Archive | September, 2013

Ties that Bind: Louie Nanne and the Minnesota Hockey Fishbowl

14 Sep

This blog has had too much politics lately. Time for a change of pace: hockey season is just around the corner! The NHL and NCAA hockey begin in the next month, junior leagues are already kicking off, and the Minnesota high school Elite League season started last weekend. But in the midst of all the new arrivals, there was also a departure: Louie Nanne, a University of Minnesota recruit, announced he would not be coming to the Gophers.

If you have any familiarity with Minnesota hockey, you’ll recognize that name. Louie’s grandfather, Lou, is Minnesota hockey royalty. As a Minnesota Gopher, North Star, North Star General Manager, and longtime commentator for the Minnesota High School tournament, it’s hard to think of any other person who’s given as much to hockey in this state over his lifetime. He also comes across a genuinely kind and caring person, willing to chat with anyone about anything hockey-related.

His grandson committed to Minnesota back in 2011, but his selection by the Gopher coaching staff quickly came under intense scrutiny. Louie Nanne’s high school numbers at Edina were decidedly pedestrian. He is a good skater, there are plenty of testaments to his excellent work ethic, and most people who viewed his status from some distance thought he could have been a decent lower-line, high-energy forward at Minnesota. Problem is, those sorts of players practically never commit before their junior years in high school—on the contrary, teams usually find them in junior leagues. In reality, the commitment made a lot of practical sense for the Gophers: due to the family’s wealth, Louie could probably pay his own way to Minnesota, freeing up precious scholarship money for other recruits. But, of course, that reasoning doesn’t sit too well with many hockey fans, who tend to be staunch believers in measuring players on merit alone.

The flap over the Gophers was only the start: in the 7th Round of the 2012 NHL draft, the Minnesota Wild snapped up Nanne. The NHL draft is quite the crapshoot by the time it gets to the 7th round, but even so, the cries of nepotism were out in full force: what were the Wild doing wasting a draft pick on Nanne when there were so many other players with better credentials left on the board?

However justified the criticism might have been, it made Louie Nanne’s life miserable. As his former Edina teammates marched to the state championship, Louie spent his senior year in Penticton, British Columbia, playing in the British Columbia Hockey League. At first, Nanne explained the move in terms of his hockey development, but it isn’t too hard to suspect other forces at work, and a later interview seemed to confirm those suspicions. He toiled away in relative obscurity, and has now announced that he won’t be a Gopher. It would be easy to decry the critics who bullied Nanne away, or, for that matter, to say Nanne shouldn’t have let a bunch of anonymous critics on social media wreck his dream of playing for the Gophers.

In reading Nanne’s decommitment note, however, a different story emerges: one of a kid who needed to leave home to come into his own. He grew up a prince of Minnesota hockey, and while that afforded him plenty of fame and advantages, it also burdened him with endless scrutiny and expectation. The community-based focus of Minnesota hockey (and I use that term broadly, so as to encompass even the D-I colleges with their loyal fan bases) often exacerbates that pressure, and it is visible, to varying degrees, in just about any program in the state. Many of us hockey commoners here in our Minnesota fishbowl don’t always see just how mentally difficult it can be to grow up as one of the bigger fish in that fishbowl, and only recently, with the proliferation of AAA youth hockey and player departures for junior leagues, have we come to realize there’s a much bigger hockey world out there.

It was especially interesting to see some of the NCAA-vs.-Canadian Major Junior arguments break out on the forum I moderate. Our members whose primary interest is in NCAA hockey tend to be pretty ambivalent about whether players stay in high school or go to U.S. junior leagues; they think the players’ development for college is more important than some fluff about “devotion to community” or a “well-rounded high school experience.” They tend to be dispassionate, well-measured observers of the high school scene. But when a few other commenters began to talk up the benefits of the Canadian route (as opposed to the NCAA) over the past year, the NCAA backers came out with their guns blazing, fiercely defending the college experience. Hockey has gone global, and the worldwide competition for a limited number of spots in the highest levels makes short shrift of all of that “community” stuff.

Our annual thread tracking early departures from Minnesota hockey over on the forum counted a record number this upcoming season, and it drew any number of responses: some lament the trend, many shrug and say “it is what it is,” and some make no effort to conceal their glee at the signs of erosion of the “restrictive” development model. As Louie Nanne can attest, there is a lot to be said for life outside the fishbowl. Players move around enough that it is easy to shed past baggage, and if they wind up in unpleasant situations, it’s not hard to get out. The lifestyle is a pretty big draw as well, with twenty-some boys whose lives are all wrapped up in the same dream all away from home for the first time. This doesn’t even touch on development, which I wrestled with in a post a few months ago.

Still, as I wrote in that post, there is a lot to be said for the cultural power of hockey in Minnesota, and no one knows that better than Louie’s grandfather, Lou. Even as his grandsons all embark on different hockey paths (another left for a U.S. junior team, and a third is staying in high school for his senior year), he keeps on covering the high school tournament year after year. Like most any parent or grandparent, he may have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to his own offspring (see his past comments more or less assuming another grandson would be a Gopher, when that does not appear terribly likely now), but he still cares deeply about the state of the sport beyond them.

In fact, hockey tends to grow not in spite of family ties, but because of parents’ care for their kids, and things snowball from there. Bob Fryberger donated a rink to Duluth East High School so that his sons would have a place to play; the rest is history with that program. Most of the prominent youth and high school programs are the same way, with fathers raising their sons to love the sport as much as they did. Things haven’t really changed, even if the more obvious recent examples are a little more exclusive. J.P. Parisé built up the Shattuck program for his son, Zach. Bernie McBain wouldn’t have founded Minnesota Made if not for Jamie.

