where pro-mining and pro-wilderness signs duel along the main streets. That debate is now part of my daily life, but for five days, I shut all of that out.

I went to the BWCA with some regularity as a child and even during summers in my undergraduate days, though this was my first time in five years. It was, in fact, a Christmas gift for my father, who frequents the BWCA and comparable wilderness areas year round. Those earlier trips are sources of fond memories, or at least memorable ones, as when we paddled across Seagull Lake on a deathly still 95-degree day to get a member of our party with a separated shoulder to the hospital in Grand Marais. But while I enjoy opportunities to camp and exert myself out in the wild, genuine wilderness experiences have been rare lately. I’ve never overcome my struggles to sleep in a tent, an issue compounded this time around by a leak in my air mattress; I’d guess I didn’t get more than 15 hours of sleep across four nights on this trip. But I can still dip my feet in for a while, and the wilderness will forever hold a certain romance for someone who understands their role in human cycles of activity and reflection.

We enter at Moose River South, an entry point that allows just one party per day. It’s a meandering little stream that feeds south from the Echo Trail into a section of the Boundary Waters that sits separate from the rest of its waters, maybe one sixth of its total territory with six access points of varying difficulty, but none exactly designed for rookies. Moose River South is an easy enough paddle around some beaver dams into Big Moose Lake, but a 1.75-mile portage looms between it and Cummings Lake to the south, which seems to stop most traffic at the large, shallow lake named for a creature conspicuous in its absence. Cummings is near the center of this region, reachable from several directions, including a fairly easy jaunt over from Crab Lake, one of the most used entry points in the region. Beyond Crab lies a chain of lakes that we explore on our second and third days, all small and less traveled, maybe featuring a campsite or two and promising a lake to oneself. But even these are still relative wilderness highways: a few other dead-end lakes off this area have campsites so little used that they can melt into the woods, and somewhere south of the Moose River sits one of the BWCA’s Primitive Management Areas (PMAs), a group of lakes with no established portages or campsites that nonetheless allows access for those who seek to get as far off the beaten path as possible. And for a certain class of canoeing purist, the BWCA has nothing on its more remote Canadian counterparts.

This is wilderness enough for me, though, and time moves differently in the BWCA. A trip here means no clocks: nature and instinct decide when we wake and eat meals and go to bed. It means long stretches of moderately strenuous activity, with hard paddling and painstaking portaging, and also long stretches of blissful nothing. My dad isn’t a fisherman, so we just bag up a bunch of dinners for easy preparation and devote our free hours to lounging in hammocks or in canoe chairs on logs or rocks. On most days we make good time—none of that double-portaging nonsense to lighten the load here, or at least not until we’re tired and the portage is really short—we also pause every now and then to just sit and drink in scenes.

Some parties in the BWCA prefer to set up a base camp and make trips from there, but on this trip we move every night, on a constant quest for the perfect campsite. The island site where we spend our first night on Cummings is open and has excellent rocks but shows signs of heavy use. Phantom Lake on night two has a superb view across the small lake and a lovely red pine stand, though no good rocks to sit on. A different site on Cummings on night three is the best of the bunch, with pines and rock and a well-designed kitchen, though the wind dies and forces us into the tent early, only to be rousted when we hear some creature banging around amid our pots and pans. (The culprit: some sort of rabbit or hare, which I guess counts as exotic since I’ve never seen one of those in the BWCA before.) The final night’s site on Big Moose has superb trees and breeze and rocks, but an awful landing and no real good spot to pitch a tent and guarantee comfort for all comers. While some websites provide campsite reviews to help plan routes, no one’s criteria are quite the same, and a search to separate out these seemingly trivial differences can make or break a trip.

As part of the adventure I promised to carry the canoe, which is something I’ve only done sporadically before. There is, of course, a learning curve. BWCA portages are measured in 16.5-foot rods (roughly equal to a canoe length), and most hover somewhere under 200 rods. The 580-rod beast between Big Moose and Cummings has no vicious elevations, and only immediately following heavy rains (as on our first crossing of the portage) do its wetlands pose a real obstacle. It is a slog, though coming down to giant, blue Big Moose on the return journey was one of the most welcome sights of the trip. The portage to Meat Lake, whose name we suspect comes from the amount of flesh consumed by its resident mosquitoes, has become a flowing stream. A portage landing on Hassel Lake requires me to crab walk up and down a steep rock several times just so we can get things into the canoe. Nor is length any guarantee of ease: the 20-rod portage around some rapids on the Korb River is a buggy stretch of slop, whereas the 70-rod cutoff from Cummings Lake is an easy superhighway. My shoulders don’t miss it, nor do my bite-covered legs and arms, but how can a young guy not eat up the opportunity to carry a heavy object a long distance and feel some sense of conquest upon completing it?

By the final day I’m growing a bit stir-crazy, a restlessness not helped by the overnight storm that makes sleep impossible. I’m too social to detach for long periods, and while I certainly welcome my moments of solitude and wilderness, I sometimes seem to suffer from an instrumental relationship with these old friends, not unlike a cell phone with its charger: my time in the woods fills up a drained battery, and then I’m ready to put it away and go do my thing. I unapologetically make relentless pushes to the next destination, so it can be difficult to zone out and enjoy the beauty of a particular moment or sensation. I’ve always been wired for a pace of life faster than most northern Minnesotans, even if I can hide it well, and that won’t be changing anytime soon.

I’m still from here, though, and I know what to do when these moments do come. When I can stare up at the red pine boughs above my hammock set against a few wisps of cloud in the sky, lost in bliss. When we drift down the Korb River and just listen to endless birdsong, its current tugging us gently along. When thoughts flow easily from pen to paper in the hammock on Cummings, thoughts that may or may not ever see the light of day on this blog or elsewhere but mean the world to me. When I’m finally able to find the right train of thought to shut out the endless flashes of lighting to manage a few hours of sleep on the final night. Those are the waters I’ll never cease to seek out, if only for a little while.