Two years ago, Ronald Reagan courted the Bud Munsons of America. They would form the new Reagan governing majority and transform the political future, much as Franklin D. Roosevelt reshaped the national political mix of the past.
Munson was a perfect target for Reagan's message: the American Working Man personified.
At 50, Munson has been a strong union man and a Democrat. Once, he solidly backed the Democratic Farmer Labor brand of politics that has given Minnesota its liberal-progressive tradition. But over the years Munson, like so many other workers, changed.
As he moved out of the ranks of labor and became a salaried supervisor at the Erie Mining Co. here on the Iron Range, he became, as he says, more of an independent, with more of a conservative cast of mind.
The government was getting out of control, he says. The programs were not working. They needed cutting back. There were too many big spenders in Washington. He detested Jimmy Carter, felt his own Minnesotan, Walter F. Mondale, had become too liberal for him, and believed the country was becoming weaker militarily.
Bud Munson, who calls himself a hawk, voted for Reagan.
Now time and circumstances have changed Munson's views dramatically.
"I'd never vote for Ronald Reagan again," he says. "He's bad for the country. I don't think Ronald Reagan was given the mandate to do what he's done. If Ronald Reagan had taken things slowly, it might have been all right. But he's tried to change the entire government overnight, and he's going to find out two years from now that people didn't want him to do that.
"People don't like Reaganomics. I don't. I believe in a strong defense, but I can't see the things he's doing. I think his biggest mistake was transferring so much money from social programs to defense. I don't think the American people, as well as the people up here, think there's any reason to put that much money in defense.
"Ronald Reagan is a rich man's president. I definitely feel he's lowering my standard of living, and he's raising someone else's standard of living that doesn't need raising. If Ronald Reagan were unemployed, he wouldn't care what the inflation rate was. All he'd want would be a job. It's the No. 1 thing people want, a job."
Up here, a job is the one thing they do not have. Erie Mining, where Munson works, is a case in point. At its peak of production in the mid-1970s, Erie was shipping 10.8 million tons of iron ore pellets a year by Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes and directly into such Midwest mills as those of Cleveland and Gary. They formed the steel that went into automobile assembly lines. Since then, there has been a steady decline in production and employment. But the real blow fell last spring and summer.
With the steel companies experiencing their worst single year since 1932 and the domestic auto market being devastated by the declining economy, high interest rates and rising foreign imports, the great mining facilities along the fabled Mesabi Iron Range shut down with a clang. By July 4, all were closed, and 14,000 people were out of work.
This is the second in a series of articles during the congressional election campaign examining American communities in today's economic climate.
Recently, 1,500 workers have been recalled to the Range for at least temporary work. But the depression still holds its iron grip on this area, which is 1 1/2 hours by car due north from Duluth. In some communities, the unemployment rate has reached as high as 90 percent of the work force.
Prospects for resumption are dismal. Everywhere, people pass on rumors about callbacks, but forecasts keep slipping from October to January and beyond to next spring or even summer.
On a drive along the Range now, through the small towns of Hibbing and Virginia and Bibwabik and Aurora, set among the deep pine and birch woods along the lakes of northern Minnesota, past the huge mining operations that have left the landscape carved in tiers like some archeological excavation, one sees all- too-visible signs of this latest depression, for that is what it is here.
Stores along Main Street are boarded, and others are closing. "For Sale" signs are posted on cars, campers, trucks and motorcycles standing before homes on the selling block. There are no takers.
In front of the locally owned bank in Virginia, a wonderfully ornate old place that once served as the town's gilded-age railroad station, the electronic sign that flashes time and weather now repeatedly spells out the words, "Donate to the Food Shelf." That's the new area-wide program to encourage people to leave food for the new poor at grocery checkout counters and other places.
The personal signs are more difficult to determine, but nonetheless are grim. There is a feeling of helplessness and fear, qualities alien to people in this fiercely independent area.
"Now it's like an epidemic of depression," says Marlene Munig, who works with an increasing number of mental health cases along the Range. "This last year has been the worst, absolutely the worst."
At the Aurora union hall of Local 4108, United Steelworkers of America, George Lahti, James J. Kozar, Marilyn R. Grunwald, William Anderson and David Trach were talking about their problems with unemployment.
"We're being eliminated," one said. "We feel like we deserve a right to live and to enjoy life, and I don't mean for free. We deserve a right to work for it. We have more at stake in keeping the mines open than the companies. They can move elsewhere. But this is our whole life."
"The trickle-down Republican right to work doesn't work," another said. "The only thing that trickles down is poverty. They're making the country into two classes, the rich and the poor."
"Maybe as our bellies empty our minds will start to function better," another said, referring to political protest activity.
Banks are helping citizens as much as possible. For instance, they are permitting good customers to pay only the interest on home-mortgage payments. It's not only decent business behavior, but a business necessity.
"What else are we going to do with 1,900 installment loans? Have 600 repossessed cars sitting out front in our parking lot, or 10 or 15 houses that no one can afford to buy?" asks Kurt G. Sundquist, president of Virginia's Northern State Bank.
At this point, two groups are being hurt the most: small merchants and younger workers without the benefits accrued by senior employes. The depression bears harder on them in another important respect. Unlike those with 20 or more years in the mills, whose home mortgages are either paid or about to be and whose children are grown, they are trapped with high house payments, no way to sell if they choose, young children to support and little or no income.