As much as the landscape may change, hockey will never get rid of those family ties. They are a double-edged sword that keep the sport going and drive people to hate it when they see bias at work. It can only be managed, not eliminated, and requires the due diligence of every hockey parent. The question for hockey parents, then, is a simple one: are we in it only for our sons, or are our sons only part of the equation? Hockey is one part an individual quest, and as Louie Nanne shows us, sometimes we have to take a leap of faith to find ourselves. But it is also fundamentally a team sport, and every hockey boy knows he needs to have his teammates’ back, just as they have his. Sometimes the individual and the team-centered sides of hockey are in conflict, and this is, of course, why it can make for such good preparation for the rest of life.  Because there is no realm of human life where they aren’t sometimes in conflict.

Lou Nanne, for one, understands that. Since he’s a part of that same tradition, I suspect Louie Nanne does as well, or at least will soon enough. He has his dream and he has his roots, and he wouldn’t be whole without them both working in tandem. For the health of the sport he loves, he can’t afford to neglect either one.

Comments on Duluth Primary Election Results

11 Sep

Ah, the joys of local politics: I turned on the TV to watch for immediate candidate reactions and such on the late local news, but everything had been pushed back due to President Obama’s speech. Turns out the network executives think the possibility of the U.S. blowing up some other country is more important than the fate of unserviced bond debts on city street repairs. Their loss, I suppose.

My pre-election comments on the candidates: City Council | School Board

Complete results are available here. Turnout was a bit on the low side (by Duluth standards), even for a local primary in a non-mayoral election year. You can look at past Duluth election results here.

City Council At-Large (Top four advance; numbers are percentage of vote, followed by total number of votes)

Barb Russ 35.8 (3943)

Zack Filipovich 28.0 (3081)

Ryan Stauber 20.8 (2295)

Ray Sandman 10.7 (1175)

Ray Whitledge 4.8 (525)

It’s no surprise to see Russ roll here, and with Filipovich in a comfortable second, it was a good day for the Duluth DFL. Stauber, though in third by a wide margin over Sandman, has to close a fairly substantial gap over the next two months, and as I explained in my initial comments, his campaign needs a much more polished and convincing pitch. It’s no great shock, but Whitledge struggled to garner much support, and since he was already such a niche candidate, I doubt his small number of supporters will sway the general election much. Conservative Duluthians will almost certainly unite behind Stauber now, and it will be interesting to see how much momentum they can generate, and who—if anyone—his supporters will pick with their second vote. Sandman made the cut, but has little hope of doing much else aside from conceivably playing a spoiler role.

School Board At-Large (Top four advance)

Annie Harala 25.8 (3028)

Harry Welty 19.1 (2246)

Nancy Nilsen 17.7 (2073)

Henry Banks 16.4 (1926)

Loren Martell 10.9 (1283)

Joshua Bixby 10.1 (1190)

Harala’s strong showing has her on the inside track for a seat on the Board; the margin was small enough that she isn’t a completely sure bet, but I don’t really see two of the other four finalists passing her. After Harala, it gets interesting. Perhaps it’s name recognition; perhaps it’s the strength of personal ties in a local election, but I was a bit surprised to see such a large gap between the two former Members (Welty and Nielsen) and the two insurgents (Bixby and Martell). I’d hazard to guess it will come down to a race between Welty and Banks for the second seat. Given her ties to the Red Plan, I don’t think Nilsen has a very high ceiling, nor is she likely to gain many votes from the supporters of Bixby or Martell—though, granted, she has surprised me somewhat already by finishing ahead of Banks in the primary. Banks has the DFL machinery behind him, which could help boost his turnout substantially. Welty, on the other hand, is by far the most likely to pick up any disaffected Bixby or Martell voters who didn’t already vote for him. On a night when most of the Red Plan critics didn’t do especially well, Welty had a strong showing, suggesting that the voters of Duluth did a pretty good job parsing out the intelligent critics with strong education backgrounds (Welty) from those who didn’t quite meet those standards (Martell). I ranked Banks ahead of him in my preview post, but with the semi-critical voice I supported (Bixby) out of the race, I am going to give Harry a chance to convince me. Ridiculous as he can be at times, I do think his heart is in the right place, and the Board could use a critic who is not Johnston-esque.

I voted for Bixby, but I’m not terribly shocked by his last-place finish. He’s new to the Duluth political scene, his campaign didn’t have a very big presence, and while I appreciated his nuanced stances, I can understand how some voters might come away unsure of what he actually stood for. I hope he continues his involvement in Board affairs, despite the loss. Martell, meanwhile, has been whacked in both elections in which he has run. We’ll see if he continues his monthly crusades at the Board meetings.

District 1 (Top two advance)

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp 53.7 (1086)

Joe Matthes 26.0 (526)

Marcia Stromgren 20.3 (410)

As expected, it was smooth sailing for Loeffler-Kemp, who cleared the 50% mark in the primary and would probably have to get herself caught up in some sort of scandal to lose at this point. Considering the opposition, Matthes had a reasonably good showing, though his odds of moving beyond this point are low. I was most interested by Stromgren’s low total here; after all, she did garner 46 percent of the vote in the general election for this seat four years ago, albeit against an incumbent (Ann Wasson) whose hands were all over the Red Plan. As with Martell, I’d say the writing is on the wall for her future in School Board affairs. They raised their ruckus, but as cathartic as that may have been, their anger probably marginalized them in the eyes of voters who saw them as extremists. Once a person has that label, it’s difficult to shed it, and unlike Welty, neither one of them showed much in the way of political savvy.

