On and Off

25 Nov

A sudden, cold terror grips him: he’s lost her. He said he’d stay by her side, be there in case anyone dared challenge her, give her an escape if this ball became intolerable. Of course she hadn’t asked him to; that was never her style.

Perhaps he presumes too much? Is he merely the fawning lap dog? She could have dumped him in the river months ago if he hadn’t piqued her interest somehow. No, she expects him to stay, probably even expects him to come find her now that she’s ditched the ball.

Merely a toy, then? He’s heard the line from her, time and time again: ‘the world is my plaything.’ But he’s seen her at her weakest, stumbled through some of her old college diaries in the bowels of a dresser drawer on that one lucky night when she let him in. He knows there are questions beneath, or at least there once were, before her name became the talk of that arena where she spends her frenetic days.

He chances one of the upper galleries of the hall, hoping his haste conveys none of his panic. She must know every back room of this place by now, and she no doubt knows people who could spirit her away, give her cover for days or even weeks. But is there anyone she trusts, any confidante she’d let see her soft side? He doubts it. She is a loner. He can find her, coax her back down.

He runs up one staircase, stumbles up the next, yells her name once he’s sure no one else at the party might hear. The reply comes reluctantly, resigned; she knew she couldn’t hide for long.

“What are you doing up here?” he bellows as he bursts through a door. He stops in awe.

“It’s a phenomenal view, isn’t it?”

He surveys the city as it unfolds beyond this topmost balcony to the hall: a city of lights robed in golden haze, its restless din dulled into a murmuring stream of life, while the river itself flows silently past, dark as the night except where it mirrors the gleaming towers on the opposite bank.


“Would you believe me if I told you I just want to jump on the next flight out of here? Forget it all?”

“But that’s ridiculous. You’ve got them all eating out of your hands, with how much you do to make things right. You work harder than anyone to pull it all off, and they know it. This city is yours.”

“Maybe too much mine to ever properly share it.”

“You’ve always been the queen of mystery.” He chances a knowing grin, but she shakes him off with a toss of her head.

“You look gorgeous, you know.”

She thanks him out of courtesy, suppresses her real thoughts: Lord, she tries, yet every new diamond or sequin only raises the stakes the next time, feeds the insatiable beast. It’s vain of her, of course: vanity trapped in her body, the only idol left for worship in this age beyond God. Her dear grandfather always said she should have been a nun, but even his faith would have crumbled if he could see what she had become: this woman of the world, born to rule.

“Want to just go for a get a drink, you and I? Leave all the intrigue behind?” He offers her an arm, his pained overtures suddenly channeling the gallantry she’d long wished he might someday muster.

“No, I think I’ll just walk by myself for a moment.”

She is cruel. He’s been good to her; he shares her humor, her commitment, and he’d sheepishly let her take him home earlier that spring. But he lacks her iron resolve, too easily lapses into blithe cynicism, any real depth concealed beneath a protective veil. He plays the same game, but that alone is enough for him, and she will always crave more. No apologies: she strides out past him, wishing this imposing façade could collapse upon the tumult within and smother it into submission.

Down a side staircase, out the kitchen entrance: she knows how to slip out of the spotlight, ever a talent she needs when wheedling the power brokers of this town into the belief that they call the shots. But it’s her, all her. Or so she tells herself, for how else can she keep the faith?

It’s a crisp night; perhaps she should be cold in this dress, but she has no mind for anything outward. She eases herself along the cobblestones, lets them turn her heels ever so slightly before she catches each step, wobbles her way toward the promenade along the river. Late-night revelry carries on all about, though no one knows her when she comes down from her rarified air. Or perhaps they do; she’s spent too much time up in that world, and now she shuts them out without a second thought. She went into politics to be their champion. And she has been, secretly tipping the agenda where she can. But it’s been too long. She’s lost touch. She said she’d never let this happen. But the zeal is gone, and the revolution has left her behind.

She could fix that now, if she so desired. But no. Somehow, this is all alright. She was never here to blow up the world; she merely came to shepherd her flock along. Perhaps her grandfather was on to something after all. She repeats the mantra she uses to train her will: the ceaseless refrain, stashed away in her brain and yet impossible to find when she truly needs it, when it might blast through her lingering doubts and save her from the thousand little deaths she dies every day. Turn it on, turn it off. Every day that light detached manner, that effortless zeal for the mundane tasks at hand, all the while biding; biding her time for the battles she chooses that will actually give it all some meaning.

Turn it on, turn it off. Turn it on, turn it off.