Here, as in Danville, Ill., examined in an earlier article, a pathology of poverty exists. Social agencies are dealing with new and acute strains on family lives. They report increases in family abuse cases, in drinking, in acts of violence and divorce.
Especially difficult problems are being found among older people on retirement. They are increasingly fearful that Social Security benefits will expire, and they have heard horror stories about elderly disabled people being cut off the rolls. Mental health agency workers say they are experiencing an increase in threats of suicide among the elderly.
Here, as in Danville, one encounters unemployed men who have left their families to search for work out of state, but here the migration path seems to be west and north, to Wyoming and Alaska, rather than south and west, to Texas and California.
But too often the result is the same -- they return embittered after being unable to find work at wages that would permit them to pay off debts here and move their families there. Their return only adds to the sense of failure and frustration.
A housewife, who did not wish her family's name to be used, told of that experience. Her husband and two friends were among those who chose to go south instead of west when the full force of the depression here hit. They had heard of the big Texas boom.
Her husband found construction work in Dallas. After a few months, he sent for her and the children. They were unable to sell their Minnesota home, but left anyway with prospects of keeping up the mortgage payments here by making more money there. For awhile, all was fine. Then a slump hit Texas, and her husband was laid off.
"I liked it," she recalls, "the people, the climate, the schools. I took a job, but it was paying so low I couldn't make enough to help keep our house payments here. So I had to come back. And then he had to come back, because there was nothing there either. The hardest part was the children. They have been very upset by all this."
Now, she says, "It's very depressing. It puts you under a lot of stress. There's just nothing secure. Nobody realizes what it's doing to people. There are no words to describe it."
What is different about people here compared with those in Danville is their political reaction to layoffs and major industrial shutdowns threatening their livelihoods. In Danville, the problems have not produced a strong political reaction. Anger there lies beneath the surface, and political activity appears dormant. That is not so on the Iron Range, where emotions and political activities are heated.
Everywhere you go, cars sprout bumper stickers saying, "HUNGRY? Eat your foreign car!"
It is only one of many signs that the Iron Range remains what it always has been, a place of strong emotions and equally strong political action.
Even today, the Range retains a certain cast of mind growing out of its long and often violent past and the essential wildness and isolation of its region. Bitter strikes swept the mines. Blood was shed. One still hears old tales of men being buried alive deliberately in mines during a dispute or of pitched battles between workers and owners. Radicalism is no stranger here. Gus Hall, leader of the American Communist Party, comes from the Range, and a strong flavor of labor-capital confrontation remains.
Unemployed workers at the union local in Aurora, for instance, offer tough talk about the way today's U.S. corporations are owned and controlled. Conversations are dominated by discussions about the threat of foreign competition in cars and steel and about granting loans to such countries as Brazil to start massive iron ore mining operations there.
And there is equally strong talk about giant corporate takeover battles and mergers resulting in the big getting bigger and top executives becoming richer and richer, all the while growing more distant from their operations, such as those along the Range.
"We're going to run into the same situation with our basic industries -- steel, autos and the rest -- that we ran into with oil," one of several men seated around a table in the union hall said. "We're going to become more dependent on these foreign countries, and does it do any good for the people in this area? Everybody lives up here because he wants to, not because he has to.
"We want to keep the mines open. We want to work to keep industry going. If industry fails, we fail. But we're all tied to the national econony. We're tied to so many things we have no control over.
"These businesses in the United States are so tied together. Our businesses don't belong to this country any more. General Motors doesn't. Ford doesn't. Chrysler doesn't. Exxon doesn't. They're so big. They have so many ties around the world that they have no interest in the people of the United States.
"Their No. 1 interest is profits. They don't care how they get it. They don't care who goes down the tubes so long as they get it. If they make it in Taiwan, if they make it in Africa, they don't care as long as they make a profit. They would send this whole area down the tubes and not blink an eye. And they're doing it to the whole industrial states. They're sending the whole area down the tubes for profit."
Not surprisingly, such sentiments, coming out of such a historical background of activism, translate into renewed political efforts. Here, there is no question about people voting. The voter turnout for the Sept. 14 Minnesota primary set a state record. Nor is there any question about how they will vote on the Iron Range: Democratic, as usual.
The political questions come down to two:
For President Reagan, who boasts of his union background and of how many blue-collar voters he captured in 1980, it is how many Bud Munsons there are in today's American work force. For the Bud Munsons, it is whether their changing political views as expressed by the 1982 ballot will make any real difference in resolving new economic conditions confronting them and the nation.
The personal questions are more difficult and tragic. They involve the youth.
For years, young people have been leaving Minnesota's small towns, as well as other American communities, seeing greater opportunities elsewhere. But in the Iron Range, where traditions and family ties run so deep, enough always stayed to sustain the area. Now, that clearly is changing.
George Munig, whose wife assists mental health patients, teaches high school in Virginia. He invited me to meet with his government class of about 30, evenly divided between girls and boys, due to graduate next spring. I asked for a show of hands on how many planned to stay and live on the Iron Range. Not a hand was raised. When I asked why, a chorus swept the classroom: "No jobs." "No opportunities." "No future."
All planned to leave, taking the future of the Iron Range with them.