Pinstriped Pleasures

22 Oct

Half the fun of being a Yankees fan is the freedom to revel in being rich and evil. By those standards, the Bronx Bombers’ 2017 season was an odd one. With this year’s squad, we had a chance to enjoy things the way most other fans must: with cautious optimism, excitement at rising prospects, and eventually coming to realize that hey, maybe this team can make the playoffs and has a fighting shot once it’s there! This Yankee team was fun to watch, their most entertaining in years, and gave a necessary jolt of life to a franchise that had been treading water for years.

This didn’t come out of nowhere. Luis Severino and Gary Sanchez had both shown their potential at the major league level, and there are always enough high-priced stars in the Yankee constellation to keep them relevant, even if said stars are past their prime (CC Sabathia), having down years (Masahiro Tanaka), or otherwise not living up to their contracts (Jacoby Ellsbury). In the Age of the Bullpen, they had about as impressive an assemblage of talent for the late innings as any team ever. With a young core and a strong farm system, an 88-win season and a chance at the second wild card berth didn’t sound too outlandish at the start. The ultimate result was within the margin of error of that prediction.

It didn’t come easy, though. Many of the things we assumed would be strengths (Tanaka, that bullpen) were surprisingly inconsistent. Injuries depleted the lineup at times, most notably to Gary Sanchez, but also afflicting Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro after fine starts to the season, and ruining most of Greg Bird’s year. The Yankees had the run differential of a team that should have won 100 games, meaning their end total of 91 was in some sense a pretty serious underachievement.

They made up for it in the postseason. After an early deficit against the Twins made the Wild Card game look lost from the get-go, Gregorious had an instant response, and the Yankee offense rolled from there. Down 0-2 to a Cleveland juggernaut after a brutal blown lead, they flipped a switch and restored order in the Bronx behind a rejuvenated rotation and that bullpen. Again down 0-2 to Houston, the offense awoke at home in Game 3, and a late stunner in Game 4 seemed to flip the whole series. Yankees fans had every reason to be confident heading back to Houston with a 3-2 lead in the ALCS, but you can’t predict baseball, Suyzn, and the feisty Astros fought back, while the Yankee bats went cold.

Unlike the Yankees’ ALCS run, a 2012 push that felt like it was running on fumes, this roster was laden with energy and hope for the future. To get the obvious out of the way, there was Aaron Judge, whose record-setting rookie season got most of the national headlines, and gave the Bronx Bombers a bona fide offensive star for the first time since Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez listed into decline. Didi Gregorius set the Yankee record for home runs by a shortstop, and has succeeded at the impossible task of being Jeter’s successor. He and Castro create a dynamic double play combination with plenty of years ahead of them, and combine with Judge and Sanchez to form a multifaceted offensive core.

Some of the more important moves for these Yankees took place off the field. ALDS review snafu aside, Joe Girardi stayed himself, handling the craziness of New York and (eventually) managing his pitchers well, and while I’ve gone up and down on him over his ten(!) years in the Bronx, I believe he deserves an extension. Brian Cashman comes out of the past year and a half looking brilliant, with particularly with his deadline moves. In 2016, he had the guts to admit the Yankees were out of it and held a fire sale that rebuilt the farm system overnight. This season, he shored up the rotation and the bullpen with a couple of decisive moves that made a deep playoff run possible.

They bring back everyone who was anyone on offense, and have Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres lurking in the wings to help in the spots with the biggest long-term question marks. The bullpen will be just as lethal, and if it lives up to its fullest potential, will be practically unhittable. The rotation, the weak spot to begin with, remains the biggest issue, though it’s full of respectable options. They’ll have to make decisions on Tanaka and Sabathia, whose postseason performances may have earned them both extensions; they could do a lot worse than those two, especially with Tanaka, whose rough regular year was probably a blip. Severino is still growing into his role, Sonny Gray is fairly reliable, and if Jordan Montgomery can reprise his respectable role from this past season, they could have a complete rotation, albeit one with little margin for error. Of course they could just go shopping to shore things up, but within a monster free agent class coming up after this next season, I expect they might save their pennies for now.

No season without a pennant is a true success in Yankeeland, but it was hard not to enjoy this one, even with the end result. Yankee Stadium came alive again, or perhaps truly alive for the first time since the move across the street in 2009. It’s been loud, of course, but the intimidating Yankee environment hasn’t quite been the same in the new behemoth, and the ring of ever-empty box seats and paltry attendances (by Yankee standards) at times even this season attest to this loss of the old ideal. But this fall the Bleacher Creatures seemed to find that raucousness that made the old building shake, bouncing around and singing like soccer hooligans. After a phase of gradual decline and painfully long good-byes to old icons, the Yankees and their fans are finding their swagger again. The Yankees won back the Bronx this postseason, going 6-0 at home, and with any luck a couple of its old residents, Mystique and Aura, aren’t far behind.

