Eveleth (United States) (AFP) – For decades, Bob Vlaisavljevich voted for Democrats.
But in 2016, Vlaisavljevich, the mayor of the small northern Minnesota mining town of Eveleth — population, roughly 3,700 — changed his tune and voted for Donald Trump.
His decision was nothing short of a local political earthquake, one reflected in the final vote tally in the historically Democratic congressional district — Trump bested Hillary Clinton by 15 points.
Two years later, Vlaisavljevich does not regret his decision, and plans to vote Republican next month, in what could be a warning sign for Democrats awaiting a blue wave in in midterm elections on November 6.
“I supported Donald Trump. That kind of was a shot in the arm — his stance on mining,” the mayor told AFP.
He says he will vote for Republican candidate Pete Stauber in his congressional district, currently represented by Democrat Rick Nolan, who is retiring.
Stauber is seen as having a good chance to flip the seat to GOP red, after decades when Democrats almost exclusively headed to Capitol Hill from the area.
“The Democratic Party just got too far away from us,” Vlaisavljevich said. “We voted for them religiously, supported the party — and we were let down many times.”
– ‘Common sense’ –
As one drives into Eveleth, it is hard to ignore the giant open-pit mines that emerge in the middle of majestic forests — a symbol of the debate dividing the region, protecting jobs versus protecting the environment.
Bald eagles, the emblem of the United States, fly over the nearly deserted road, which ultimately leads to the Canadian border.
In early October, the cold air is already biting.
Only a smattering of people walk up and down Eveleth’s main street, the entrance to which is marked with a huge mural celebrating the state’s favorite sport: ice hockey.
For the 66-year-old Vlaisavljevich, who grew up in the iron mining area, the Democratic Party “got so anti-mining — they kind of treated us like trash.”
A deer head, a hunting trophy, looms over his desk, which is adorned with a Trump bumper sticker and a roll of toilet paper with Clinton’s face on it.
Despite his obvious disdain for the party of FDR and Barack Obama, Vlaisavljevich is not bitter or nasty. He is the stereotypical kind, friendly Minnesotan.
Above all, he sees Trump as a “common sense” president.
“He’s not there for the money, because he has a lot of money,” he says.
“He’s probably a little too abrupt sometimes but that’s okay too because those are the kind of people I grew up with — the old timers here, they told you what they thought.”
– It’s the economy, stupid –
Vlaisavljevich says he would vote for Trump, no matter which political ticket he runs on.
That vision of politics — the person, not the party — extends to others in Eveleth and across Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, who have eschewed the strict party lines seen elsewhere in America.
The single most important thing on their mind? It’s the economy.
Running against the 52-year-old Stauber is 32-year-old Democrat Joe Radinovich.
Stauber, who worked for 22 years as a police officer, is running for office for the first time. He is promoting what he called the “pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda” of the president.
Voters “understand my blue-collar, common sense, conservative background,” he told AFP.
Stauber is unabashedly pro-gun rights and is against abortion, but in Eveleth, his position on the economy will be the decider.
“He supports mining for one thing — that’s the most important thing to people around here,” said Edward Courteau, a 60-year-old mechanic who works in local restaurants.
“Most of the places in this area are hiring right now. So things are getting better,” adds Courteau, sitting at the bar at the local BoomTown Woodfire Bar & Grill in a camouflage baseball cap.
In September, the Trump administration lifted a moratorium imposed by Obama, his predecessor, on minerals exploration in a large area of the district, near protected lakes and forests.
Vlaisavljevich says he hopes the new mining activity will offer the region added “stability” and keep more young people from leaving.
Not everyone in Eveleth shares the mayor’s optimism.
Nicole Rintala, a 32-year-old restaurant worker who used to vote Republican and now identifies as an independent, is worried about the environment.
Seated at a wooden booth at BoomTown, Rintala explains why she will vote blue on November 6 for Radinovich.
“We need the jobs, we absolutely do, I totally understand that. However, at what cost?”