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Iron Range voters turn to Trump to boost region's struggling economy

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Vacant storefront in Virginia
A man walks past a vacant storefront in downtown Virginia, Minn. On the Iron Range, many reliably Democratic voters went for Donald Trump this year for economic reasons.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

Eveleth Mayor Bob Vlaisavljevich is like many lifelong Iron Rangers. He grew up surrounded by mining, and politics. 

His father and grandfather were proud miners — and staunch Democrats. It got to the point growing up, Vlaisavljevich  said, where "a Republican was a scary thing." 

But now, the 60-year-old is a vocal Trump supporter, with a Trump bumper sticker plastered on the front of his desk at Eveleth City Hall. 

"I felt kind of bad, when you grew up with the party, your father, your grandfather, were hard working people, and the party represented them in a very good way," he said. "Now it's drifting away from the values they set up."

The small-town mayor made headlines during the campaign when he wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, urging Iron Rangers to back Trump. For him, he said, it was an economic decision. He believes Democrats are too beholden to environmental groups and have become less supportive of mining. 

"I thought I'm going to go with the one I thought best represents our interests," Vlaisavljevich said. "I never thought the Republican Party would be the working man's party."

While Democrat Hillary Clinton still carried the Iron Range as a whole, Trump made huge inroads in the area, which usually votes overwhelmingly Democratic. Trump carried Hibbing, the area's largest city, by seven votes. And he came within 120 votes of beating Clinton in Virginia, the other major hub on the Iron Range. 

President Obama and President-elect Trump
President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump shake hands following their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Nov. 10.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais | AP

The Iron Range economy is stagnant: Some mining facilities have been closed for nearly two years, downtown storefronts are boarded up and voters are frustrated. 

Across the Rust Belt of the Upper Midwest, from Ohio to Wisconsin to the Iron Range, voters who sided with President Barack Obama in recent elections instead took their chances on Trump this year. 

"I'm one of them people that is a firm believer in the better the economy the better the country," said 19-year-old Britton Show, who's studying auto mechanics at Hibbing Community College. "Being that he's one of the richer men in the world, I figure he knows what to do with his money."

That reasoning mystifies Cliff Tobey. He's president of Steelworkers local union 2660 in Keewatin, where Keewatin Taconite has been closed for a year and a half. 

"I understand how angry American workers are, I feel that same anger," he said. "What I don't understand is how people think a system that seems to give all the advantages to the ultra-wealthy, why people would think that electing someone that's part of that category is somehow going to change their plight in life."

All local unions on the Iron Range endorsed Clinton. But a mineworker who didn't want to be interviewed said that while the union leadership at his mine supported Clinton, many of the rank-and-file workers quietly backed Trump. 

So did many other Range voters who typically vote Democratic. 

"Something's got to change where something has to come in up here, where there's more work for people at a good wage, not just a minimum wage, but a good wage where people can make a living so they can put money back in the economy," said John Jylha, 60, of Hibbing.  

He's not sure he made the right choice, but he's hoping a change in Washington can help jumpstart mining and the local economy. 

The Hull-Rust Mahoning Mine
The Hull-Rust Mahoning Mine, is seen from the overlook in Hibbing, Minn.
Jim Mone |AP file

Still, on the Iron Range, most local and state DFLers easily won reelection. 

Democratic Congressman Rick Nolan beat back a stiff challenge from Republican Stewart Mills

But Trump connected with Iron Range voters in a way other GOP candidates didn't, said Vlaisavljevich, the Eveleth mayor.

"Growing up on the Iron Range," he said, "Donald Trump talked just like the old-timers. And Donald Trump would just tell you, if you like it or not, he's telling it. And that's kind of the people I grew up with. They gave it to you whether you liked it or not, and it was the truth."

Still, Vlaisavljevich said, if the DFL goes back to its roots, to sticking up for blue collar workers, he believes Iron Range voters will return to the Democratic party. 

"If the DFL drifts back to what it was," he said, "they're probably going to be the brand of choice."