Like many Midwestern political snafus, this one started on a farm -- a Senate forum at the Farmfest trade show in Redwood County last week, to be exact.
The star was Mike McFadden, the GOP candidate looking to snag Al Franken's U.S. Senate seat in November. In the forum, he was aggressive, confronting Franken about not approving the Keystone XL pipeline. But it was after the debate where he hit a rough patch, faced with the question of whether he would be okay if the pipeline was built with cheaper Chinese steel instead of material from the U.S.
"I'd love to see it built with U.S. steel, but I'm a big believer in free and fair trade, and I want us to do it in the most efficient way possible," McFadden said. "What I'd love to see is for us to use American products where we can, but we've got to be cost-competitive."
The answer set off a bomb of backlash from Iron Range labor representatives. This was more than just about saving money, they said. These were potential Minnesota iron mining jobs that McFadden was simply shipping off to China.
"Investment banker Mike McFadden is for the Iron Range when it's politically convenient and he's for Chinese steel when using it will help pad the profits of big companies," Tom Cvar, president of the Iron Range Labor Assembly, said in a statement. "Hardworking families on the Iron Range deserve more respect than that, plain and simple."
Towing the line on an issue like the Keystone XL pipeline is a difficult one in the Range. It's not a clear red and blue, Democrat versus Republican kind of problem. Rangers obviously support mining and the jobs that go with it, views that tend to go with the GOP. But they're also pro-labor, pushing them toward the DFL.
Northern Minnesota writer Aaron Brown explains the dilemma on his blog:
The contemporary Iron Range DFL is a coalition between liberals and protectionists (and industry lobbyists, but that's a story for another time). Protectionism is one kind of conservatism. So while socially conservative Iron Rangers have indeed developed loyalty toward the Republican Party (making Iron Range Republicans more socially conservative than even their own state party), protectionists have stayed with the DFL.
It's a tricky balance, and McFadden's comments show that in Minnesota, you can't simply give the party line on every issue. It's particularly tough for McFadden due to his past gig as CEO of the investment bank Lazard Middle Market. There, his job was to find the best way to make money for companies. But in politics, when you add in the interests of the strong labor movement, priorities change.
To put this particular fight in perspective, though, it's only one tiny part of one project for a corporation that's making billions every year. TransCanada, the corporation in charge of the pipeline, raked in $1.7 billion in net profits last year, so it can probably afford to go either way when it comes to choosing steel.
You can check out the video yourself here: