Iron Rangers Draw Hope From Obama Aide Visit

Hope.

That is what Minnesota Iron Range workers and state politicians said they have as the White House considers what it can do to save the steel industry.

Gov. Mark Dayton said that President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Minnesota native Denis McDonough, gave no indication when Minnesota officials may hear what action, if any, may be taken. He gave northeast Minnesotans no promises.

However, the governor said, he will be in Washington at National Governors’ Association events the next two months, with access to Obama. The governor said he plans to follow-up on the issue.

Obama and Dayton served together in the U.S. Senate.

More than 2,000 taconite mine workers on the Iron Range, in northeast Minnesota, are laid off because of a slow steel industry blamed on other countries dumping cheap steel in the United States. If something is not done to stop that, Minnesota leaders told McDonough, the steel industry could collapse.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn.,  said the “steel dumping crisis” that is hammering the U.S. iron ore and steel industries may be localized now to steel and iron towns but will become a national crisis if the government doesn’t act to keep foreign steel out. He said retaining the nation’s steel-making capabilities, and iron ore mining, are critical for not just the nation’s economy but national security — the ability to make tanks and ships from the nation’s own metals.

“It’s not just about the Iron Range,” Nolan said of a domestic steel industry collapse. “It would throw this country into a depression.”

Dayton told reporters Wednesday that McDonough said he has had more shouting matches with Nolan, over the steel issue, “than with everyone else in Congress combined.”

“The fact that he (McDonough) was there” provided hope to Minnesotans affected by the steel woes, Dayton said. “This is the president’s top aide and he took a day with everything going on in the rest of the world … to go to the Iron Range.”

Dayton added: “He will take that information back and he is in a prime position to make a difference on our behalf.”

A United Steelworkers union official on Wednesday emphasized the importance of the Obama administration making changes.

“We are at war with China’s illegal steel imports flooding into our market,” Emil Ramirez said. “During some months last year, China dumped more than 100,000 tons of cold-rolled sheet into our market and that was not the only product or country stealing our jobs here on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.”

Ramirez said the war will be protracted “unless swift, concerted government action is taken both here and internationally.”

Dayton said that Tuesday’s meeting in Virginia, Minn., should help the Obama administration realize that “survival of the Range and the entire U.S. steel industry is at stake here.”

The governor said that the meeting also emphasized how important it is to hold a state special legislative session to extend unemployment benefits to about 600 laid-off taconite workers. “Extension of unemployment benefits is essential.”

Legislative leaders are appointing lawmakers to three panels that will consider what issues could arise in a special session if one is called next month.

Reporter John Myers contributed to this story.