For now, though, it’s time for a long winter, and for the first time in a while, “maybe next year” is more than an idle wish. And I do believe high school hockey teams drop the puck in less than a month…

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Farewell to the Patriarch

15 Oct

John Maloney, the co-founder of a family that included a wife of 68 years, 12 children, 20 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, passed away over the weekend. My grandfather ruled his clan from his suburban Chicago roost, and in his later years from a lake home in northern Wisconsin as well, always a welcome meeting point for the Duluth-based branch of his family. His obituary spends over half its words listing offspring, a fitting tribute to an expansive legacy. He was a true patriarch, a throwback to a now-rare masculine ideal of a father, a breadwinner, a man of faith, and one whose larger-than-life figure left an indelible mark.

My grandfather had a certain curmudgeonly quality, the sort that intimidated me as a young kid but delighted me as I grew into a person who had more than a few things in common with the man. We shared strong literary interests, fondness for baseball on the radio, pleasure in hosting large parties in spite of our introversion, enjoyment in holding court on weighty affairs, the occasional need to escape to a lake, and some skinny ankles. At the most profound level we both aspired a quiet but firm sense of righteousness stemming from an intellectual worldview, and a desire to leave something that lasts. I don’t aim to copy him, either in his unflinching faith or in his reproductive prowess, but his life is evidence that something akin to what I aspire to can be done, and he is as much an inspiration here as anyone I know.

grandpa

My grandfather, composed entirely of pictures of his progeny, now hanging in my hallway.

It wasn’t easy to break through the crust with Grandpa. He was firm in his beliefs and set in his ways, a product of both his times and his faith. While he was rarely one to open up or acknowledge that things were not always right, he did live by example, and set a standard whose consistency said what words sometimes could not. Grandpa lost his own family fairly early, and wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to him. The son of an accomplished PR man whose employers included the Museum of Science and Industry before an untimely and alcohol-driven death, he attended the University of Chicago, where he met my grandmother, and married her at age 19. By the time he was 30, he had nine children. He settled into life as an actuary, became an iconic midcentury father figure who put twelve kids through college, and with his wife instilled in so many of them his fondness for letters, music, liquor, and the finer things in life.

Central to Grandpa’s kingdom was the kingdom of God, and his robust Catholic faith was the foundation of his life. That faith produced remarkable marriage, and all of his certainties on family life the he lived out until the end. He savaged me for going to Georgetown—“that’s a Jesuit school, why aren’t you going to a Catholic school?” he asked when I was accepted—but it was all in good fun; perhaps he even hoped Georgetown might guide one of the wayward members of his flock back into the faithful fold. (I think he thought I should have been a priest, which, given my fondness for sermonizing and asking big questions, might well have been my fate in a different era.) The last substantive conversation I remember having with him before his decline was about a former professor of mine who wrote in First Things, a densely intellectual and traditionalist Catholic journal that he read. His belief was profound, both spiritual and intellectual, a totalizing force that left no room for doubt. I never shared it, but I certainly admired it.

The last chapter of his life was not an easy one to watch. Grandpa never did recover from the effects of prolonged anesthesia two years ago, and most traces of his once formidable intellect faded away. His final years were spent slumped in his recliner, or rolling about in wheelchairs through hallways of several homes for the elderly with increasing levels of care, the institutionalized prolongation of desperate dreams that old age has become. I only had glimpses of this life, but it was still a shocking window into this sad decline; a sort of pain and loss of faculty that I cannot fathom and doubt I’d be able to handle without going insane.

Fortunately, though, we can choose what to remember of those who leave us, and with Grandpa, that means focusing on the rich first 85 years instead of the feeble final two. It’s a string of memories that begins with him forcefully squishing his grandchildren, and shaking our hands with his vice-like grip. It has him sitting at the head of the table and carving up the meat at Thanksgiving at the Lombard house, or seated at the piano to lead carols at the Christmas party. It features him heading out on East Twin Lake in his fishing boat or telling tales over drinks and cards late at night to the tune of the loons of the Northwoods. It meant classical music blasting on a Sunday afternoon as he devoured some large tome; Viennese waltzes on New Year’s Day and Garrison Keillor on Saturday nights. Popcorn at four, happy hour at five, bedtime in the little twin beds he and Grandma had side by side. Mumbled blessings before every meal, and the Cubs on a lazy summer afternoon. What a life well-lived. So I’ll toast my wine, pack my bags for an Irish wake and a funeral mass, and bid farewell to a man who built a family to endure through the flux of modern life. We descendants have big shoes to fill.

Chasing Rings

11 Oct

No, this post isn’t about the practice of athletes joining certain teams that increase their odds of winning championships. Instead, it stems from a C.S. Lewis lecture that has new life thanks to the efforts of a few luminaries in the American semi-conservative intelligentsia. David Brooks writes about it here, and Rod Dreher has a couple of blog posts on it; both drew their thoughts from Alan Jacobs’ modestly titled new bookHow to Think.

Lewis’s lecture to some Cambridge students in 1944 (read the whole thing) was an education on the banality of evil long before Hannah Arendt minted the phrase. His point was that most of the bad decisions made by the talented, well-reared Cambridge students before him would not be out of sheer malice or evil. Instead, it would come out of an earnest desire to prove oneself in certain circles, to move ever upward into vaunted inner rings. Whether those rings involve high school cliques or local political factions or artist collectives or something akin to high society, they are the unofficial circles that people use to measure their status. Exclusion from inner rings leads to alienation; entering them leads only to momentary satisfaction. Per Lewis, it’s impossible to make it.