She stops along the bridge and gazes at the water, mesmerized; perhaps this is where she should see wonder in simplicity, fall into the gentle rhythms that can guide her along into a meditative bliss that eases these demons to bed. But no; not here, not now. She is still on edge, that drive outward in full control, and deep inside her she knows that she cannot separate those demons from the hunger that has made her what she is, this guardian of a city, this lady of her realm. She cannot turn it off.

She catches her reflection in the window of an idling taxi and wraps her shawl tighter around her dress. He does not lie: she really does look that good. But it’s all an illusion, is it not? She’s built it up for too long; illusion has slowly leeched into reality, and now she cannot separate the two. She can wonder at it all, but only with a skeptical eye, forever aware that her moment here will never last. At its best it swells in a surge of bravado, but it seems reckless to cling to this juvenile urge to take command. If mere youthful beauty is all she has, what will endure when this all fades away? She’s not young anymore.

Perhaps it’s time to move on. She’s given this place all she has, and it has taken that and more from her. If the wonder is dead, what is left? Is her god really some vague sense of awe, some raw emotion with nothing to ground it but her own cynical eye?

Best to let it surge again, to blink back that tired eye and turn it back on. She has a party to return to, a city to rule, a man to tease as he pursues her deep into the night. It has all come in to focus because she has turned it off, unwittingly: this little step back out into the night, all the wilderness she needs.

It doesn’t happen when she wills it. No, it happens only when it comes to consume her life so fully that she has no other choice. Submission, she supposes: for all her struggles for control, she is still a slave to these currents that bear her along. Perhaps all she can do is ride them, feeble as that may seem. Become one with the water, or some such cliché.

“I would have jumped by now if I were you.”

She starts in shock. A woman leers at her; a grotesque, doddering crone who most likely climbed down from the eve of some Gothic church. But she can see how close she’s come to the rail, how fixated she must seem, and she lets loose a manic laugh.

“I’m afraid I drowned myself years ago,” she says. “And I don’t regret it one bit.”

Her gargoyle squints at her and nods before shuffling onward along the bridge. Her smile blossoms outward: this woman, too, is one of her children, one of her fellow lost souls who can’t quite cooperate with all this order she tries to impose. A flaw in the plan? No, just a reminder of how much life there is in the darkness, even when it all goes off. These are her people down in here, just as much as she is one with her erstwhile lover back at the ball, the closest she has to a kindred spirit. Perhaps if he could join her down here, he’d understand. It would be a risk to ask it of him. But these shifts are too much to handle alone.

Turn it on, turn it off. Turn it on, turn it off.

She wakes early the next morning, has every intention to slip away while he stays sprawled among the sheets. But this time, she stays. Is a false love better than none at all? For now, she supposes, it will have to do. There is still some hope for him. She needs just one thing: someone else who can embrace the totality of these swells. Her faith wavers. But here, and only here, can it become something beyond that inane cycle of ons and offs and infuse it with a sense of direction. The time will come. For now, her city beckons.

“Come on,” she coaxes, shaking him awake.

“Lay off,” he grumbles as he flops over on to his chest and buries himself in a pillow. She laughs in delight, pulls him upright, and throws aside a curtain to let in the morning sun.

“Not quite as good as your balcony,” he muses, staring out at the dingy apartment across the street.

“But just as much ours.”

“You off to wander alone again?”

“I’m certainly going to wander. Whether I’m alone is up to you.”

Why High School Hockey?

19 Nov

Some people who read this blog know me first and foremost as a commentator on high school hockey. Others, who come for the other stuff, tend to skip over it, with reactions ranging from bemusement to downright incomprehension. I don’t blame them; I know this place is eclectic, and a high school sport may seem a strange obsession for someone whose other interests include local politics and intellectual musing. So why do you do it, Karl?

The easiest explanation is that it’s just an accident of history: I grew up on the east side of Duluth during a time when that part of the city put out plenty of hockey talent. I went to a high school blessed with a strong hockey legacy, and even the kids who didn’t much care for the sport would come to a few games and join the party in the stands. The juicy storylines surrounding our coach—Mike Randolph was headline news my eighth grade year when he temporarily lost his job—added to the intrigue when I went to Duluth East. Those stories only got crazier my freshman year, as a tumultuous season on and off the ice resulted in a surprise playoff run. The Hounds missed the Tourney my last three years in high school, but those section losses, each more excruciating than the last, left a feeling of unfinished business. Those years also aligned with the peak of the East’s rivalry with Cloquet, a legitimate war that was on par with any high school sports clash in the country. The program seemed bigger than life, and came to define the East experience.

