June 3, 2012 at 9:00 AM
Northwest Wisconsin wrestles with governor’s failed mine proposal as recall election nears
UW Election Eye traveled to Wisconsin committed to reach every region of this state before the June 5 gubernatorial recall election. On Friday we reached the northwest corner and found a number of folks upset with GOP governor Scott Walker after the incumbent tried to rush through an open-pit iron ore mining bill not long after taking office.
MELLEN, Wisc. — In a scene ripped straight out of a script from the Andy Griffith Show in Mayberry, a dusty dinged-up pickup truck pulled up and parked along the shoulder of State Highway 13 in this tiny blue-collar town half an hour south of Lake Superior.
Out stepped the longest serving mayor in Wisconsin, Joe Barabe, holding his favorite fishing pole and looking resigned to a recall election victory this Tuesday by the man he called “an entirely worthless clown.”
Nobody worked harder than Barabe to defeat Scott Walker in his first governor’s race against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett two years ago.
This 24-year serving mayor is furious over Walker’s attempt to strong-arm a mining bill he calls an “embarrassing act by a disgraceful governor.”
Assembly Bill 426 would have created new statutes for regulating iron mining and would have modified regulations around metallic mining. The bill passed by the state assembly on a straight party line vote, and was defeated three months ago in the state senate by a single vote, 17-16, with the swing vote belonging to Republican Dale Schultz.
Barabe, however, is worried Walker will pursue an even stronger bill by the end of summer should the Tea Party hero survive in office.
If that happens, Barabe’s best hope rests in the recalls of four Republican state senators — one of whom stepped aside before recall petitions were even submitted, making it an open race for her seat.
State Democrats need just one recall win to swing the balance of power in the state senate after two of six recalls proved successful last August.
“We knew this bill was going to rape our land,” Barabe said. “When Walker refused to meet with me or give me five minutes on the phone to talk about his strip mining bill, I said ‘The hell with it.’”
“Dealing with a disgrace like [Walker], it makes me want to move to Canada,” he added, pointing to the southeast where the proposed mining site is 10 minutes’ drive away.
More than eager to give me a Saturday tour of the mine’s proposed 4,000-acre Phase One site was Pete Rasmussen, a carpenter and environmental activist for 20 years. Rasmussen is a repository of knowledge about the geography and history of this pristine site stretching 20 miles from eastern Ashland into western Iron Counties.
Rasmussen is a soft-spoken sort, “more determined than angry,” he told me while gently removing three turtles from the gravel roads we traveled for more than an hour. “I’m not opposed to new jobs. I’m opposed to a mine company owner being able to afford another $46 million boat called Mine Games.”
This refers to mine owner Chris Cline’s 164-foot yacht that critics say is arrogantly named, given Cline’s history of firing mine workers and then rehiring them at lower wages.
Our last stroll along the Tyler Forks River revealed steady passion in Rasmussen, whose passion for clean drinking water is evident in the name of his own company called Moving Water Photography.
“When mining on Minnesota’s Iron Range, holes are dug maybe 200 feet down,” he said. “If they get the go-ahead here, those holes will be a thousand feet deep and who knows what might wind up in the water?”
Twenty five miles up the road in Ashland, Black Cat Coffeehouse proved to be an almost perfect reflection of Ashland County’s vote in the 2010 Wisconsin governor’s race where 62% voted for Barrett and 37% favored Walker.
In the far corner of the town’s popular gathering place, four avid Walker supporters kept a respectful distance from a table of seven very outspoken Barrett fans who barely contained their exuberance over their guy’s chances in this Tuesday’s recall election.
Why all the optimism? Because they saw how Walker’s mining project got shut down by that razor-thin margin on March 6 with the swing vote cast by a member of the governor’s own party.
“I’m actually a liberal who favored the mine, but [Wisconsin] Republicans weren’t negotiating in good faith in the state legislature,” said Simon Spartalian. “That’s what made this whole mining thing so intractable. Walker has either lied or he hasn’t, and unfortunately that [perception] seems to fall along partisan lines.”
Pam Gendron had overheard enough.
“Look, this mine is going to happen. There’s way too much money to be made,” said Gendron, a lifelong Ashlander who worries about the unintended consequences of a taxpayer funded, $17 million recall tab. “People are going to get rich even by all the delays in getting the mine started. People will be getting rich off just the idea of it. First we have to talk it to death, and then study it to death. But really, I want this mine to happen. You always have to vote for the jobs — not the [candidate] — even if it is in our own backyard.”
Seated one table over is Hank Martinsen, Jr., who said he is very nervous about Barrett possibly becoming the third recall challenger in U.S. history to win a gubernatorial election.
“The mine is an awesome idea. It would turn us from maybe the poorest county in Wisconsin to one of the richest,” said Martinsen, a licensed insurance agent.
“If Walker wins, he’ll be able to reignite the mine idea. If Barrett wins, we will never see the mine. There’s only two ways to balance the state budget. Create thousands of new mining jobs or raise revenues by killing us on taxes.”
Martinsen pointed to Ashland County’s median household income of barely $35,000 — fourth lowest in Wisconsin — as evidence for the need to create about 2,500 new jobs in northern Wisconsin.
“Look at this town as a whole,” he said of his native Ashland. “We’ve had a steady decline in population from 16,000 twenty-five years ago to where we are today [8,800]. We need to find a lot more reasons for our kids to stay around here.”
Environmental stewardship versus the need for jobs. Much more than just the state budget hangs in the balance this week in Wisconsin.