District 4 (Top two advance)

David Bolgrien 37.6 (463)

Art Johnston (I) 33.4 (411)

Justin Perpich 28.9 (356)

The race I named the most interesting lived up to its billing, with roughly 50 votes between each of the candidates. Considering how polarizing Johnston is, the odds are that the Perpich supporters are more likely to jump on the Bolgrien bandwagon. If I were a betting man, I’d say that Johnston needed to win this primary by a reasonable margin to retain his seat, and is now in serious trouble. But as in the all the races here, it’s hard to know what increased voter turnout will do in the general election; has Johnston already hit his ceiling, or are there a lot of disaffected people on the west side who will come out of the woodwork to support him in the main event? There are a lot of votes potentially up for grabs amongst the Perpich people, and to win them over, Johnston would probably have to change his tone somewhat. I don’t think he has much interest in doing that, which means that School Board meetings could be a lot more boring come January. A lot more boring, and a lot more constructive.

***

Still, this is all idle speculation: the voters will decide things on November 5. We’ll see if there are any surprises in the meantime.

I had some ambitions of trying to tie the primary results to my “Duluth’s Future” post from a few weeks back, but I don’t think the results offer anything too conclusive, so I’ll wait until after the general election. There are some possible trends here, but nothing concrete. Stay tuned.

A Bad Night for E-Cigarettes, Bond Debt Resolutions, and Brevity: Duluth City Council Notes, 9/9/13

10 Sep

First off, it’s primary election day…if you’re a Duluth resident and you haven’t voted yet, you have until 8:00. Get out and vote! I’ll have some comments on the results either later tonight or tomorrow afternoon.

A substantial crowd was on hand on a rather disgusting, drizzly Duluth night on Monday, and the Council tried to put its best side forward, with all its gentlemen donning more formal wear than usual (save Councilor Fosle, who wore his regular black polo shirt uniform). Many of the issues introduced or unresolved at the last meeting were back on the agenda, leading to a very long night (and, thus, a very long blog post summary). Councilor Krause opened the meeting by announcing he would not retire until after the next meeting, a change that caused a lot of confusion later on as the Council tried to figure out a timeline to appoint a replacement.

After hearing from a speaker on the proposed Canal Park revitalization who also had some issues with street lights, the Council cleaned up the confusing road salt issue from the previous meeting, with Ms. Linda Ross Sellner again scrutinizing the funding practices and noting environmental damages caused by salt. Councilor Fosle concurred with her worries and hoped that more sand would be used in the future, and with her concern noted, the resolution passed, 9-0, as did the consent agenda.

President Boyle then moved the issue with the largest public interest to the top of the agenda, and no fewer than thirteen speakers came forward to address three ordinances that amended the City Code to regulate the sale and use of electronic cigarettes. Most of the speakers were in support of the regulations, and the anti-smoking crowd was well-organized and had solid public speakers. Several doctors, healthcare professionals, and members of the American Cancer Society came forward to decry e-cigarettes, expressing their worries about health, secondhand smoke, normalization of smoking around children, and the utility of e-cigs as a smoking cessation device. Three speakers countered them, however; one ranted about bad government regulating things excessively, one asked the Council to put things off until further evidence emerged, and Mr. Brian Annis—a leading advocate who aims to open an e-cig business—returned to cite several studies countering those mentioned by the opposition.

The first of the three amendments would also prove the most contentious, as it sought to eliminate a loophole in the Minnesota Clean Air Act that allows sampling of products in businesses. (The measure would also ban such establishments as hookah bars.) Councilor Krause, in search of a compromise, suggested an amendment with a very strict standard: only businesses with more than 80% of their sales on these products—basically, smoke shops—could allow sampling. This, he argued, would allow people to test the product before purchase, keep businesses in the city, and would not adversely affect children, as they are not allowed in such shops anyway.

However, it quickly became clear Councilor Krause’s amendment would face an uphill battle, as one of his potential supporters, Councilor Fosle, announced his refusal to endorse any attempt to regulate e-cigs at all. He accused the Council of a lack of faith in the state government (which is not as stringent in its restrictions) and made expert use of a red herring by saying the council should be more worried about children trying heroin and ecstasy instead of cigarettes. Councilor Gardner, on the other hand, did break away from the Council’s more liberal voting bloc and announced her support for the Krause amendment. Councilors Krug, Julsrud, and Larson said they would rather hold the line on the Clean Air Act, while President Boyle said he couldn’t support anything that marketed itself in a “cherry bubble gum cotton candy” flavor. The Krause amendment failed, 6-3, with Councilors Krause, Gardner, and Stauber in support of it.

With his amendment gone, Councilor Krause explained why he couldn’t support the ban on sampling. He emphasized property rights, saying private businesses should be able to ban e-cigs as they choose, but nothing more. He also made the point—on which all parties agreed—that existing research was inconclusive on the health effects, and that in the meantime, it made little sense to regulate something that might help people quit. Councilor Gardner agreed, and both pointed out the countless carcinogens and toxic substances we ingest in small quantities every day. Councilor Gardner (a former smoker herself) added that adults are allowed to enjoy silly flavors as well, and that they can make smokers feel less dirty about smoking as they try to quit. Councilors Larson and Julsrud shared a rather different theory of government, and insisted that the Council had an obligation to learn from past manipulations of marketers of tobacco-like products, and that e-cigs should be banned until proven healthy. The Council voted to close the sampling loophole, 6-3, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, and Krause in opposition. Mr. Annis left the Chamber in defeat, and a loud noise could be heard from the hallway.

It was at this time that Councilor Gardner took the floor to deliver the most compelling speech I’ve seen since I began attending Council meetings. She conceded defeat, admitting that all of the e-cig restrictions “will pass, and you’ll all be happy,” but took issue with the tactics used by the anti-smoking lobby. The reliance on shame as a bludgeon, she insisted, did more harm than good to everyone involved. She noted that many smokers are poor and low-income people (often without health insurance) who are “humiliated” by anti-smoking campaigns, and claimed these are “polarizing” and “not a good way to change behavior.” She recalled her own adolescent self, and how she’d been attracted to things that were so stigmatized by the supposed do-gooders in the establishment, and wondered what would happen if the anti-smoking groups dropped their expensive shaming campaigns and instead focused their message on cessation devices. “Top-down changing ordinances are not the answer,” she said, saying they were reminiscent of the failed temperance movement. “If we’re a compassionate community, we need to think about this,” she concluded, adding that she felt better now that she’d finished her lecture. Her speech visibly affected several members of the Council and the audience, and one can only hope her words will not be forgotten.