East has made the State Tournament every year since my graduation, which has made it easy to stay in touch. Even when I lived on the East Coast, I’d fly back for the Tourney, and it was always an impromptu reunion, a way to keep those old ties going as I crashed on friends’ couches, bumped into them in the upper deck, or joined them for drinks after the games. That tradition now has a life of its own, and I expect it to endure no matter the Hounds’ fortunes in the coming years. It’s a ritual that keeps me true to my roots.

And so I’ve been sucked in. I’m not the sort who can half-ass anything, and so I couldn’t just be a casual fan; I had to learn everything I could about every team, and before long I was posting about it on an internet forum, and one thing led to another. I now moonlight as a high school hockey talking head, putting in many hours, compensated only with the occasional beer and some nasty anonymous comments. Those internet ties kept me in touch when I moved away, and are even more important as my own time at East fades into the rear view mirror. There are moments where the madness of it all wears me down, but they never last long, and I’ve built some real connections with people through my work, too.

Still, hockey goes deeper than a mere childhood backstory. It has quirks that are downright fun, from hockey hair to public-private rivalries to opportunities to remind Edina that they’re still cakeaters. Hockey is also a marker of regional identity, and an eternal point of pride for those of us who hail from the North. American hockey was born here, and while the tropes of hard-working northern boys can wear thin, there’s still enough truth to it that we take this mantel seriously, and there’s always that air of allure when an entire town heads south and shocks St. Paul in March.

On another level, the allure is aesthetic. Hockey is a beautiful sport. This will baffle anyone who immediately associates it with fights and lost teeth, but where else can one find such consistently smooth play? It has much longer stretches of action than football or baseball; scoring is neither as incessant as in basketball nor as sparse as in soccer. Two minutes on the clock actually take about two minutes. To even begin, hockey players must master movement on two thin blades of metal and glide easily across a rink. Next come the soft hands and slick passing, the ability to wield a stick and flip a puck across the ice on instinct. Add a layer of strategy, and you have units of players floating about in forty-second spurts, making extreme exertion look seamless. High school skills on all these fronts run the gamut, making it that much easier to enjoy the best of them.

And then, yes, there is the violent side. Hockey combines its grace with some punishing body blows, though unlike other contact sports, it’s possible to play it well without the brutality. While there are obvious limits—no kid with repeated head trauma should stay on the ice—I also think there’s an unfortunate, growing societal stigma around raw, physical activities, as the parental sheltering becomes ever more oppressive. Sports like this are not for everyone, but they are wonderful releases of pent-up forces, particularly young men with an excess of testosterone. It taps into that primal urge without putting it center stage, and channels it toward a greater goal.

So why high school, in particular? College and NHL hockey are also big in Minnesota, and my loyalties could have progressed with my own added years. High school is cleaner in a number of respects, but there’s no shortage of things to decry about the state of youth hockey today, from exorbitant costs to some unseemly searches for greener grass. (Note that I certainly don’t lump all transfers or early departures into that category.) Defenders of the sport, including a famed Sports Illustrated piece from a few years back, point to its purity. To an extent, this is true, though as I’ve noted before, few things are less pure than the minds of teenage boys. But if purity isn’t quite the right word, it does hint at something: the sheer, unbridled joy of doing what one loves. High school hockey has a special panache to it; a combination of raw force and light artistry that fuels a fire on the ice, and taps into a restless hunger that I hope I never lose. At the high school level it spills over into the stands, where student sections let loose and feed an atmosphere that can sweep up an entire community. All of the petty divides that often define high school fall away behind a common mission, if only for a few hours. It helped turn an often awkward stage in life into something I now recollect with nothing but fondness.

A few people are weirded out by the fixation on high school kids, but hockey in Minnesota is cross-generational, something that ropes in parents and grandparents as much as the kids. I also think it’s a healthy thing to take an interest in people outside of one’s often myopic age group, and high school is a particularly formative time. The experiences many of these kids have here are some of the most important forces in shaping a life, and hockey can push them to achieve things they never could have before. Readers of my Tournament reflections will know that some of the most crystallizing moments for me have been those press conferences after losses where I see kids contemplate life beyond high school for the first time, now that a run for one of their greatest passions has come to an end. It’s an essential part of a coming-of-age story, and the commitment and work ethic and sense of camaraderie many of these boys build do indeed serve them well in whatever comes next. The attention we heap on high school students can go far; I’ll admit to some squeamishness about media outlets that fixate pre-high school hockey (especially if they try to rate or hype up individuals), and take my role on the Forum as a defender of high schoolers from slander or libel more seriously than anything else I do in the hockey world. But this is also a time to begin that transition into life in the public eye, and once again, I’m skeptical of anything that shelters anyone for too long.