The hunger for the inner ring, for acceptance and the comfort of doing the same things as others, drives so many decisions in life. This is especially pervasive in a society that likes to think it is a meritocracy: all people who prove their worth in some form or another are worthy of admission into inner rings, with no inherent barriers based on birth or status. When anything is (allegedly) possible, there are rings galore that we might want to enter. It is also probably more likely to afflict people who spend much of their time on quests for knowledge, and who might like that other people will pay attention to the things they say or write.

Lewis has some ideas for how to resist the siren call of the inner ring. He tells the Cambridge students that they should aim to be “sound craftsmen” who do what they need to do in their work not to climb the ladder, but to be excellent in the task before them, and so earn the respect of other craftspeople who do things right. He counsels them to spend time with people one likes so that rings emerge naturally, without any of the self-conscious exclusion of the inner ring. The guilty truth is that, for many of these Cambridge students, those people are generally going to be people who are fairly intelligent and ambitious themselves. But those traits are not prerequisites, but instead byproducts that lead us to take certain leaps and be in the same place at the same time. And rather than pulling up the ladder to anyone else who might join, this sort of circle is always open to new entrants.

Another trait that will keep a circle open is the ability to level of its members to level with themselves, both individually and with regard to the group as a whole. Dreher is at his best in posts such as this one on the inner ring, in which his writing unfolds in a sprawling fit of self-reflection that exactingly examines his own participation in certain rings. I find that I’m willing to forgive a lot of disagreements with, or errors in the lives of, certain people if they are able to articulate a level of honest, raw self-reflection and criticism. That sincerity speaks more volumes about their character as political actors (using that term broadly) than the stances they take. I want the people in my own closest circles to be capable of that sort of reflection, so that we all thereby do all we can to avoid the risk of falling into closed inner rings.

While I’d like to think I’ve generally resisted the need to belong to certain circles in the way Dreher had it, I do certainly recognize that desire in many phases of my life. Lewis also correctly notes that such resistance can be the source of its own form of conceit, and here I try to stay especially aware of any self-righteousness over my decision not to pursue certain career choices, many of which stemmed from an evolving but meticulous view on how to live a good life. Inner rings can be just as restricting in a corner of northern Minnesota, too, and while I haven’t found any that are too frustrating in one year back here, I also have a sense for how easily they could appear or throw things off. Roots are important, but for a tree to grow upward, it must grow outward, adding a new ring each year. It may not always be a speedy growth, but it can’t ever stop.

Two Hearted Travel

4 Oct

Few cities summon someone who studies cities quite like Detroit. It is emblematic of both the triumph of American industry and the horror story of its demise. Its northern border, Eight Mile Road, is the starkest divide one can find between modern suburban reality and a collapsed America came before. This is where unions and Henry Ford’s wages created paths to the middle class and people of all races could find jobs; this is where the collapse of manufacturing left large swaths of a city in literal ruins, and where a series of events created one of the most segregated metros in America. Detroit gave us Motown and the most memorable Super Bowl commercial of all time, and it gave us tales of race riots and emergence from the ashes. Most anyone can use it to justify a particular version of American history, the good and the ill.

I’m in Detroit for a cousin’s wedding, and stay at a hotel downtown and near the venue, just next to the respective homes of the Tigers and Lions, Comerica Park and Ford Field. Downtown Detroit is alive, with GM’s Renaissance Center and some stunning gothic architecture looming over the city. As I watch from the window after checking in, a light rail and a pedal pub both roll by; immediately, any rumors of Detroit’s demise seem exaggerated. The partying outside our hotel late into the night does little to dispel this notion, as do my own ventures out to bars and a brewery and a distillery with my extended family. Even in this supposed wreck of a city, one can have a festive weekend and have no idea of the forces that have buffeted it over the past half century.

Those forces began with redlining and riots in the middle of the century, but culminated around the financial crisis a decade ago: two-thirds of the population gone, two humiliating automaker bailouts, a remarkably felonious mayor, and a municipal bankruptcy that had the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) seriously considering selling off some of its works to survive. Saner heads prevailed in that crisis and the priceless collection is intact, so a visit is in order. Its crown jewel is the Diego Rivera industry murals, which line four sides of a court in the center of the museum. I’ve seen my share of Rivera murals in my Mexican travels, but this one rivals them all in its cohesion across all four walls. As usual, Rivera captures a slice of everything here, with the complete cast of characters in 1930s Detroit united in fresco form. We see the drudgery and misery of factory work, the wealth it generates, the awesome power of human creation and industry, and hints of a dream that all this scientific progress could lead to a just and prosperous society. History has not proven kind to these dreams, at least not without significant collateral damage. The evidence is just outside the DIA’s doors.

Detroiters, understandably, aren’t too fond of tourists going in search of “ruin porn,” but as someone who’s become numbed to the pleasures of mere decline porn, my appetite for such smut is too large to resist. I’ve picked out a few of Detroit’s more iconic ruins to visit, including Michigan Central Station and an old Packard manufacturing plant. These are a few scattered relics, though; even thriving cities have a few such eyesores or white elephants. What makes Detroit shocking are its vast tracts beyond downtown that are now in ruin, an American Rome in its monuments to greatness lost, or perhaps a Palenque bursting out of the jungle. In some places the urban forest has swallowed up the decay; in others, just vacant grassy fields remain. Here and there some homes straggle on, their roofs in tatters and their windows in boards but still home to someone. Block by block, one never knows what one will find: total wreckage, declining but inhabitable structures, the occasional incongruous and immaculate home or business. Broad avenues, built to accommodate Detroit’s great export, sit in desolation, only the occasional car crawling up and down. Even around an active GM facility in Hamtramck, things seem more dead than alive.