Debate then went forward on the ban on e-cigs in public places, and Councilor Hartman was careful to note that this is not a ban on the product altogether, but merely an effort to regulate them like cigarettes, lest they become a “gateway;” Councilor Krug made similar point about the “slippery slope” of making exceptions to smoking restrictions. Councilor Krause called the measure ineffective, calling it a “band-aid” that could never rectify the “group, family, and cultural dynamics” that push people to take up smoking. Councilor Gardner largely agreed, but figured something was better than nothing, and voted for this measure; it passed, 7-2, with Councilors Krause and Fosle in opposition. The final resolution, a measure that treated the sale of e-cigs like regular cigarettes, passed 8-1, with Councilor Fosle being the lonely “no” vote. Councilor Stauber thanked Councilor Gardner for her comments and admitted that this was a “government intrusion,” and while he does not normally support them, he thought that this one was the right thing to do.

After nearly two hours on e-cigarettes, the Council then settled its tax measures for the coming year in the matter of minutes. The right-leaning bloc of Councilors Krause, Fosle, and Stauber raised a few objections, but Councilor Hartman was quick to point out the slight tax decrease, and most of the measures passed along the predictable 6-3 line. (Councilor Fosle also opposed park and bus funding measures that passed 8-1).

Next, the Council revisited the debate over servicing bond debt on street improvement (see last meeting’s notes for details).  Councilor Hartman had fine-tuned the language of the previous measure, this time making it clear that any funds from the casino settlement would be used to replenish the Community Investment Trust (CIT) fund, but the three conservatives once again refused to draw down the CIT any further. This time around Councilor Krause had his own counter-proposal, though his attempt at a compromise on the issue found even less traction than his stance on e-cigarette sampling, as it failed to attract any liberal votes or impress his two conservative colleagues. Sensing an impasse, Councilor Gardner tried to table the measures, but was voted down 5-4; forced to take a side, she continued her tour de force, demanding to know from CAO Montgomery just how much street repair interest on the CIT could fund. The answer was “less than a mile,” and Councilor Gardner rested her case, saying a gamble on the city’s credit rating was not worth less than a mile of road.

Councilor Julsrud was even more direct in her attacks on those defending the CIT, and lashed out at Councilor Krause for “playing politics” with the issue, a reference to things that must have been going on behind closed doors. Councilor Krause defended himself, again complained about the “betrayal” of the Administration that had said it would hold the line, and said he didn’t know how much CIT money the Council might need for streets in the future. Councilor Fosle griped that CAO Montgomery had claimed to be “open to proposals” but had shot them all down, and repeated his line of the night, which accused the city of excessive spending on “fancy, frilly stuff.” Twice during the meeting, Councilor Hartman effectively called his bluff: while Councilor Fosle claims to have a host of money-saving measures in mind to cut out the fancy frills, why haven’t they come before the Council? Still, both measures failed, leaving the debt service issue unresolved.

After the tedious debate over how to go about replacing Councilor Krause (in which Councilor Gardner again had an excellent line by agreeing that Krause’s replacement “shouldn’t be a flaming liberal like myself,” and instead agree with Krause on most issues, and Councilor Stauber did a lot of worrying over subverting the interests of the voters of District Four), Councilor Stauber tried to get the Council to veto an increase in natural gas rates. In a lengthy discourse, he complained that an outside firm had called for a lower rate than the Public Utilities Commission had supported, and that a newfound utilities surplus made the rate increase pointless. Councilor Julsrud commended Councilor Stauber for being “masterful at spinning things,” while Councilor Gardner called him “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” saying the increase amounted to roughly $1.05. Councilor Fosle had his usual complaints, Councilor Hartman had a rejoinder, and Councilor Julsrud said the rate increase would help build a reserve that would help to deal with “ever-changing capital needs.” Councilor Krug said the Council should listen to its commissions unless there is an “egregious” error in their work, while Councilor Krause countered that these taxing authorities often operate in vacuums and didn’t have a good sense of the big picture of city tax rates. The veto attempt failed, 6-3, with Councilors Stauber, Krause, and Fosle in support.

Exhausted, the Council did its best to hurry through most of its remaining business, though Councilor Fosle held up a few issues for comment, and was the lone ‘no’ vote against some legal fees (which Councilor Stauber said had been a “bad decision” but supported anyway). The longest debate was over a reconstruction design for Superior Street; Councilors Fosle and Krause worried about the lack of a funding mechanism, but Councilor Stauber said he was satisfied that the money was there, and Councilor Gardner expressed incredulity that anyone would hold up this project. The measure passed, 7-2. The rest of the agenda passed unanimously, Councilor Larson wished CAO Montgomery a happy birthday, and the Councilors and the four remaining audience members (including myself and two current Council candidates) were relieved to finally exit the chamber, three hours and fifty minutes after the start of the meeting.

Duluth City Council Elections 2013: A Patient Primary Primer

8 Sep

With primary elections on Tuesday, here’s part two in my Duluth election series. See the notes on the School Board here.

For my coverage of City Council meetings over the past few months, click here.

Figure out where to vote, and which races you’re voting for, here | Map

This is what your ballot will look like. 

The Duluth City Council is in a different universe from the School Board. There are no hugely contentious issues before it, and the current edition appears to have a pretty good rapport. There is no rush to throw the bums out here, though we do have two open at-large seats, following the retirements of Councilors Jim Stauber and Dan Hartman. The entire primary will only eliminate one candidate.

At-Large

Five people are competing for four spots in the general election. Once again, I list candidates in my rough order of preference.

