Executive council vote, fundraising message anger some legislators
Minnesota’s state auditor doesn’t usually make headlines.
The job — keeping tabs on the finances of more than 3,000 local units of government across the state — isn’t particularly glamorous. Likewise, the campaigns for state auditor are usually sleepy affairs. Current DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto handily beat incumbent Republican Pat Anderson in 2006, and she kept her seat in a rematch in 2010. Few were surprised when Otto, a former state House member, announced earlier this year that she would seek re-election to the post in 2014.
But Otto shook up both her role as state auditor and her campaign for re-election last month when she cast the lone “no” vote as the state’s Executive Council took up 31 exploratory nonferrous mining leases in northeastern Minnesota. The leases went ahead anyway, but in voting against them, Otto became the first statewide elected official to express concern about the state’s move toward the new process of nonferrous mining, an issue that’s about to come to a head as regulators release the environmental review for the long-delayed PolyMet copper-nickel mining project on the Iron Range.
Otto has voted to grant the leases in the past, but this time she said she wanted to spark a conversation about whether the taxpayers are protected in the event that this type of mining causes serious damage to the environment. She’d like to see mining companies make assurances that they will pay for any clean-up costs.
“I know I’m not a policymaker, so I don’t determine whether the mining happens or not, and I explored my role on the Executive Committee and as state auditor. It’s about standing up for the taxpayers, which is really my job,” she said. “We’ve done mining for a century but we’ve never done nonferrous mining. What I don’t want to see happen is us engage in this type of mining as a state and hope that the mining companies will pick up the tab if something goes wrong. The taxpayers deserve some answers.”
She also changed the dynamics in what would normally be a quiet race for re-election. Shortly after casting her vote, Otto’s campaign team sent out a fundraising blast trumpeting the move as “prudent” and “cautious” leadership. Another fundraising blast related to the vote came about a week later.
That move has a vocal contingent of Iron Rangers crying foul.
Opponents decry fundraising emails
Shortly after the vote, a “Dump Otto” website was established, and signs bearing the motto have popped up along some streets in northeastern Minnesota. The website was registered by an Aurora, Minn., resident named Chad Sahr. Sahr, who coaches baseball at Mesabi East High School and whose email address suggests he works for the regional utility Minnesota Power — though he refused to confirm his place of employment. Regarding his efforts, Sahr says, “This is not a campaign, it’s a message that we are not going to support people who are against the very industry that’s the backbone of our region.”
According to the text posted at the Dump Otto site, “Just before Halloween, State Auditor Rebecca Otto dressed up as a hypocrite and used her public office to fight against future good paying jobs in northeastern Minnesota. Let us be clear, Auditor Otto — whatever political contributions you raised are NOT worth the price of Iron Range jobs or our economy.”
But more than Otto’s vote against the leases, it was her campaign’s move to solicit donations that’s really ruffling feathers, opponents say. “An elected official who has received significant support out of northeast Minnesota over her past elections not only voted against a generation of potential new mining jobs, but then she sent out a fundraising letter bragging about it,” the site continues.
Initially after her vote, two Iron Range DFL lawmakers, Reps. David Dill of Crane Lake and Jason Metsa of Virginia, suggested they may not be able to support her in her re-election bid. After the second fundraising email came out, Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, joined them in criticizing Otto. Since the vote, Otto has made a trip up north to talk with lawmakers and constituents about her decision, and some of the initial backlash has quieted.
“Her explanation was that she woke up in the middle of the night and had a revelation,” Metsa said. “And for a politically crafted campaign email to come out a few hours later, for us, it was a little disingenuous.” In terms of supporting her re-election bid, Metsa said, “We’ll see what happens.” He said they’re now discussing her concerns.
Dill said exploratory drilling to determine what minerals and natural resources are in the land has been going on for years, but Otto is linking it to a controversial project like PolyMet. “She is linking a controversial project to drilling, and there’s not a link there except some day if there is an opportunity to mine those minerals,” he said. “Then you couple that with the idea that there was a fundraising effort that appeared to be hinged to this, and you have a very unfortunate set of circumstances.”
Dill said it’s up to the voters if Otto should have another term. “That’s for the electorate to decide,” Dill said. “I’ve had no previous beef with her — we are friends. We are pleasant, and we work together in the Minnesota Legislature, but it’s not helpful. The future of using Minnesota natural resources is tied to core drilling.”
Environmentalists praise Otto’s vote
Not everyone was mad at Otto when she traveled up north to talk about her vote. Some residents thanked her for her dissenting position. The group Environment Minnesota has also sent out email blasts asking people to thank Otto.
“Otto’s vote represents bravery in the face of political pressure from the powerful, influential, and moneyed mining industry, and she deserves our thanks,” read the email. “We can make sure more of our elected officials stand against toxic mining.”
Samantha Chadwick, an advocate with Environment Minnesota, said it was “heartening” to see a statewide elected official take that position. “It’s just so easy to say things like, ‘Of course we can have both — clean mining and the clean environment.’ All the evidence points to it being too risky,” she said. “The mining industry is incredibly powerful and has a lot of political influence in the state, so that makes it tough for politicians to even appear [to be] coming out against that, but that’s changing.”
For her part, Otto says she’s not “anti-mining.” She knows some in northeastern Minnesota may no longer support her for that single vote, but that’s part of the job of auditor, Otto says. “Sometimes auditors tell you things you don’t want to hear. We don’t always bear good news, but we tell what you need to hear,” she said. “I’m held accountable every four years, of course, and people can decide whether they appreciate my work or not.”