Hockey intertwines with my own story, too: it can’t be a coincidence that my two greatest sports loyalties crystallized immediately after the two most disruptive incidents in my personal life. For a little while, it was both a release and a distraction, and those bright spots endure. No doubt sports obsessions can grow unhealthy; people make dumb decisions that prioritize sports over life, or fall victim to a broader athletic culture that doesn’t always have its priorities right. But for every skipped test or Twitter dust-up, my hockey work has become one of the healthiest things I do: it puts it all into perspective. Just as it pushes us out into the world, it also lets us retreat from it, if only for a few moments. It’s an entirely different realm from school and work life, and it’s a blessed relief to come down from weighty real world affairs and watch a bunch of kids scoot around in pursuit of a piece of rubber. Anyone wanna join me at a rink this winter?

Two Last 2015 Duluth Election Maps

11 Nov

By popular demand, here’s a quick follow-up to my last post with two more maps: one on the ranked-choice voting ballot initiative, and another on the Lakeside liquor law.

Nonbinding Vote to Repeal the Lakeside Liquor Ban


The entire city, for some reason, got a say on whether the Lakeside neighborhood should sell alcohol or not. The initiative had more than 50 percent support in every precinct, but the four precincts that represent Lakeside had the four lowest percentages of people in support. While a narrow majority supported liquor sales in three of the four, and somewhat larger percentage did so in a fourth, opinion remains divided. The west side, meanwhile, really supports booze on the far east end. The results in Lakeside had a 3 percent shift toward the pro-alcohol side since the 2008 referendum, so things are starting to move, but it’s hardly a mandate from the people of Lakeside.

Cards on the table: I vote absentee in Precinct One (the far east part of Lakeside) and support opening up the neighborhood to liquor sales. However, given this shifting but still divided electorate, I think a compromise is in order. The city already bent the rules once for the area to allow liquor sales at the Lester Park Golf Course clubhouse, so I think it’s perfectly reasonable to do the same for New London Café or any other restaurants that may pop up in the neighborhood, if they so desire. That could even pump some life into the neighborhood’s little downtown. If they want to continue to block liquor stores until there’s broader support, I think that would be a reasonable accommodation of public opinion. Of course, there are arguments that cast aside public opinion in favor of ideals, but this is probably the best way to find some middle ground.

Ranked Choice Voting


First off, there’s one very clear outlier. RCV had majority approval in the precinct that covers the UMD campus; it didn’t get over 36 percent of the vote anywhere else. To the extent that many UMD students vote from their on-campus address, they tend to be mobilized by student groups or activist organizations, so their support makes some sense. That precinct also had the smallest number of votes of any precinct—less than one-third the average, and one-fifth that of some the largest—making it more vulnerable to swings related to sample size. It could be interesting to see an age breakdown, though I’d add that an informal sampling of my own peer group (mid-20s people) revealed widespread skepticism. I’d guess this is a localized result, and little more.

The other four precincts that mustered over 30 percent support for RCV are on the near east side, and in areas with fairly high poverty rates. While this is still a pretty decisive rejection, the somewhat higher approval rate here might stem from the (highly questionable) claim that the voting system somehow increases the number of diverse voices. Basically everyone else rejected it by a very large margin, and I don’t think one can read much into an east-west narrative here. The unease with it cut across all parts of the city and demographic groups. It’s time to find some methods to increase citizen participation with broader support, even if they may take more work within the community.

That’s all I’ve got for this election cycle. I’ll have some final words on the outgoing politicians when their terms come to an end in January, and we’ll see how the newcomers do when they make their way into office.

Duluth’s Divisions, Revisited: 2015 Election Analysis

9 Nov

After a minor delay, here’s a dip into the details of the latest election. As you may notice, my map-making skills have come a long way since I last did this.


School Board At-Large race, Alanna Oswald vs. Renee Van Nett (Shown in terms of Oswald’s vote share)

We’ll start with the closest race of the night, the battle between Alanna Oswald and Renee Van Nett for the at-large school board seat. Van Nett’s campaign had a more explicit emphasis on racial equity—even if it was a bit vague on how that was supposed to look in practice—which probably explains her success in the city’s most liberal districts on the east side and in the center of the city. She also may have benefitted from sharing a ticket with the popular David Kirby in District Two in the center-east part of the city. Oswald, meanwhile, focused more directly on east-west equity, which helped her carry the west side. Oswald’s more critical history of the administration and endorsements from the likes of Harry Welty also likely helped her out west, where skepticism of the administration is higher. Still, she was much more than an anti-establishment protest candidate, as evidenced by her success in places like Lakeside and the areas over the hill. She was a nuanced candidate who ran a strong campaign, and gave Duluth a rare upset of a DFL-endorsed candidate in a city-wide race.