Zack Filipovich, a recent University of Minnesota-Duluth graduate, appears to have one of the better-organized campaigns out there. He’s been endorsed by the DFL, but his campaign also focuses on his experience in finance and economic development, which leads one to hope he’ll mind the checkbook better than some other well-intentioned but not-overly-financially-savvy left-leaning Duluthians. Councilor Hartman’s retirement also leaves the Council with a relative lack of young people, and Filipovich fills that niche. That’s an important thing to have, especially in a city that makes a big deal out of attracting and retaining young people. His platform (website here) could use more specifics, but in a field where no one really blows me away, he’s at the top of the ballot for now.

Barb Russ is probably the most experienced candidate in the field, and probably has the strongest campaign going, with a concise but clear agenda and lawn signs everywhere. Just as Rosie Loeffler-Kemp’s résumé just about screams “school board member,” Russ’s bellows “city councilor.” She is a very safe and predictable choice, and while she may not be wildly inspirational, she should be an effective Councilor. Website here

Ryan Stauber is the son of outgoing Councilor Jim Stauber, and his emphasis on “balance” suggests his views are fairly similar to his father’s. Like Filipovich, he’s young, and has likewise demonstrated a clear commitment to his city. Given the need for some balance and debate, I was very tempted to put Stauber in one of the top two slots. With the retirement of his father and Councilor Krause, two of the three more-or-less fiscally “conservative” voices on the Council will be gone, and I worry that simply supporting the two DFL-endorsed candidates may contribute to City Council groupthink. Victories by Filipovich and Russ would effectively marginalize the opposition on the Council, and leave it in the sole hands of Councilor Jay Fosle—and, given Councilor Fosle’s tendency to be a bit haphazard in his criticisms, I’m not sure that role suits him. Duluth’s recent experience with a lonely voice standing up to the rest of a board (coughArtJohnstoncough) has not been pretty.

Still, I need more than “balance” as a reason to support someone, and Stauber hasn’t quite inspired me. His main point of emphasis, city infrastructure, is also Russ’s, and other than a vague mention of stronger law enforcement (which is part of his background), there isn’t much here. If he goes through to the general election, I’ll certainly give him a second look. Unsolicited web site advice: putting childhood awards and volunteer experiences (ie. some governor’s award won in middle school, marathon volunteering) on your résumé just makes it look like you’re padding it. There is potential here, but the product isn’t quite polished enough yet.

A fourth candidate, Ray “Skip” Sandman, emphasizes his Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) roots on his website, and aims to bring diversity to the Council. Considering the recent controversy over an eagle staff and lack of racial minorities on the Council, this is all well and good; the problem is, I don’t see a whole lot of meat on the bones here. Other than a vague mention of living wage jobs, he doesn’t say what else he’ll do. Tell us more, Ray! Website here

The final candidate is Ray Whitledge, whose use of the Statue of Liberty on his campaign signs underlines his staunch libertarian views. His Facebook page (I couldn’t find a website) straight-up says he thinks taxation is robbery. To his credit, he sounds like he really practices what he preaches, and will only accept tiny amounts of voluntarily-donated pay if he serves on the Council. However, 99% of his proposals probably won’t fly, leaving him in that dreaded “lonely voice” category I worried about in my comment on Councilor Fosle above. His emphasis on ideology over community leads me to doubt he’ll be able to work with his fellow Councilors in a constructive way. I’m somewhat intrigued to see what a town governed by libertarians would look like, but I don’t want Duluth to be the guinea pig—nor is it realistic to expect that here, given Duluth’s deep left-leaning roots. This city is what it is, and the best of the candidates here accept that, even if they disagree on everything else.

District 2

Councilor Patrick Boyle is running unopposed, so there’s no intrigue here…yet, at least. Boyle has thrown his name in for the special election to replace late County Commissioner Steve O’Neil, and should he win that race in February, he will need a replacement. Stay tuned.

District 4

With Garry Krause’s surprise retirement this week, Howie Hanson is now running unopposed in this race. I had plenty to say about Mr. Hanson on Friday. Even for people somewhat more sympathetic to Mr. Hanson than I am, it is unfortunate he will not face a challenger who might at least force him to come up with some sort of platform. Instead, he will likely coast into the Council with his false charm and vague interest in the community on full blast. District 4 residents, if you have any ambition to enter local politics, now would be a great time for a write-in campaign.

The lack of competition in Districts 2 and 4 is, frankly, a bit disappointing. I suppose it might be a sign that people are fairly happy with the work the Council is doing—an understandable stance, given its relative efficiency and lack of drama of late—but a little debate here wouldn’t have hurt. It is what it is, though, and there are some diverse voices in the at-large race. Unfortunately, in my estimation, the candidates who venture away from the establishment are also the weaker candidates. I think there’s a lot to say about that, but I’ll hold off until after the primary, when we’ll have a better pulse on what the voters of Duluth are thinking.

Duluth School Board Elections 2013: A Patient Primary Primer

7 Sep

Primary elections in Duluth take place this Tuesday. Here’s my take on the school board candidates (city council to follow tomorrow).

For my coverage of School Board meetings over the past few months, click here.

Figure out where to vote, and which races you’re voting for, here.| Pretty map

This is what your ballot will look like.

Now, some comments on the race and the candidates.

As anyone who follows Duluth politics knows, the School Board is riven by lingering controversy over its expensive Long Range Facilities Plan (the Red Plan), which got the city a bunch of shiny new schools and a bunch of very angry taxpayers who have voted against anything school-related ever since. Opponents of the Red Plan didn’t make much headway in School Board elections, however, leaving Member Art Johnston the sole critic on the current Board. As a result, he has waged a scorched-earth campaign over the past four years, doing everything he can to disrupt the final stages of the Red Plan (which was implemented nearly in full before his tenure began).

