A Pipeline Runs Through the Heart of Minnesota’s Democratic Party

BEMIDJI, Minn. — The planned route for this pipeline runs past small Northwoods towns populated with union laborers. It cuts across one Native American reservation, while steering around another. And it slices through the fragile coalition that has delivered Minnesota to Democrats in 11 consecutive presidential elections.

Influential Democrats have been among the loudest voices on both sides of a debate over whether to replace an aging pipeline, known as Line 3, which carries Canadian crude oil through the evergreen forests and pristine waters of northern Minnesota.

Politicians in the state’s big cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, environmentalists, and many Native Americans, worried about the possibility of a spill and about climate change, have protested the replacement plan and held it up. Rural lawmakers and labor unions, seeing the potential for high-paying construction jobs, mostly supported it.

Over generations, the strength of Democrats in Minnesota was based on uniting the state’s city-dwellers and its rural residents in common political cause. But as Democrats prepare to vote in the Super Tuesday presidential primary, that alliance is frayed and in flux.

“There are a lot of Democrats in Minnesota that think ‘Well, the rural area is gone, and the future for us is in the suburbs,’” said State Senator Tom Bakk, a supporter of the pipeline whose mostly rural district borders Canada, and whose fellow Democrats in the Senate recently voted him out as caucus leader. He added: “People out here can feel how the party has kind of moved away from them.”

In a state where even the longstanding, official name of the party — the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party — pays homage to rural-urban bonds, the signs of change are all around. In 2018, Democrats flipped two congressional seats in the Minneapolis and St. Paul suburbs, but they also lost two rural-based seats.

Union members who work in mining and construction, long a cornerstone of the party, have grown frustrated by the influence of environmentalists. And those environmentalists, alarmed by climate change and frustrated with politicians’ response, have become increasingly impatient about demanding limits on the use of fossil fuels.

“It’s like smoking cigarettes: We’re sitting here smoking every day, but eventually we’re going to have to stop because we’re going to die from it,” said Chairman Michael Fairbanks of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, who opposes Line 3, the pipeline that would run just north and east of his tribe’s reservation. He said he feared the impact a pipeline spill might have on the waters where his tribe gathers wild rice.

Across the country, Democrats have been losing ground in rural areas. And even in Minnesota, where rural and urban Democrats had long agreed to disagree on certain issues, national politics have encroached on the local.

Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

“Frankly, the Republicans have done a very good of framing you’re either for jobs or you’re for the environment, and you can’t have both,” said Mike Simpkins, a Democrat from Bemidji, a college town in the state’s north, who has worked on political campaigns and in pipeline construction. “I don’t believe that.”

While Line 3 shows the fractures in the Democratic coalition, it is far from the only rift. Republicans, who vocally support the pipeline, have also made inroads in northern Minnesota through their support of the mining industry and through their stances on abortion and gun rights. President Trump’s steel tariffs were popular on the Iron Range, long a Democratic stronghold, where they provided a boost to the taconite mines. And Mr. Trump, who narrowly lost Minnesota four years ago, has already campaigned in the state and spoken hopefully about carrying it in November.

“I’d say it’s a lot of recovering Democrats right now — Republicrats,” said Andrea Zupancich, who works in real estate and serves as mayor in Babbitt, Minn., near a proposed copper mine that the Trump administration has advanced despite intense opposition from environmental groups.

The debate about replacing Line 3, which since the 1960s has carried crude oil from Alberta to Wisconsin, has played out in protests, public hearings and courtrooms. Enbridge, the company proposing the pipeline, has argued that installing a new Line 3 would reduce the risk of a spill and allow for oil to move across the state more safely. They also say that a new pipeline would follow a different route that would avoid the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, which the old Line 3 crosses.

But opponents question the wisdom of spending on new infrastructure to carry fossil fuels at a time when climate change has been tied to warmer Minnesota winters, severe Midwest flooding and rising sea levels. Shortly after state regulators granted a crucial permit for the project last month, protesters of Line 3 interrupted Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, while he was speaking on a college campus in the Twin Cities.

“They still have a long road to go. We still have other places to fight — in federal court and state court,” said Frank Bibeau, a lawyer who lives on the Leech Lake Reservation and who has argued that Line 3 infringes on United States government treaties with Native American nations. Of Enbridge, he said, “we have no choice but to try to contain them.”

For Minnesota Democrats, there is still plenty to be optimistic about. Voters elected two Democrats to the United States Senate in 2018, suburban gains have helped offset rural losses and Democrats on both sides of the pipeline debate have spoken hopefully about the party mending its rural coalition.

“It’s like a family: There’s always disagreements in your family, you know,” said Rick Cannata, a Democrat who works for a union and serves as mayor of Hibbing, in the Iron Range. “Things get worked out in the end.”

Curtiss Hunt, the Democratic chairman in Bemidji’s county, who is personally opposed to the Line 3 replacement, said he was also hopeful about the party’s rural future.

“They see an opening” in rural Minnesota, Mr. Hunt said of Republicans. “And we need to quickly close it. And we can.”


Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

But in a social studies classroom at Bemidji Middle School, where about 20 Democrats gathered one evening last week for a precinct caucus meeting, opinions on the pipeline were split. As the gathering neared its end, one Democrat proposed a resolution that called for a moratorium on new infrastructure for fossil fuel projects — and that singled out Line 3 by name.

“We’ve got to be deathly serious about this,” a man in the room said as party members debated the issue.

Rita Albrecht, the mayor of Bemidji and a candidate for the State Legislature who supports Line 3, said she was worried about a sweeping resolution on the issue. Mr. Simpkins, who was also in the meeting, spoke about his past work in the pipeline industry and questioned whether the country was prepared for an abrupt stop to those projects.

“It’s also a national defense issue,” Mr. Simpkins said. “I don’t know that there is a contingency plan.”

In the end, the resolution opposing the pipeline passed. But the Democrats were divided.

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