2015 Duluth Mayoral Race, shown as Emily Larson's margin of victory over Chuck Horton

2015 Duluth Mayoral Race, shown as Emily Larson’s margin of victory over Chuck Horton

The main event of the evening doesn’t look all that thrilling; Emily Larson won every precinct in the city in the mayoral race. Still, the margin wasn’t consistent, and reveals the old east-west divide that has punctuated most two-horse races in this city for at least the past decade, if not longer. (Someone with a longer historical memory than a 25-year-old will have to weigh in on the older details.) These results suggest the east side is again driving the agenda, while the west comes along for the ride with varying levels of agreement.

Elissa Hansen's performance, 2015 city council at-large election.

Elissa Hansen’s performance, 2015 city council at-large election.

Noah Hobbs' vote share, 2015 city council at large election.

Noah Hobbs’ performance, 2015 city council at large election.

In the city council at-large race, Elissa Hansen won all but four precincts, though her margins again tend to map on to the east-west divide. Like Larson, she is a poster child for continuing the Ness governing vision with her optimism, youth, and emphasis on inclusion. She lost three precincts to Noah Hobbs, and the two tied in the fourth. All four were pretty predictable: Hobbs, a recent UMD grad, carried the precinct on the UMD campus, and did the rest of his damage on the west side. Hobbs is a died-in-the-wool west-sider, so this only makes sense. (It wasn’t an accident that those lawn signs had Denfeld colors.) This is a second straight election that a younger person has eclipsed the establishment favorite on the west side, but I wouldn’t read anything too deep into this. Zack Filipovich simply had a stronger ground game than Barb Russ on the west side, and Hobbs’ ties carried the day on Tuesday.

Jim Booth's performance, 2015 city council at-large election

Jim Booth’s performance, 2015 city council at-large election

Jim Booth, a Duluth Heights resident, did best up in that region. As the relative conservative in this race, I thought he might do somewhat better on the west side, and while his percentages were somewhat higher, he still ran behind Hobbs nearly everywhere. An explicit west side focus outweighs any ideological loyalty. Anyone who seeks to speak specifically for that side of the city will do well.

Sticking with the west side theme, these themes become more acute with if we hone in on the Fifth District race. Here, Jay Fosle beat Janet Kennedy by a fairly comfortable margin. Still, the district has two clear halves: in the Denfeld and Oneota areas, Kennedy kept things very competitive; she was within 21 votes in the four easternmost precincts in the district. However, she got whipped in the far west precincts, particularly in Fond-du-Lac, Gary-New Duluth, and Morgan Park. This is Fosle’s home base, so it’s not stunning, and across the board, these very far west areas were some of the strongest areas for the more conservative candidates in the field. To the extent that the west side now has an anti-establishment reputation, it is rooted in the very far west.

2015 5th District city council race, Jay Fosle vs. Janet Kennedy, shown in terms of Fosle's vote share

2015 5th District city council race, Jay Fosle vs. Janet Kennedy, shown in terms of Fosle’s vote share

This may be a long-running trend, and the precincts in question are a small enough sample that personal ties for someone like Fosle can make a big difference. Still, this gap endures despite a very intentional effort by the Ness administration to launch a redevelopment effort in this particular corridor over the past two years. That’s significant, and shows that the west side, even if they like the leader of the River Corridor Coalition as a city councilor, still isn’t entirely on board. Once again, the west side wants to talk about west side issues, not the broader liberal ideas one tends to hear from the establishment candidates.

At the risk of conflating a mild political divide and a much deeper discussion, the west side’s demographics hew to a recent attention-grabbing study on the plight of working-class white men. This group feels increasing alienation from the people in power, and whether this involves suicide or more insidious forms such as heavy drinking or drug use—a concern that Fosle, to his great credit, was waving in the face of the Council several years ago—they are dying at a faster rate than before. It’s certainly not hard to see how this affects politics. (See Trump, Donald.) These are somewhat more existential questions on the fate of the American Dream, some of which I’ve explored before, and that theoretical discussion needs to continue. In the meantime, though, cleaning up that steel mill site and other post-industrial dreck, building some new housing on the site of a shuttered school, and bringing some jobs back to the west side will have to do.

