Sen. Tom Bakk is a union carpenter turned political giant and mining advocate.
As Bakk heads into political retirement in January after 29 years as a leader in the Minnesota Legislature, he sees a promising future for mining in northeastern Minnesota.
“As the country builds more windmills, that steel has to come from somewhere,” Bakk said. “And in looking at what’s going on in Russia and our reliance on China for critical minerals, I think more people are looking at the supply chain and bringing it back home, especially critical minerals”
Bakk grew up in Cook, graduated from Cook High School in 1972, and had a 20-year career as a Carpenters Union representative and business manager.
He grew to become one of the state’s most powerful and respected legislators.
As he heads toward retirement from the state legislature, Bakk sees positive developments for northeastern Minnesota mining.
“I’m bullish about the investment U.S. Steel is making at Keewatin,” Bakk said about development of an approximate $150 million DR-grade pellet system at United States Steel Corp.’s Keetac plant. “That’s a big deal. And I actually think at some point that Essar Steel is going to happen. I don’t know who’s going to own it. It may not be Essar, but someone else, but the ore there is too valuable. Once the litigation there gets resolved, I just have to believe something is going to happen I think it’s going to take some kind of a joint venture and it seems hard to believe that (Cleveland) Cliffs isn’t going to be part of that because they have a bunch of leases here and a bunch of surface.”
Bakk also believes the region’s copper, nickel, platinum group minerals projects will move ahead.
“The Range has always been a hard place to permit and it should be harder,” Bakk said. “We’ve got a lot of water here. It’s not like permitting something in a field in Iowa. I think eventually PolyMet happens in the next year and and I think in this Twin Metals federal lawsuit they prevail and they get back on track. You can’t move to electrification of our economy with electric cars without critical metals.”
Bakk in 1994 was first elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives.
In 2002, he was elected to the Minnesota Senate.
Over that time, Bakk was chosen by peers to several leadership positions and chaired some of the legislature’s top committees.
Bakk served as Senate majority leader, minority leader, tax committee chair, capital investment chair, and rules and administration chair.
During his political career, Bakk helped put together major deals on taxes, bonding bills, state budgets, natural resources, economic development, and jobs legislation.
He was also in the room with Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota Vikings and NFL officials as they pondered how to fund the state portion of construction for a new Vikings stadium.
“I said, “Why don’t we use electronic pull tabs’?” Bakk said.
On July, 22, 2016, the more than $1 billion new stadium opened with Bakk’s suggestion as one of the funding sources.
A four-sport athlete at small Cook High School, Bakk is known as a big player in state politics.
He’s recognized as a shrewd and calculating negotiator, and like his late sidekick, Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm, possesses the knowledge, ability and relationships to get projects moved ahead.
“Tom has been in the room in final negotiations for years,” Rep. Dave Lislegard of Aurora said. “To have someone from the Iron Range with the experience, with the institutional knowledge, is incredible. Tom Bakk had a say-so in anything that happened over the last decade.”
Bakk’s first exposure to mining came right after college, working construction at U.S. Steel’s Minntac Mine in Mountain Iron.
“In 1976, the mine was expanding and I went up to the concentrator to work for ABI,” Bakk said. “You might say my first real job was at Minntac, although it was for a contractor pouring concrete out there.”
In 1994, when Bakk decided to run for the House of Representatives, he was working in Carpenters Hall in Virginia as Carpenters Union business manager.
The United Steelworkers Local 1938 union headquarters was on the same floor.
“One of the candidates in 1994 was a steelworker and the steelworkers decided to endorse me,” Bakk said. “Back then, there was pretty good friction between the trades and the steelworkers in-house because they always felt the trades were coming to take their work. 1938 was housed right across the hallway from us, so we knew each other. But I was pretty proud they would trust a guy from the carpenter’s union in representing their interests at the Capitol.”
After being elected, Bakk said he learned a lot from business owners and colleagues about the impact of mining.
“As I got to know the business community and people like Ejay (Dawson at Five Seasons Sports Center) and Ken Waschke, you learn about the tentacles of mining,” Bakk said. “If the mines are making money, the guys are spending money.”
Bakk also became a board member at Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, the state of Minnesota economic development agency in Eveleth.
The agency is funded by taconite production taxes paid by northeastern Minnesota mining companies.
“If the mines don’t do well, the agency hurts and we can’t help communities,” Bakk said. “It (mining) is really the backbone of the economy.”
Mark Phillips, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation commissioner, says Bakk for years has been directly involved in key negotiations at the legislature.
“Nothing happened without his fingerprints on it,” Phillips said. “Nothing happened with mining legislation unless it was cleared with him. The bad things that could have happened never happened because he was a gatekeeper in a way.”
Bakk credits several late northeastern Minnesota legislators in being helpful to him after he was first elected and learning about mining and the legislative processes.
“(Tom) Rukavina was very helpful to me in 1994 in that 11-person primary and so was (Joe) Begich, ” Bakk said. “They kind of took me under their wings and so did Doug (Johnson), which is really important for new members. To some extent, the mentoring I had from Doug and Joe and Tom was very helpful in helping me understand how important mining is.”
Johnson, also a Cook High School graduate, was a powerful leader in the legislature from 1971 to 2002.
Johnson says there’s good reasons why Bakk grew into one of the state’s most respected legislators.
“Tom had a strong educational background and a family that was interested in politics and that made him a natural leader,” Johnson said. “It was the education of the St. Louis County Schools. He was a leader in the carpenter’s union, had the background and skills to be a leader, and he was loyal. If you’re going to be a leader, they have to trust you that you’re not going to stab them in the back.”
Bakk year-after-year played a major role in taconite tax legislation and the distribution of tax revenues to help northeastern Minnesota communities.
But to Bakk, one of his mining-related initiatives stands above all.
Bakk forged the Iron Range School Collaboration Account.
The account uses a portion of the taconite production tax to fund collaborative school projects and programs for school districts within the 13,000 square-mile Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation service area.
The fund has helped districts across the Iron Range build new schools and implement collaborative, innovative programs.
“I really thought it was right to help St. Louis County (Schools) because they had done the right thing,” Bakk said of the district closing several schools and building two new schools. “And the one thing I had always dreamed about was I was hoping some consolidation would happen with Eveleth, Virginia and Gilbert. We had to sweeten the pot a bit, but they did the right thing. When I spoke at the groundbreaking I warmed my heart. It kind of lived out my dream for the account. That account has done a lot for our K-12 system.”
Bakk continues to work at the state capitol, getting a bonding bill ready in the event a special session is called before he retires from the legislature.
Bakk says he’s not sure what he will do next, but he wants to continue to contribute to the region.
“I have to figure out what I want to do after January 1,” Bakk said. “Because I’m not somebody that’s not going to do nothing.”
Meanwhile, Bakk feels good about the direction of the Iron Range with its direct mining jobs, vendor support jobs and the business jobs mining supports.
“I’m pretty bullish on the future of the Range,” Bakk said. “There may be fewer jobs (in mining) as things continue to automate and get mechanized, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not important. There are still going to be lots of jobs there. If you’ve got natural resources, you have something of value. I think we’re going to be okay.”