It is frustrating to watch Member Johnston’s antics, and I say this as someone who does not want to see the School Board be a rubber stamp machine. I want to see critics; people who will make very careful decisions with the paltry pot of money the Board has to work with, look for creative new solutions, and who will question the tendency of the Superintendent and the Board’s majority to move in lockstep. The problem is that most of the existing critics are so eccentric or embittered by the Red Plan rancor that they are hopelessly disruptive, and show few signs of being able to work with the rest of the Board. That makes for good theater, but it does not make for good governance.

Thankfully, after this election cycle, the Board could very easily have only one person left over from the whole Red Plan debate (Member Seliga-Punyko, who beat Loren Martell last election cycle). Everyone else who implemented it could be gone, as could the “interesting” cast of opponents…if Duluth can come through and vote against them all. This is the easiest path to long-term health for ISD 709. Love or hate the Red Plan, it happened, and Duluth has to decide what comes next, not repeat old debates.

At-Large

Current Members Mary Cameron and Tom Kasper have chosen not to seek re-election, freeing up two seats here. There are six candidates, two of whom will be weeded out in the primary. I list them here in a rough order of preference.

In the search for a new Board member who will question the status quo, Joshua Bixby may be the best bet. His campaign website is easily the most extensive out there, and includes Mr. Bixby trailing on about issues large and small. When addressing the Board as a citizen, he came across as articulate, insightful, and responsive to public opinion. He is a recent arrival to Duluth, meaning he wasn’t even here when the Red Plan debates started, and wants to move past that while also wrestling with the financial issues created by the Plan. I’m not sure I agree with him on everything, but I think his voice is a necessary one, and could be a very constructive addition to a Board that has been anything but constructive lately.

Annie Harala is another youngish newcomer to ISD 709 politics. Her campaign website isn’t all that detailed, though at least she has one, and it does get points for prettiness. I applaud her support of “community schools”—that is, schools that emphasize a holistic education and unite the school with the surrounding neighborhoods through a number of initiatives. She looks to be a safe choice.

Henry Banks, a man best known for his radio show “People of Color with Henry Banks,” has been involved in a number of community organizations over the years, though none of them focus explicitly on education. An African-American, Banks is certainly in tune with Duluth’s serious achievement gap issues, and with Member Cameron’s impending retirement, he is the only potential minority School Board member. Beyond that, though, he’s hard to pin down; he doesn’t have a website yet (Facebook page here), and there isn’t much substance detailed there.

Even though he is not a new figure, I actually have a decent amount of respect for Harry Welty. I think he tries to assess things fairly, even if he is sometimes wrong in said assessment; he is well-informed and, tendency for hyperbole aside, seems to be a genuine person who is capable of working well with others. Sure, he has a huge ego and a talent for grandstanding, but he can also appreciate nuance and can be self-deprecating at times, too. (His long-running website will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about his life and his stances on ISD 709 issues.) I’m not voting for him in the primary, but if you think a member of the old Let Duluth Vote crowd deserves a voice on the Board, though, Harry has the strongest credentials.

Nancy Nilsen, a Board member from 2006-2010 who helped push through the Red Plan, is one I’d throw out as old news. I really don’t care whether or not she was right, or how well-prepared she is due to her work on other matters. She was a part of that whole mess, and the District needs to move on.

Loren Martell is a regular member of the anti-Red Plan crowd. To his credit, he’s done his homework on district finances, and he’s managed to get an audit of the District; I’m curious to see the results. However, even if the audit vindicates his stance, that does not suddenly qualify him to make decisions over the futures of Duluth students. His speeches in front of the Board can be painful to listen to, and that has nothing to do with their content: he rambles, casts about charges, and generally fails to sound coherent. (At the first few meetings I attended, I chose not to mention his appearances before the Board in my write-ups because I honestly thought he was somewhat “slow,” and that picking on him would be in poor taste.) At any rate, he gives little indication that he knows anything about what a school board does beyond his stance on a facilities plan that has already happened. He sounds like Art Johnston 2.0, only without Art’s penchant for good quotes. Maybe he’s been goaded into anger and incoherence due to his frustrations with the Board; not having followed Board affairs closely during my four years out of Duluth (2008-2012), I don’t know. But that frustration is the exact reason I can’t endorse him: everyone touched by that bitter debate is tainted. It’s time to move on.

District 1

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp has, quite simply, devoted her life to education. She has served in just about every PTA or parent-advisory position imaginable, and as she lives in the neighborhood, I remember seeing her at just about every school function while growing up. As with all the candidates here, her platform is a bit vague, but she is a relentlessly positive person, and no one will doubt her work ethic. Judging by an informal lawn sign count, she’s the favorite here, and since I’ve supported a couple of younger, newish people in the at-large races, I’ll use my vote in my own district for someone who has a little more experience. One word of advice on the lawn signs, though: “informed” and “involved” are acceptable ways to describe a candidate, and in her case, very true. Describing oneself as “interested,” however, seems laughably self-evident. Is anyone running for the School Board really not “interested” in the position? (Facebook page here)

This district has two pretty strong candidates, though, and Joe Matthes is the other. He is a newcomer to Duluth politics, a 20-something with a couple of young kids. He is a union rep who has experience on the labor side of things, and to date he is the only candidate to leaflet my house (he lives down the block, though I don’t know him personally), and his literature hits all the right notes. (Facebook page here) I would have no qualms voting for him; it’s unfortunate he is in the same race as Loeffler-Kemp.

Marcia Stromgren is a member of the anti-Red Plan crew, and not even a terribly interesting one at that. She is good at complaining about things but offers little of substance, has no web presence, and her campaign signs appear to put emphasis on the “tax payer.” (Hopefully her efforts to save taxpayers money will not lead her to target English classes that might teach Duluth students that “taxpayer” is, in fact, one word.) On the flip side, her intriguing headgear would brighten up the Board meetings.