Love springs eternal amid all this porn, however: as we visit Michigan Central, a couple is in the midst of its wedding photos out front, finding beauty plus a venue where they can get away with downing a couple of Pacificos around noon. Carefully tended roses sit behind the barbed wire, an American flag makes an attempt at a resolute stand, and the current owner has rehabbed all the windows. Someday, someone will find a use for this thing. The parking lot outside the Packard plant is full, and we can see a group of people in white construction helmets congregating in one part of the wreck; signage informs us that artists have grand plans for its rehabilitation. Occasional gardens and greenhouses dot the vacant lots, turning emptiness to good use. New roots in literal and figurative forms.

My traveling party and I decided to make a road trip out of our trek to Detroit, and took the slightly longer but infinitely prettier route from Duluth across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and then across the Mackinac Bridge and straight south to the Motor City. The Great Lakes in autumn make for a lovely drive, but the UP, too, has seen its share of ups and downs. Some of its towns, such as Marquette and Munising and St. Ignace, have quaint lakeside downtowns bustling with tourists. Some, like Ishpeming and Negaunee, hang on to their old extractive industries. Others, old mining or logging towns whose anchors have long since moved on, look like they could be blocks somewhere in Detroit. When this happens in a metropolitan area, it’s a powerful story of civilizational decline; out here, it’s a much quieter decay, a tale of towns forgotten by time.

On the return leg, we make camp at the mouth of the Two Hearted River, a fast-moving trout stream that pours into Lake Superior just west of Whitefish Bay. It’s the namesake for the Bell’s India Pale Ale, so of course I have some of that along, and it also gave its name to a short story in Ernest Hemingway’s first published collection. I consume that tale in short order as well, following Nick Adams as he seeks solitude with his fishing line after the First World War. Hemingway’s prose has always been hit-or-miss for me, but when it comes to fishing, he is a master at his craft, and the simple elegance captures Nick’s singular mind out in the wilderness, cleared of any concern beyond his little camp along the Big Two Hearted.

Away from the lakes, the leaves approach fall peak and usher in perhaps my favorite season. Autumn is a fitting time for a journey through contradictory places. It carries an inherent dualism; something two-hearted, perhaps, as it clings to summer beauty and reminds us that none of it will last. Fitting, I suppose, for someone who at once craves the center of an endless party in a cultured city and escapes to solitude amid natural beauty. The end result was something akin to sensory overload, as I ruminated on old wounds that don’t always heal and a churning world that forces a new sense of urgency. But if I withdrew to make sense of all of that, it is now time to head back out, a cycle renewed yet again.

In the Shadow of Disaster

24 Sep

The two places I have spent the most time outside of the mainland United States are the U.S. Virgin Islands and Mexico City. Between Hurricane Irma and the earthquake that struck Mexico, it has been a dark past few weeks for two places with a special fondness in my heart. No one I know was hurt or has suffered damages they don’t have the means to repair, but it is jarring nonetheless, especially from a powerless distance.

I first went to the Virgin Islands as a nine-year-old, and as that was my first venture out of the Midwest, the islands always loomed large in the mind of a kid plagued with wanderlust. Most of my return journeys date to my college and grad school years, when I could enjoy a lot of sun and rum and enjoy some rare moments to completely unwind. The natural beauty was stunning, the colonial architecture of Charlotte Amalie had its charms, and thanks to the generosity of others, I could live like a king for a short while.

As the trips went on, I became more aware of the islands’ social reality. Aside from the beaches, the Virgin Islands are one of those forgotten relics of America’s colonial phase, perpetually broke an flailing about. When I went back there shortly after I finished my semester-long stint in Mexico as an undergrad, large parts of it struck me as more like Mexico than anything American. These people will live without power for several months as they struggle to clear brush from the precarious roads clinging to hillsides, and have heaps of junk to clear and little place to put it. My experiences in trail maintenance in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John assure me that the hillsides, stripped bare by Irma, will return to their past verdant selves in little time. Less safe are the towering flamboyant trees, the roadside barbecue stand in Cruz Bay, Duffy’s Love Shack, and the homes so many of the island’s poverty-stricken permanent residents, who won’t even have many tourists to sell to in the coming months. There will be much work to do.

Thanks to a cleaner flow of information from Mexico City’s diverse media environment, I’ve had a more intimate portrait of the damage in the city I called home for a semester during my junior year of college, and had visited twice before. Over the past week, I’ve spent some time every day reading up on accounts of the recovery efforts in Mexico City, or CDMX, as we seem to abbreviate it these days. Some of the pictures are especially striking: signs demanding silence as rescuers listen for signs of life beneath the rubble, Paseo de la Reforma converted into a pedestrian highway as the city comes to a halt, people of all classes consoling each other in the streets.