In the big picture, however, Fosle’s constituents have themselves a protest vote. Don Ness was not running for office on Tuesday, but he loomed large over the whole race, and his ethos reigns supreme. The city’s government is younger, and solidly on the left side of the political spectrum. Ness’s legacy will last long beyond his eight years in office, and while it will be many years before we can cast final judgment, there’s certainly more cause for optimism now than there was eight years ago. For most Duluthians, the trajectory forward was so obvious that it wasn’t really up for debate in this election cycle.

Still, there is nuance here. Duluth rejected the vogue electoral system because it didn’t get caught up in the latest flashy trend with no actual evidence backing it, and that is a win. A mild upset in the school board at-large race shows some discontent with the direction of the school district, and a refusal to impose a single vision upon it without debate. There is room in the tent for east side liberals and west-side loyalists; for total believers in the Ness vision and a loyal opposition. The more open the process, the greater the odds that a portion of the city won’t get left behind. We’ll see what Emily Larson and friends do with that new mandate.

Duluth General Election Results and Comments, 2015

3 Nov

Another election season has come and gone. Your results, with percentages followed by actual vote totals:

Duluth Mayor

Emily Larson 71.9 (15,352)

Chuck Horton 27.5 (5,862)

It’s a long-anticipated coronation, as Larson rolls into office. She’s basically been inevitable since most of the realistic challengers stood down early in the election cycle, and now she finally gets to move toward governance. Her policies will likely be a continuation of those of her predecessor, Don Ness; under Larson, Duluth should continue its re-invention as a creative, energetic city. Still, she’ll certainly have an opportunity to carve out her own legacy outside of Ness’s long shadow, and we’ll see what innovative ideas she brings forward, and how she looks to manage those who aren’t all on board with the Ness agenda. She is Duluth’s first female mayor.

City Council District One

Gary Anderson 61.9 (3,902)

Karl Spring 37.9 (2,389)

No great surprise here, as the far east side elects the more liberal candidate to replace Jennifer Julsrud.

City Council District Two

Joel Sipress (I) 97.5 (2,891)

After an unopposed run, Sipress returns to a council where he is suddenly among the more senior members. First appointed in 2014 after Patrick Boyle was elected to the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners, he now gets a full four-year term.

City Council District Three

Em Westerlund 82.4 (2,278)

Barri Love (withdrew from race) 16.8 (465)

Love’s withdrawal left Westerlund with no competition in this race to replace Sharla Gardner in the center of the city.

City Council District Five

Jay Fosle (I) 56.4 (2,215)

Janet Kennedy 43.4 (1,705)

The far west side of the city retains its contrarian streak and returns Fosle, a frequent skeptic of the Ness governing consensus, for a third term. Kennedy made up some ground on her primary gap, but ultimately failed to break through. Fosle is usually left playing the grumbling protest vote, though I definitely give him credit for occasional independent streak that produces some insights and occasionally highlights some perspectives that wouldn’t otherwise get a seat at the table. He is now the most senior member of the council.

City Council At-Large (Two open seats)

Elissa Hansen 37.8 (12,192)

Noah Hobbs 28.8 (9,271)

Jim Booth 21.5 (6,922)

Kris Osbakken 11.5 (3,699)

This script looks just like the one two years ago, as the two DFL candidates move through, leaving a conservative in third and a local Green Party figure in fourth. Hansen, a dynamic candidate with a background in economic development, was a shoo-in from the start. Hobbs, a younger guy with a lot of passion for the west side, should provide an interesting voice in coming debates over the future of that side of the city. The other two were always long shots.

City Council Big Picture: The Council’s ideological composition didn’t shift at all, as the lone conservative incumbent retained his seat and moderate liberals cleaned up everywhere else. There is on notable shift, though: there’s a youth movement afoot. Three of the nine councilors are now under thirty, and a fourth is in her thirties. In Don Ness’s wake there has been a generational shift in this city, and there’s a lot of young energy making its move into city politics. Do my generation proud, kids.

School Board District Two

David Kirby 59.7 (2,776)

Charles Obije 40.0 (1,857)

Kirby’s big lead from the primary carried through to the general election, and it’s little surprise to see him cruise through in a wealthy district that values its public education. He succeeds the polarizing Judy Seliga-Punyko, and he now gets to negotiate the school board minefield: is his positive talk a genuine desire to move forward from all this past junk, or will he follow his predecessor in staking out the battle lines? I thought Obije appeared a strong candidate, and hope he remains involved in some capacity.

