A divisive proposal for a huge open pit mine in the Penokee Hills of northern Wisconsin has helped spur a surprising number of challengers to run against Iron County Board members in spring elections.
“I don’t remember the last time we had even one contested race for County Board supervisor,” said Mike Saari, who has served as county clerk for 15 years. “Even when a supervisor retires, only one person has run for the open seat.”
This year, 10 of the 15 board members are facing challengers. One veteran who has run unopposed every two years since the late 1990s will face a primary election on Feb. 18.
Jim Lambert, 71, who lives in the town of Mercer, has two opponents — one charging that he has been too soft on the Gogebic Taconite mining company and the other insisting that he hasn’t done enough to help the company.
Lambert said that it shows something if he’s made people mad on both sides of the mine debate. “I think I must be doing something right,” he said.
Dissatisfaction with services to senior citizens may have played a role in bringing forth challengers in the county’s four southernmost districts, but the mine appears to be behind most of the uprising, Saari and others said.
“Within my family and neighbors, I see it every day, people arguing,” said Tony Stella, a former county district attorney and longtime political observer who opposes the mine. “It’s like the civil war with brother fighting brother.”
Lambert and other Iron County Board members have taken the position that the county needs the hundreds of jobs the mine promises. They say that the 4½-mile-long iron mine can be operated without ruining the surrounding forest or the scores of lakes, streams and wetlands downhill from the site.
But there also have been disputes about county threats to evict a tribal encampment near the mine site, and disagreements after the company brought in paramilitary-style security guards in reaction to a protest that turned ugly. Persistent questions have been raised about how much the mine will benefit residents.
Critics like Stella say the County Board didn’t demand enough money in negotiations that gave Gogebic Taconite the option to lease more than 3,000 acres of county forest the company needs as a home for about half of the waste rock that is to be excavated from the mine.
The agreement will give the county 10 percent more than it would have earned on fees paid by lumber companies that cut trees on the land.
“It’s a joke, the lease,” Stella said. “And it’s something the county could have gotten wealthy on.”
Gogebic Taconite spokesman Bob Seitz said a new crop of trees will be planted on the waste rock, allowing the county to profit from timber again. The company is also paying $20,000 a year for the lease option, $10,000 for a permit to remove 4,000 tons of rock for testing and $600 so that a public hearing on the permit was scheduled quickly, Seitz said.
Residents should be happy that the County Board didn’t need to spend millions of dollars on incentives to attract the $4.5 billion mine, he said.
“They have not offered and we have not asked for a dime in loans, grants, or free sewer lines or anything like that,” he said. “All of the current board members have a favorable voting record on the mine.”
Seitz said he doesn’t know most of the challengers running for County Board, but he believes that four are in favor of the mine while about five may be against it. Saari said he didn’t know the stances of most of the candidates. Stella said nearly all may be against the mine.
In County Board District 11, Lambert will face two opponents with political acumen in the Feb. 18 nonpartisan primary that will place the two top vote-getters on the April 1 election ballot.
John Sendra, a longtime supporter of the mine, is a former Iron County Republican Party chairman. He lost a statehouse bid in 2012 to Rep. Janet Bewley, an Ashland Democrat.
The 67-year-old former restaurant owner said he is running because people have told him Lambert has made statements questioning aspects of the mine proposal.
“I am the pro-mining candidate,” Sendra said. “I don’t believe the myths about the large amounts of pollution. Ferrous mining doesn’t pollute. It can be compared to digging a gravel pit.”
Lambert’s other challenger is Vic Ouimette, 75, a former county Democratic Party chairman and retired insurance agent. He said he supports “responsible mining.”
Ouimette said several years ago he worked with Sendra to promote the mine and the jobs it would bring, but he grew disenchanted with provisions of the 2013 state mining law that weakened environmental protections and reduced the local share of tax benefits from the project.
“A lot of people are not as gung-ho, mine-at-any-cost as they were in the beginning,” Ouimette said. “People are asking more well-reasoned questions and looking at it from more well-reasoned approach.”
Saari said none of the candidates in any of the races has filed a financial report because none plan to spend much money campaigning. He said he remembers seeing candidate yard signs in some past elections, but the snow is so deep this winter that signs might not be practical — the wind might blow them away if they were planted atop snowbanks.
Lambert, who owns some cabins in rural Mercer that cater to people interested in fishing and snowmobiling, said he’s not sure what he did to find himself facing not one, but two opponents. Sendra and Ouimette are also trying to knock him out of his seat on the Mercer town board.
He believes they are probably campaigning actively, knocking on voters’ doors.
“I’ll do some of that,” Lambert said. “But the people in my district know what I stand for.”