Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack and his DFL challenger, former Rep. Rick Nolan, met for their final debate Wednesday afternoon at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College in Virginia.
The two jockeyed over their positions on mining and economic development policy. All along, both Nolan and Cravaack have each claimed to be the stronger supporter of mining — and the jobs it creates.
Their final debate in the heart of northeastern Minnesota mining country gave the two men ample opportunity to make their case for expanding existing taconite operations and bringing new precious metal mining to the Iron Range.
Cravaack said he wants to make the 8th District the Bakken Field of mining, a reference to the area of Canada and North Dakota that has seen explosive growth in oil production.
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"I do believe that we can mine precious metals in a safe, environmental way," Cravaack said.
Nolan called mining "the backbone" of northeastern Minnesota's economy.
"I'm very excited about the potential for mining here and our future," Nolan said. "We're sitting on 4 billion tons of some of the world's most precious metals."
But Cravaack challenged Nolan's claim that he's a big supporter of new mining. Just look at some of the environmental groups that support Nolan, he said.
"You're saying you're for mining but the people that are backing you are trying to shut down mining in the 8th District, and that means jobs," Cravaack said.
Nolan didn't dispute that environmental groups have contributed to his campaign, but he defended himself by pointing to steel workers union members in the debate audience who have endorsed him in the race.
"If you want to look through my financial reports you'll see contributions from not only the men and women who work in these mines but also people that work in the corporate offices of these mines," Nolan said.
Cravaack said too many regulations are holding up jobs that would come to the Iron Range with new copper-nickel mining projects like the one Polymet has been pursuing for nearly 10 years at a cost of almost $50 million.
"I've talked to plenty of people in the mining industry and the logging industry and the EPA is just gone wild these last couple of years," Cravaack said.
Cravaack cited an amendment he authored in the House that would streamline the permitting process as an example of his effort to promote new mining.
Nolan accused Cravaack of being all talk when it comes to mining and questioned why Cravaack hasn't been able to push through the Polymet project. He noted that Cravaack's amendment passed in the House but never became law.
"Chip, you introduced a bill to expedite the process but I notice it didn't have any bipartisan support and it didn't have any serious companion legislation over in the Senate side," Nolan said.
And Cravaack and Nolan went back and forth over Nolan's call for a new institute in Duluth to research ways to further develop the mining industry.
"You proposed having a institute that would keep mining under the microscope and increasing studies. Well, studies do not make jobs," Cravaack said.
"I don't know if you're aware of it, but it was the University of Minnesota who developed the taconite technology that has brought about such a great boom to our industry."
When asked what they would do to bolster taconite mining, Nolan and Cravaack reverted to their core campaign positions on jobs and the economy.
"We have to get the economy rolling again," Cravaack said. "We have to increase the demand for taconite, for steel. We have to have pro-growth tax-reform that creates a simpler, flatter, fairer system."
Nolan said Cravaack's economic plan would help the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the middle class. Nolan proposes redirecting military spending to domestic spending.
"We need to get the economy rolling," Nolan said. "The difference is, is how do you go about doing that Chip? And the fact is that we do need to increase demand and one of the ways you increase demand is by investing some money in the rebuilding of our infrastructure. You voted to cut funding for our infrastructure."
Unlike most of the TV ads that have been flooding the district, the tone of each of the four 8th District debates has been cordial.
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