Mining, fossil fuels, police and guns: Why Iron Range Mayor Larry Cuffe is

Just before Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech in Duluth on Friday, the Trump campaign released a letter from six mayors in northeast Minnesota endorsing the president for re-election. It was meant to illustrate the Iron Range’s rightward shift from a Democratic stronghold to a source of votes Republicans hope will help them flip Minnesota red in the November election. 

The mayors — from Virginia, Chisholm, Ely, Two Harbors, Eveleth and Babbitt — together accused Joe Biden of doing “nothing to help the working class,” in part by supporting “bad trade deals.” (For instance: Many on the Iron Range strongly opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership under President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump scrapped the proposed deal.) 

In an interview Monday, Larry Cuffe, the mayor of Virginia, described himself as a “lifelong Democrat.” Cuffe was first elected mayor in 2014 after a stint on the city council. He spent 30 years as a police officer, retiring in 2010 as an investigator for the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department. He said his first vote for any Republican was Trump, whom he endorsed in 2016 along with several of the other mayors who signed the letter Friday.

Since then, Cuffe has broadly supported the GOP. He twice endorsed Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber for the 8th Congressional District seat, and is now backing GOP Senate candidate Jason Lewis over incumbent DFLer Tina Smith.

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What changed? Cuffe said Republicans are stronger supporters of iron mining and two proposed copper-nickel mines, issues that have at times split Democrats. The mayor said Virginia’s economy is heavily dependent on mining and health care. But Cuffe also said the GOP aligns with his anti-abortion views and pro-gun ownership views.

The mining industry has not always thrived under Trump. As demand for steel dropped while governors across the country shuttered businesses to curb the spread of COVID-19, four of the region’s six taconite mines laid off more than 1,800 workers. About 4,000 people work at the mines. The industry has since bounced back, though U.S. Steel’s Keetac mine remains idled.

MinnPost talked with Cuffe to learn more about his continued support for Trump and his criticisms of Biden. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

MinnPost: A lot of people credit the Obama administration for 2016 tariffs that were aimed at stopping steel dumping for sparking revival on the Iron Range. Given your Trump endorsement, how would you respond to that? 

Larry Cuffe: I know that President Obama, at the request of (former) Congressman (Rick) Nolan, they brought up his chief of staff, (Denis) McDonough, who was from this area, to hear out all the mining executives and of course some of the elected officials. I was fortunately one who was invited to listen to what they had to say and talk about mining and how that works. And they had the tariffs that were put on. I think tariffs are important from a temporary perspective. I don’t think broad tariffs on a permanent basis could be helpful long term for the economy, at least that’s what economists say. They’re put in place to correct a specific issue. So tariffs across the board probably aren’t good but tariffs for some individual specific things, for sure, for a time, are. And so tariffs brought forth in a variety of areas can be helpful.

MP: So you think that was a positive development?

LC: I think so, yes.

MP: I ask because in your endorsement letter, it says Joe Biden did nothing to help the working class. And Democrats have used the Obama administration’s tariffs to critique that. Do you give any credit to Biden or do you not trust that he would continue to do things like that if he was elected?

LC: Well, my opinion is that the working class right now was suffering as a result of when President Obama and Vice President Biden were in. Part of the working class up here suffered significantly. I mean, it was only in the last part of his term that the tariffs took hold. And during the whole time … our iron industry was suffering. We weren’t running on full tilt. Our economic engine wasn’t running. The mining companies, they don’t pay property taxes here. They pay a production tax to the state and we get money from the state for the production tax. So the less production, the less tax revenue we get and therefore the less, the rest of the economy suffers. And when they’re in the ancillary employment that supports mining, there were a lot of people laid off as a result of that.

There is the ups and downs in mining. I don’t begrudge, I don’t say President Obama, Vice President Biden, that it was their fault. I just said it was a product of not having those tariffs…

Read More: Mining, fossil fuels, police and guns: Why Iron Range Mayor Larry Cuffe is

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