Earthquakes loom over CDMX, and a catastrophic 1985 quake still haunts those old enough to remember it. The university I attended had its previous campus demolished by an earlier tremor; while the new one was well-built and up in the mountains on solid ground, it was hard not to take stock of the evacuation directions posted next to the door of every classroom. (If you’re stuck in a building, I learned, the safest place to be is standing in the door frame.) Nothing major hit during my time there, but I did feel a slight tremor one day, a low-scale quake accentuated by the fact that I was walking across a less-than-stable pedestrian bridge at the time. The unstable soil just adds to that sense that CDMX is a city on the edge of every churning force in that nation, all of life and the risk of death all wrapped up in one manic burst of semi-ordered chaos.

Earthquakes are a particular risk in Mexico City since much of the center of the metropolis sits on the unstable bed of Lake Texcoco, which the Spaniards drained after their conquest of the Valley of Mexico. The building I lived in would have been a beachfront condo in Aztec days, barely on solid ground. Polanco, the ritzy district I’d wander over to on lazy weekend afternoons, was on the lakebed, but on somewhat more stable ground than the city center and built to a high enough code that it suffered little damage. Less fortunate was La Condesa, the hip district of nightlife and young people where a number of my fellow students from abroad made their temporary homes. Here, numerous apartments toppled, as they did in neighboring Roma Norte. The Parque España, once home to late-night dalliances amid the bushes, was reborn as a temporary aid station. And no collapse gripped national attention quite like the damage to the Enrique Rébsamen school, where at least 20 bodies have been pulled from the rubble.

We are still learning the scope of the damage further south, where towns tucked away in the mountains of Morelos, Puebla, the State of Mexico, Oaxaca, and Guerrerro live in a different world from the well-connected capital. Some of these towns to the south suffered damage in a separate quake just a week and a half earlier, and the long, slow process of digging them out may take much longer. A family friend in Cuernavaca, over a mountain range to the south of Mexico City, sent a message detailing his family’s nonstop efforts to help those they can, bringing meals to the newly homeless and collecting goods for an eventual journey using his larger vehicle out to the outlying villages in need of help.

cuernavaca

Youthful heroism, as captured by a family friend in Cuernavaca. Photo credit: Gerardo Debbink.

The rescue and recovery efforts bring our some of the most heartening displays of human solidarity. Brigades of people (many of them young) poured out all their energy as volunteers, swiftly organizing into rescue operations and digging into collapsed buildings, even amid the terror of potential aftershocks. This quake had the eerie coincidence of hitting on the 32nd anniversary of the disastrous 1985 quake, and while the young people have no memory of that disaster, they seemed to know what to do. Even social media, which deserves so much of the negative press it’s received recently, has emerged as an essential method for coordinating a rapid response to the crisis. The unity and upsurge in Mexican national pride has been a sight to behold, even from afar.

The 85 quake was a seminal moment in Mexican history, not only for the disaster it brought but also as the catalyst for the formation of a genuine civil society. People recognized the rottenness of their government, responded immediately to create some good, and the energy that emerged from that outburst of civic activity played no small part in spurring along Mexico’s democratization in the 1990s. Now, 32 years later, that dream has soured: the opposition parties have lost their sheen, and the longtime ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is nearing the end of a return turn to power that was just as corrupt and sad as in its late authoritarian days. In an Economista column today, Rubén Aguilar Valenzuela, the ex-Jesuit/leftist revolutionary/spokesman for a conservative president from whom I took a class in Mexico, looked at the upsurge with hope: perhaps a new generation will now find the power to take control of its own destiny.

“Why does this only happen in these circumstances, and not in others?” Aguilar asks of the outpouring of civic unity and genuine heroism. “What needs to happen for us to express this capacity in everyday life?” Questions worth asking anywhere, whether in Mexico or in the hurricane-ravaged southern United States, or even in a corner of Minnesota where we have little capacity to comprehend the destructive power that both nature and humanity have the power to inflict. In a better world, it wouldn’t take a crisis to spur people to recognize the immediacy of community, but we live in the world we have. With terror and sadness or just plain anomie looming in so many lives, the least we can do is take these moments and use them to remind ourselves of the goodness that can also exist within the human spirit. Hope can yet spring from the ruins.

Primaries, Facebook Fights, and Park Planning: A Duluth September Political Roundup

17 Sep

When I can sit out on my front porch in mid-September and write, rest my sore knees beneath trees frosted in hints of red and orange, bask in sun and Lake Superior breeze, that’s Duluth at its finest. Writing about politics seems vaguely dirty for a day like this, but I am nothing if not duty-bound, and have a document with some fiction in it open right now too. Here, then, is a roundup of recent political happenings in Duluth, which is an example of Duluth at its finest, not at its finest, and various places in between, depending on where one sits.