School Board District Three

Nora Sandstad 64.2 (3,111)

Loren Martell 35.2 (1,705)

This makes three elections and three decisive losses for Martell; I thought he had a chance this time around, given his exposure through Reader columns and a more forgiving district. Instead, Sandstad carried the day. Like Kirby, she’s largely kept mum on big issues and said all the right things about staying positive and moving past recent ugliness; the big question now is how her apparent independence will play out in practice.

School Board At-Large

Alanna Oswald 51.5 (9,621)

Renee Van Nett 47.6 (8,910)

The tightest race of the evening also involved its biggest shift from the primary, as Oswald came back from an early deficit to ease past Van Nett. She was probably the most dynamic campaigner of the bunch, and if she can bring this energy to the board, it will be a very different place. If she can retain her independence, she’ll be a force. I also hope Van Nett continues her advocacy in key areas even though she’s not on the board.

School Board Big Picture: It’s a potential changing of the guard in ISD 709, as three consistent votes in the monolithically pro-administration bloc retire and three fairly new faces in Duluth school debates make their way in. Unlike some of the current and outgoing members, they don’t have long records siding with one side of the dead horse Red Plan debates. With two solid pro-administration votes and two staunch critics among the remaining members, these three now have the power to play kingmaker. Whatever they decide, one hopes they will stay above past squabbles, ask tough questions, and dig into the district’s most pressing debates. Color me cautiously optimistic that some new blood will leave the old debates behind and provide a much-needed jolt of energy for the real issues at stake.

Ranked Choice Voting Ballot Question

No 74.7 (15,564)

Yes 25.3 (5,271)

Mission accomplished.

My own opinions aside, this was quite the decisive vote. It shows how a campaign with considerable outside financial backing can fall to a largely grassroots local campaign (though Walter Mondale did weigh in on the ‘no’ side in the final week). It’s also distinctly Duluth, as the city chose not to follow in lockstep with the trend in the Twin Cities. Duluth elections will be a bit simpler for it, and perhaps we’ve finally heard the last of this well-intentioned but poorly supported and ultimately misguided attempt to “improve” democracy. Back to the real issues.

Non-Binding Lakeside Liquor Ban Repeal

Yes 59.3 (11,528)

No 40.7 (7,912)

This was, weirdly, a city-wide question, and the rest of the city had stronger opinions than the Lakeside residents did. Even so, opinion in Lakeside has shifted some since the 2008 referendum on this topic; at that point, it fell one vote short, while the DNT is now reporting the repeal got about 53 percent of the vote. Before I die, I will be able to buy a damn beer in my childhood neighborhood. (No, the 3.2 Coors at Super One does not count.)

Method of Setting City Council Pay Ballot Question

Yes 67.0 (14,031)

No 33.0 (6,917)

This procedural move lets the Charter Commission set council pay, which seems a bit wiser than letting them just vote on it themselves. Any new pay grade will still require Council approval. We’ll see if anything actually comes of this and revisit it if and when that debate starts up.

Time-permitting, I’ll be back with some comments on precinct-by-precinct results in the near future. Stay tuned.

Ranked Choice Voting Is Still Mostly Useless

28 Oct

Duluth has some elections next week, and while I’ve handicapped most of the races at one point or another and don’t have many new things to say about them, I will spend some time on the topic that seems to generate the most debate in the social media world. That topic is…ranked choice voting (RCV). (In past posts I’ve used its other name, IRV, but I’ll use RCV this time since that’s the language on the ballot.) I went into greater depth on its flaws in this past post, and would point anyone interested in learning about RCV in that direction.

First, let’s clear up one misconception particular to the Duluth case: the initiative on the ballot, as currently proposed, will not eliminate those “costly” primary elections in Duluth. It covers only mayoral and city council elections, so the city will still need to roll out the whole show for the school board and anything else requiring a primary. Not only will there be no cost savings, it simply passes the costs off on a cash-strapped school board.

Otherwise, I’ll just point out that all of the claims for it are questionable at best. For every warm and fuzzy Minneapolis IRV election (which had lower turnout anyway), there are frustrations in Oakland. For every claim of empowerment of minorities, there’s a study pointing out that their ballots are more likely to be spoiled. For every San Francisco election (which invariably elects a popular liberal candidate, no matter what), there is another lawsuit and attempt to amend the system. Supporters and opponents can argue turnout numbers for all eternity.

It is most important to judge RCV not by its performance in obvious elections (as was the case in Minneapolis last time around), but by its performance in close ones. Here, things grow much murkier, with (right or wrong) questions of legitimacy and moves to repeal. Once RCV becomes an issue, the controversy never goes away. Just ask the one-third of U.S. municipalities that have repealed it after adoption. Is this really a debate we want to keep having every four years? Or maybe, just maybe, there are more pressing political questions to which we should devote our time and money.