District 4

This is perhaps the juiciest race of the election cycle. As in District 1, it’s a three-way race pitting an anti-Red Plan name against two opponents, one a longtime schools activist, one a young newcomer.

This is perhaps the juiciest race of the election cycle. As in District 1, it’s a three-way race pitting an anti-Red Plan name against two opponents, one a longtime schools activist, one a young newcomer.

It’s hard to see many huge distinctions between the two challengers here. Justin Perpich is a recent Duluth arrival with a young child, while David Bolgrien is a longtime volunteer and PTA member. Both have a pretty similar emphasis in their campaigns, as they try to bring positive messaging back to District Four. Bolgrien appears a bit more antagonistic toward the incumbent, and he also endorsed Nancy Nilsen on his Facebook page (ostensibly because she is also a west-sider, though that gives some idea of his loyalties in the Red Plan debate). Because of that, I’d tip my support toward Perpich, who also has a website here that puts a little more substance behind his campaign. Still, I’d support either one against the incumbent.

These two men are, of course, taking on Art Johnston. Here is his website, “Truth in Duluth.”

I’ve probably made my opinion on Member Johnston abundantly clear in my posts on School Board meetings. My critique effectively boils down to the same one I made of Mr. Martell: just because he has a different opinion does not mean he is well-qualified to represent that opinion. His eternal disruption has yet to achieve anything of substance, and only reinforced the bunker mentality among the rest of the Board. It is time to move on.

I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again: it’s time to move on. On Tuesday, we’ll learn just how much Duluth agrees with that sentiment.

Exit Garry Krause; Enter Howie Hanson

6 Sep

Forgive me, followers from afar:  with primary elections this Tuesday, this blog is going to be pretty much nonstop local politics for the next few days. But if you like reading about nutty local wannabe-politicians, this post should amuse you anyway. I’d intended to start this series tomorrow, but a surprise announcement has me rushing to get this post up early.

Garry Krause, a member of the Duluth City Council, has announced that a new job will leave him unable to continue on in his position. He will attend his final Council meeting this coming Monday. The city will have to decide whether it will fill Krause’s Fourth District seat until next January, when the winner of this fall’s race for his seat–which is now a one-man race–will take office.

I didn’t always agree with Councilor Krause, but when it came to professionalism on the City Council, he was second to none. As I wrote a couple of months ago, he manages to blend principled stands with decency and civility. He was a dedicated public servant, and brought a necessary voice of skepticism to the Council without ever being overbearing or self-righteous in his critiques. I would have gladly endorsed him for a second term, and the city will miss him. I wish him well in his new position, and I definitely respect his decision to prioritize his family over his political career.

That said, I can’t pretend I’m not somewhat bitter over his departure from the race at this point, which leaves local blogger Howie Hanson unopposed in his pursuit of the Fourth District seat.

For the most part, Howie’s blog just plugs community events, and I appreciate people who put in that sort of community service. However, facile mentions of local events do not qualify one to wrangle with esoteric ordinances and resolutions. He doesn’t have a campaign website yet (and probably won’t need one, now that he has no opponent), so it’s hard to evaluate what other qualifications he may have other than being interested in things.

Admittedly, I also have a bit of a history with Howie: he tried to be a high school hockey analyst for a little while, and quickly made himself the laughingstock of the local hockey community. That may seem petty and irrelevant to his potential work on the City Council, but the character he displayed was not what I want out of a Councilor: he pretended to be objective when he had obvious loyalties, he took it upon himself to call out the “arrogance” of certain teams without any evidence, hyped up some players to absurd levels, and when people called him out or noted his numerous errors, he quickly deleted things and pretended he’d never written them. He was sloppy, held grudges, and did not take criticism well at all. I’ve disagreed with any number of hockey commentators on any number of issues over the years, but with the vast majority of them, I’m able to get over that and have a friendly relationship; Howie, on the other hand, was quite incapable of participating in a dialogue like that. That doesn’t inspire much trust.

Howie, who can be found wandering the Heritage Center wearing swag that advertises his blog, also once got the School District to pay him $19,000 a few years back so that he could do things that anyone with a basic knowledge of computers could do–allegedly for 30 hours a week! (Why not have kids do it?) Needless to say, his “goduluthschools.com” website was a total flop, and typing that address into your browser now gets you a thrilling series of posts on HGH and penis enlargement. I don’t think he’s a bad or dangerous person; I will just be surprised if he proves a competent city councilor.

I suppose there’s some chance that someone will mount a write-in campaign now that Councilor Krause is out of the picture, but even if that happens, we’re likely stuck with Howie. It’ll be an “interesting” four years on the Duluth City Council.

****

Over the next two days I’ll have posts on the primary races for Duluth School Board and City Council. Stay tuned.

A New World Disorder

3 Sep

Let’s take a step back from the Syrian intervention debate for a moment here, play some pop poly sci, and explore what the ongoing crisis means for world politics. Put simply, it could well be the end of the post-Cold War Pax Americana, and a sign of a much more complex world. Of course, some people have been talking about this for a long time. The most famous is probably Fareed Zakaria, who wrote a bestselling book about it five years ago. As early as the mid-1990s, Samuel Huntington was imagining creative new ways in which people might fight each other, absent any Cold War ideological battle lines to separate each other.

The people making these arguments usually framed them against the narrative of the hegemony of liberal democracy and capitalism, made famous by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. It was a great title for grabbing people’s attention, though it also led a lot of people to misunderstand him. We’ll save that argument for some other time and say that, quite simply, things looked pretty good if you were a proponent of liberal democracy and capitalism at the end of the Cold War. The communists were done for, and authoritarians were falling across Europe, Latin America, and even in a few other places. The European Union was taking the next step, NAFTA was in the works, and the Gulf War had shown that no one could really mess with the United States military. In an increasingly interconnected world, there were no obvious alternatives. Sure, there were some angry Muslims out there who weren’t too fond of liberal modernity who might blow a few things up, and yes, democratization would have to come in bumps and lurches in many places. But it was hard to conceive of another ideology that might be applicable to the entire world. The biggest questions were over how to make all that integration happen—would it simply be economic, or political as well?—and how to deal with the people and countries that didn’t take off on the right path right away.