A Few Primary Election Comments

Busy life events kept me from making an immediate response to last week’s primaries, so I’ll toss out a few comments on the results here. The major takeaway was the dominance of the Duluth DFL, despite my rumblings about possible cracks last week. Zack Filipovich, the only at-large city council candidate to receive a party endorsement, was well clear of the field; in the Fourth District, Renee Van Nett, who was not DFL-endorsed but was two years ago as a school board candidate and certainly was the closest to the center of the party of the three candidates, ran comfortably ahead of incumbent Howie Hanson and Tom Furman, and as she’s certainly better positioned to collect the votes of the eliminated Furman, Hanson is probably toast. At-large incumbent Barb Russ, who was not DFL-endorsed this time but was four years ago and is certainly more of an established DFL figure than any of the others in the field, surprised me by running second. And while her margin over Janet Kennedy and Rich Updegrove was slim, and promises a tight fight in November, it’s certainly a strong showing.

The only other point I’ll make is a repeat of an old mantra that lawn signs do not win elections. Signage for Updegrove would make one think he was going to compete with Filipovich for the top spot instead of finishing fourth; Jan Swanson, who had some strong concentrations of signs in certain neighborhoods, did not build on that support elsewhere. On my reconnaissance run through a bunch of west side neighborhoods, it was hard not to think Loren Martell would make it out of the primaries in the school board at-large race, while Dana Krivogorsky was doomed. Instead, she eked past him.

I’m not sure how much good it will do her: while Martell’s voters will almost certainly flip to Krivogorsky and Harry Welty, those two ran far behind the two DFL-endorsed candidates. As noted in my preview, I find it more than a little paradoxical that people in DFL circles think this district has serious equity issues and is suffering for its six-period days, and then proceed to summarily ignore, if not straight-up denigrate, the only candidates who are actually proposing concrete solutions to these problems. I’m not saying I agree with their solutions across the board, but the rigidity with which people inhabit their camps based on old Red Plan fault lines—whether they supported or opposed it—is sad.

This Is Why We Don’t Waste Our Time on Internet Rants, Kids

The other bit of Duluth political news last week, if it can really be called that, was a flap between city council president Joel Sipress and DFL district chairman Justin Perpich. Sipress and Perpich exemplify one of the fault lines in the DFL that I thought could fracture this coalition, as they are on opposite sides of the debates over the merits of mining projects on the Iron Range. I’m sure there is some backstory as to how things got to this point, and I don’t really care to know all the details; in short, Perpich criticized the failure of the anti-mining group Duluth for Clean Water to disclose its campaign spending on a Facebook post by Sipress’s wife, and the council president, who found the characterization of Duluth for Clean Water as some sort of dark money organization misleading, told Perpich to “go fuck himself,” among other things. Perpich promptly shared this private Facebook message with the press.

No one really looks good here. Perpich’s posts seem awfully petty, and the ultimate financial disclosure does appear to debunk any claim that Duluth for Clean Water is getting lots of money poured into it by non-Duluthians. (Unsolicited advice to pro-mining camp: trying to sound like you’re the resource-poor is side in this debate is…not going to get you much sympathy with the general public.) On the other hand, this was also a city council that recently generated enough pressure to get Linda Krug to step down from the council presidency when she used her bully pulpit to harangue a colleague on the council. Difficult as this may be to remember in the Trump Era, we traditionally have had higher standards for politician conduct in public, though of course this runs into the question of whether or not a form of messaging that Facebook calls “private” is actually private. Hence the lesson that was beaten into me from a young age, which Sipress has just learned the hard way: never, ever, ever assume that anything you share with anyone on the internet will remain private.

Speaking for myself, I’m not terribly offended to learn that a politician uses the occasional vulgarity, but other people have different standards, and anyone in the public eye should probably be aware of that. (And, since I’m on a roll, some unsolicited advice for the anti-mining camp: gallivanting up to the Range to tell people you do not know that their lives aren’t *that bad*  or treating anyone who supports mining as an idiotic simpleton seems like a pretty safe formula for turning onetime union Democrats into Trump voters. How each side in this debate frames its case can make all the difference in the world.)

At the risk of sounding like the grumpy young millennial scolding the old people around him on how to use the internet, this sort of thing is exactly why I go to great lengths to avoid political junk on Facebook. This isn’t to say I never engage, and the line between politics and the rest of life isn’t always clear. We all need some cathartic moments, too. But these days I find myself increasingly frustrated with the number of people I observe spending large parts of their day devoted to internet political drivel, no matter the flavor.

In an effort to generate something resembling positive discourse out of this rant-fest, I recommend the following litmus test for anyone who wants to post anything political on Facebook:

  1. Is my post a call to immediate action, or is it more of a general lament detached from any ability to influence anything?
  2. How many times have I made this same exact point in recent memory?
  3. Does this post contribute anything new or insightful, or am I merely regurgitating someone else’s work, or an opinion that anyone who actually knows me knows I already hold?
  4. Will this post inspire hard feelings (particularly of the personal variety) from people who will see it, and if so, is this cause so important to me that I am willing to risk that relationship?
  5. Are the people I am engaging colleagues or good friends/family who I know will take my opinion seriously and respond in kind, or is this Fred who I haven’t seen since high school graduation?
  6. Is the voice I am using in this discourse the same I would be willing to use to the face of someone who is the subject of my rant?
  7. Have I ever been guilty of whatever it is I’m currently charging my political opponents with?

Or you could, you know, just close Facebook and go outside or read a book or something. Or, if you really must stare at political things on screens, just explore the archives of a much more interesting and nuanced blog.