Finally, there’s a claim circulating that the elected officials in Duluth who have come out against it are all just maintaining current power structures because they work for them. This is absurd. First off, most of the politicians who oppose RCV in Duluth won their elections comfortably, and would be in office with any voting method. (The lone exception, perhaps, is Don Ness, who could well have lost out in a crowded 2007 field that he did not lead after the primary.) Also, basically everyone who has come out against it for more than the most basic reasons is doing so because they were educated by a group of concerned UMD professors. (This includes me.) These professors are not politicians, and have nothing to gain personally from their campaign. They went in curious about RCV, learned more than anyone else, and came away unimpressed. Ever since, they’ve been doing their civic duty to inform anyone who will listen. This is the way local politics should work.

The only side in this election using any distinctive political muscle is the “yes” campaign, which is driven by the Twin Cities-based branch of Fair Vote Minnesota, a national organization whose ubiquity in these debates makes it hard to find any neutral voices in popular media. (Just google the term and see how many of the results include comments from Fair Vote or one if its proxies.) Naturally, they’d reject the label of an outside interest group, but that is just what they are here, as they spend a heap of money in a city they do not live in to influence an election. It’s all rather funny: I suspect most of the Fair Vote people are strong proponents of campaign finance reform and keeping big, distant, moneyed interests out of politics, and yet…here they are.

I’m sure the people of Fair Vote think they’re promoting democracy and doing the right thing, despite what the evidence might say. Their civic interest is admirable. Far less admirable is the missionary zeal with which they pitch their cause. The shrill tenor of the debate and dismissal of critics as simpletons or bigots is especially ironic, given the claim that RCV is supposed to reduce negativity in campaigns.  Somehow, RCV has become part of a religious cause; one that is incapable of self-reflection and above any criticism, and considers the cause more important than the deliberative democratic process it needs to go through to become reality. If only it were actually a cause worth fighting for.

Driftless III

25 Oct

Happiness is not, nor can it be, terrestrial. Nor can it be a permanent state. Humans can be happy but for an instant…But its brevity does not matter: an instant can be a window unto eternity.

–Octavio Paz

2015-10-18 13.43.05

Fall is one of the best times to go hiking in the Upper Midwest. Green hills erupt into flames of red and yellow and orange. The air is crisp enough to invigorate after a summer of languor, but not yet frigid enough to force a retreat beneath the covers. Whether along the ridges of the North Shore or the meandering valleys of the Driftless Area, the countryside beckons. In need of escapes after a long week, we run off into the woods and go barreling up and down bluffs and hills with reckless abandon.

The metaphor here is none too subtle. We’re running up these hills in search of something. It’s a constant hunger, an ambition to push to the top, wherever we may be. It’s an old trope, though its sincerity takes some edge off the cliché. We can only linger at the top for a moment, but the real power comes in the push to the summit, the pursuit of goals at a breathless pace. And the view, even if it lasts only an instant, remains etched in the mind’s eye, that lone memory of this season that will endure.

This fall brings on new levels of relentlessness. And yet those moments still come: those moments when we get closer and realize that the narratives we write aren’t about progress from one thing to the next but instead a ceaseless cycle that brings things in and out, forward and back, the past and the future blurred in some formless thing we call ourselves. This land we walk upon was here long before us, and will be long after. We only have a fleeting window to leave a mark.

And so we push up the peak even faster. Now is the time to remember that it’s all in the service of something, all part of some greater mission, and that the exertion is worth every ounce. Beneath an Indian summer sun and a ceiling of golden boughs, it’s not hard to imagine an order behind it all; some higher power at work. But the true believers run the risk of assuming they have it all figured out; that one view from the summit reveals all. Perhaps the simple beauty of the moment is enough, and we can instead work to preserve it, to make sure that all can enjoy these little glimmers. But a rootless commitment to the good cannot endure; it must be able to perpetuate itself, and to feed the fire anew.

To what end? The answer is buried amid fallen leaves, none too easy to decipher. A glimpse here or there will have to do. The sun sinks toward the horizon, but we still have time to climb one more hill, do we not? Who knows what the next one will reveal. It may not be anything too different. But the push conditions us, and we know that, no matter where the path may twist, we’ll have the energy to finish the journey. Even in autumn, youth: the will to never cease this desire to form a little world where we can reach the apogee of human achievement, in whatever form that may take. Ever upward.


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