Iron Range youth are damned if they leave, damned if they come back

Aaron J. Brown
Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer, radio commentator and college instructor.
Submitted photo

Northern Minnesota's Iron Range is rich with history, so rich that it usually chokes out talk of the future. Fortunately, history repeats itself. It's a little like driving down the highway using only a rear-view mirror. It can be done.

The youth have been driven from the Iron Range since the high-water mark of 1982, when a steel-industry collapse stripped away much of the region's identity. Being a young professional on the Iron Range today is a strange experience, as these things go. Being 25, 30, even 35 or 40, means sitting in a lot of important meetings where you are younger than average, sometimes very much so. "It's so important that the youth are here," they say. They say this even when you have a mortgage, multiple children, a minivan, a paunch and a burgeoning midlife crisis.

But what they say is true. The youth, even with a few gray hairs, matter more than ever. Regions like this need ideas and energy, optimism and hard work as never before. The previous generations are more willing than ever to welcome change, which is to say they are only mildly hostile to it. Navigating these waters as a whippersnapper is not easy.

The Iron Range made political news these last few weeks with a special election campaign in House District 5B, comprising the iconic Range towns of Hibbing and Chisholm and other rural precincts. Some dramatic headlines caught the wires, first when Republicans questioned the residency status of DFL nominee Carly Melin, 25. Later, a controversial mailer invoking images of guns and hunting juxtaposed with charged language about Melin's age created a stir.

Melin lived temporarily in St. Paul last summer as she studied for the bar before taking a job on the Range with the state judiciary in August. Her driver's license has always listed Hibbing as her home. In fact, in most ways, Melin represents the very story sold in the economic development brochures you might find under your chair at a conference. Energetic and well-spoken, she has a profile that closely matches that of her former boss -- and the person she aims to replace in the Legislature -- former Rep. Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, who resigned to become IRRRB commissioner. (Of course, Sertich faced the same charges when he was 24 and first sought office, that he hadn't really moved back to the Range from his education in the Cities.)

Carly Melin and her Republican opponent, Paul Jacobson, 37, have merely been living publicly what a lot of Iron Range kids born in the late 1970s and '80s live privately. It's the dichotomy of being the last generation to benefit from the sacrifices of the World War II and underground mining generations: immigrants, mostly, who organized unions and built great schools. You are told to leave with this great education and work ethic to get further educated, in order to change the world. You hear that the future of the Range depends on young people coming back. You feel that you would like to come back, for there is no place quite like the Range - even its faults are more interesting than a decade in the suburbs.

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But does anyone really "move back" after they leave a small town for education, the military or work? Then again, does anyone ever really leave in the first place? What do these places mean, so insistent, authentic and exasperating? Why do the people who grew up here love and hate the Range with opposing, sometimes equal passion?

The battle for the future of the Range seems less a battle between Democrats and Republicans than between two assumptions. Either there's a future for all the children or just for some, the luckiest with their seasonal homes on the lake and the unluckiest snaking the septic systems while tending to the retirees who remember when, only not so well as before.

This battle is far from over. Tuesday's election will be an important part of it.

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Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer, radio commentator and college instructor. He is the author of the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and the book "Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range."