On the Flip Side: Democracy in Action

Last Thursday, I attended a public meeting at the Lower Chester warming house to discuss the future of that small park tucked in between 15th Ave. East and Chester Creek. In winters, it is currently home to several rinks run by the Congdon hockey association, which needed a new home when the Red Plan paved paradise and put up a parking lot next to Congdon Elementary. In summer, the main rink becomes a skate park, while the rest of it sits rather forlorn and patchy; a few neighbors spared no details in describing the lurid activity that takes place there some nights. There was a hint of everyone crammed into this grossly inadequate space: neighbors with kids who wanted the playground, some with said kids in tow; hockey parents, with a few hockey player kids also in tow and wandering the park; older neighbors who’d lived next to the park since the Wilson Administration or something like that; plus some kid for whom this sort of meeting is a perfect confluence of interests. Someone took it upon themselves to engage the skateboarders rolling around the rink, too. (The neighbors, incidentally, said the park’s upkeep had improved immensely since they moved in a few years back.)

The plan presented by the Parks Department went a long way toward accommodating all parties. The details aren’t all settled yet: the pleasure rink is not in the current plan, the playground location was the subject of some debate, and anything that emerges here is going to take money, none of which is currently budgeted. But when one attendee suggested closing down 15th Ave. in front of the park to create more space that could accommodate everyone, there seemed genuine consensus from all parties. (Except, perhaps, the city’s Public Works Department, but we can work on them.) It was a heartening moment, and a reminder that democracy really does work best in cramped little town halls, not in the far more cramped world of the things pecked out by internet warriors on a cell phone keyboard at odd hours of the night. Once again, Duluth provides a renewal of faith.

Correction: A previous version of this blog post stated that Renee Van Nett received the DFL endorsement in the 4th District race. She did not, and the text has been updated to reflect this.

Duluth Primary Prognosis 2017

10 Sep

For the past ten years, Duluth has been ruled by what we might call the Don Ness Consensus: effectively, an optimistic union of center-left and activist left. On the city council, this meant that people like Sharla Gardner, Joel Sipress, Zack Filipovich, Dan Hartman, Emily Larson, Barb Russ, Jennifer Julsrud, and Linda Krug were all effectively allies within a majority pushing a common vision. They have all enjoyed support from labor, environmentalists, and the more moderate wing of the DFL that is more aligned with business interests. Any disputes within this camp were often more personal or stylistic than political.

This movement enjoyed considerable electoral success, as it drew down the older conservative guard to one single member (Jay Fosle) but also did not allow for any real inroads from the Green Party types who also sometimes made it out of election primaries. Because it was so consensus-driven and flexible enough to accommodate neighborhood concerns, it built up a lot of political capital, and has been loath to spend it on anything other than questions of long-term fiscal sustainability, as in Ness’s battle with pension debt and Larson’s current push to fix up the streets. Its goal, so to speak, is a unified city with a fresh new image and little in the way of controversy. Ness himself once said his goal was to make politics boring, shorn of the ideological firefights of old.

No political coalition is eternal, however, and while Larson at the top still seems to command the respect of Duluth DFLers of different stripes, there are signs of fractures beneath, and we’ll learn just how real those are in this fall’s election. A new wing of the Duluth left has risen in recent years. The national political climate has driven this somewhat, as an anti-Trump left feels a new sense of urgency to assert its ideals on the local level after somewhat neglecting that sphere in the Obama years. Some national issues have particular salience in Duluth: after a battle over oil pipeline construction drew national attention in Standing Rock, pipeline questions have hit home in a city where Enbridge has a base of operations; debates over non-ferrous mining in watersheds upstream from Duluth and the Boundary Waters rage on; and the city now has a taskforce is assessing the plausibility and possible methods of implementation of earned sick and safe time, a national progressive cause. Subtle shifts in the Duluth electorate also play a role: the city has become somewhat younger and somewhat more diverse than it was 10 years ago. All of this adds up to less patience among activists with the gradual, more cautious approach of some local politicians who want these things to go through long vetting processes and avoid taking loud stances on hot-button issues unless they’re sure they have broad public support.

What strikes me about all of this is just how small the ultimate policy differences are between the major left-leaning candidates. For the most part, these are differences in tone and emphasis, and this being the Duluth DFL, there is no shortage of personal umbrage and intrigue involved, too. Still, I think this race has at least some chance of re-working Duluth politics, and not necessarily in predictable ways.

City Council

This is all most obvious in the city council at-large race. There are four left-leaning candidates here, at least three of which (and quite possibly all four) will advance to the final round. Zack Filipovich, Janet Kennedy, Barb Russ, and Rich Updegrove all represent different pieces of the old Ness coalition. Updegrove personifies the rising leftward flank in Duluth politics, using his charisma and Bernie Sanders campaign credentials; Kennedy, an African-American activist who lost out to Fosle in the fifth district in 2015, joins him in having earned an endorsement from Our Revolution, the Sanders campaign’s movement to win local elections. A young environmentalist Sanders acolyte and a candidate who draws strongly on her experience as a black woman in Duluth represent two sides of a newly ascendant left, and map on to changes in the national Democratic party. Barb Russ got a DFL endorsement when first elected four years ago, but didn’t land it again; she represents an older, perhaps endangered brand of Duluth liberalism as the Congdon-dwelling retired county attorney with a fairly consistent, low-key voice. Filipovich, the only candidate who secured a DFL endorsement amid a contested convention, attempts to keep everyone happy in a big tent, and spends more time in the weeds on policy than his opponents. (Go figure: the 27-year-old accountant never seen in public without a tie is the most skilled at locking up the DFL’s old labor base. Is there any question about how important relationships are in local politics?)

Again, the policy differences between Updegrove, Kennedy, Russ, and Filipovich are not large at the end of the day. It’s not uncommon to see yard signs mixing and matching the four of them. Outside of a highly engaged coterie around the candidates or related movements, preferences often have more to do with individual ties and ground games than association with distinct camps in the Duluth left. But the primary will tell us a lot about the magnitude of the rising leftist call for activism in local politics, and the staying power of the big tent, let’s-all-get-along-despite-our-differences Nessism.

There is some chance it’s not just those four who advance: the past two election cycles have seen a conservative candidate advance to the general election with relative comfort, and Jan Swanson has a pretty strong lawn sign presence out west. Taking on two incumbents and two lefty candidates with broader support is not an easy task in Duluth, but Swanson has some chance of making it through. If she were to bump one of the above four, I would suspect it will be Russ.

The other primary in a city council race is in the 4th District, which includes Lincoln Park, Piedmont, and Duluth Heights. This is an interesting one, given the range within that district and the fact that incumbent Howie Hanson was uncontested in 2013. Hanson, who once criticized his conservative predecessor for not adhering to Ness orthodoxy, has made a complete conversion to fiscal conservatism. This might give him some chance of escaping the primary in one of the more conservative districts in the city, but even then, his (euphemism alert) lack of polish makes him a long shot for a second term. His challengers, Renee Van Nett and Tom Furman, are both firmly to his left. Furman has been the more vocal leftist of the two and has an Our Revolution endorsement, while Van Nett strikes the more consensus-oriented tone and has the DFL nod.

Finally, there’s no primary in the 2nd District, where incumbent Joel Sipress has secured basically every major left-leaning endorsement. I live in this district and just had to look up the name of his challenger (Ryan Sistad) since I’ve seen zero presence to date, which is probably a pretty safe sign that Sipress will win without breaking a sweat.

School Board

While the city council’s composition seems to evolve, the school district keeps the same old battle lines. The first and fourth districts on opposite ends of the city don’t have primaries, as incumbents on opposite ends of most school-related fights (Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and Art Johnston) take on challengers who are directly working with their opponents (Kurt Kuehn and Jill Lofald, respectively). It remains to be seen whether these are marriages of affection or convenience—these things haven’t always moved in predictable ways—but for now, the house money is probably on the incumbents. Oh joy, more of the same.

The only question in the primary will come in the at-large race, where five candidates will fight for four general election spots. The two from the anti-Red Plan camp are very familiar, as incumbent Harry Welty seeks another term, and Loren Martell launches his fourth consecutive run for a seat. Longtime readers will know I have a positive history with Welty, given his willingness to engage with a kid blogger a few years back in serious dialogue over the course of the district and fully own my criticisms of him. That’s not easy to do as a politician, and I only wish I could have drawn the same sort of engagement out of someone in the board’s majority. But lately he seems more interested in squabbling with Loeffler-Kemp and even some of his older rivals, and is tossing out some odd ideas regarding high school consolidation. (Didn’t he spend most of the past decade and a half opposing a school merger imposed from above to the detriment of neighborhood schools?) Martell, to his credit, is taking a somewhat different tack this time around, with his lawn signs calling for east-west equality, something I consider a noble goal but am somewhat concerned may mistake the forest for the trees. He’s gotten steadily more polished over the years, and this may be the one where he breaks through.

But if I’m wary of going back to the old Red Plan warriors, I’m possibly even more reluctant to give the DFL-endorsed candidates much benefit of the doubt given the track record of most of the party-endorsed candidates over the past decade. My skepticism here is not policy-driven; their platforms rarely amount to much other than vague expressions of having children’s best interests at heart. Making note of the district’s divides and promising to fix them (with few to no details) is not a platform. One sees nothing in their campaigns that indicates any willingness to ask hard questions, to do more than rubber-stamp the administration’s proposals, and to meet with all parties involved to demand a higher standard for this district.

This leaves a fifth candidate, Dana Krivogorsky, with neither the DFL stamp of approval nor the name recognition of the longtime Red Plan warriors. Because of her outsider status, she’s probably the most likely to be the odd one out, and she’s been tied in with Welty and Martell somewhat. If she has some hope, it’s that she occupies roughly the same ground that Alanna Oswald did two years ago when she pulled off an upset over a DFL endorsed candidate. For what it’s worth, I think Oswald has been the best addition to the school board in quite some time.

This in an off-year, non-mayoral primary, so much of this race will come down to turning out voters. Traditionally, that’s a good thing for anyone with the DFL tag, but with newly inspired left-leaning activists who weren’t endorsed by the party and some fatigue over its stewardship of the school board, I see some potential cracks this fall. If 2016 taught us anything, some very unexpected things may slip in through the cracks when they appear, so grab some popcorn and make plans accordingly.