Fast forward to 2003 or so, and the narrative still pretty much applies. Yes, some angry Muslims blew some things up, but the U.S. pursued them into Afghanistan and knocked off their patrons and made its message pretty clear. The rest of the world pretty much had the U.S.’s back. The E.U. had itself some shiny new coins. Democracy was lurching ahead in Latin America and in Africa; only in the Middle East were things not really showing signs of moving in the “right” direction. So the U.S. went in and tried to do something about it.

Ten years later, we know that didn’t work so well. Iraq is no shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East, and if anything, the invasion simply added to the regional instability. Though it did little to truly undermine global capitalism, the financial crisis was very disruptive for the countries that had been bankrolling the march of liberal democracy. This was especially true in the troubled Eurozone, though the United States had its own set of issues, especially as the country in the lonely throne atop the world order. The failures of the Bush Era now evident, Barack Obama was elected to usher in a new foreign policy; two years after that, voters decided they didn’t much care about foreign policy when the economy was still not moving much, and in came the Tea Party—which, whatever else one might say about it, by in large has little interest in the nuances of geopolitics. The global vision seemed to be collapsing in on itself, as everyone was too busy dealing with their own crap to bother with saving other people.

A few months later, though, there was reason for hope again. Finally, the dominoes were beginning to fall in the Middle East: spontaneous, popular protests began to weaken the entrenched autocracies, the most notable being Egypt, a regional power. Killing Osama bin Laden was a nice cherry on top, too. Hey, maybe the dream wasn’t dead after all. When it became clear the popular revolt in Libya was going to need a bit of a nudge to knock off its ugly autocrat, the U.S. and its friends were happy to lend a hand. Once again, freedom was on the march.

Fast forward again, and the hopes of the liberal democrats have again gone unfulfilled. The Libya intervention effectively destabilized Mali. Egypt’s “revolution” now looks more like a series of coups coupled with huge protests, and no one has any idea what the endgame will be there. Perhaps even more significant now, though, is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has shown he is willing to fight to the death in his own civil war. The worldwide debate over how to respond shows just how troubled the world order is:

-Existing international institutions have no real mechanism to react. There is no way to punish chemical weapons users from some sort of international, objective position up on high. This position does not exist.

-No rising power yet has the power or the interest to lead its own effort, with one—Russia—actively opposing any action. If the world intervenes, it will be the U.S. (maybe with France tagging along) or no one.

-A war-weary portion of the American public—including Rand Paul’s wing of the long-united, pro-intervention Republican Party—has no interest in geopolitical questions, and thinks the U.S. should mind its own business.

-The neoconservatives—John McCain, Lindsey Graham—on the other hand, are obsessed with geopolitics, and want the U.S. to take the lead, knock out Assad, and set the Middle East on a course to peace. Failure to do so, they believe, will embolden the likes of Russia and Iran, and let an evil dictator stay in power. The word they repeat ad nauseam is “credibility.” If the U.S. says it will act and then does not, the American reputation will be tarnished forever, they say. (Of course, they never bother to mention what happens after the U.S. asserts its credibility by lobbing a few bombs at Damascus, unless they want an all-out invasion and occupation.)

-As of this writing, is hard to know what Barack Obama thinks. Has he called for a vote on Syria—something he did not bother to do with Libya—for strictly political reasons? It makes total sense from that perspective, as it exposes the rifts in the Republicans, makes them complicit in the march to war if and when things do go wrong, and gives him an easy out if Congress somehow actually rejects his proposal.

However, I suspect Obama is genuinely conflicted on this, which may be why he’s passing the buck and actually (gasp) following the Constitution instead of attacking at will. On the one hand, he does believe most of what he said back when he gave his Nobel Prize address; good liberal that he is, he wants to believe the world can punish evildoers and those who violate international law, and he knows the U.S. is the only country that can really do that. But this is also a man who ran as someone who’d learned the lessons of Iraq: that it will be difficult not to escalate from a “surgical” first shot, that this will inevitably be seen as taking a side in the conflict, and that a rebel victory could very easily bring hardline Islamists to power, creating a far bigger regional headache than Assad ever was. Given the difficulty of the question, some dithering is understandable; the problem is that the dithering makes him look at best indecisive, and at worst a total cynic.

And so it becomes clear that the new world order is anything but the hegemony of liberal democracy. It hasn’t been a clash of civilizations, a la Huntington: there have been hints of that, and there may be future threats of that, but Huntington’s worry about “Islam’s bloody borders” was misplaced. It was the bloody interior of the Islamic world that would make it all apparent. We’re left with Alawites and Sunnis and Shias and secularists all shooting each other (with Christians as the collateral damage), all tangled up in bizarre webs of alliances. (Here is a helpful chart that makes everything clear.)

This thing shows how laughable it is to imagine an overarching narrative here. Some people might lament lost chances: if only the U.S. had stayed out of Iraq, or gotten it right, or—to take a more hard-line stance—nipped off all of these disruptive Middle Eastern revolts before they upended a stable, if autocratic, region. I don’t buy it. Autocracies never last, and the allure of “freedom” is always there, especially in such an interconnected world. The revolts would have happened, sooner or later. Likewise, the U.S.’s window of dominance is going to end sooner or later: if not because of military defeat, simple demographics make this clear enough. (I’m not saying the U.S. will fall from its spot as the foremost international superpower anytime soon; given my doubts over the stability of autocracies, I think China has far more serious issues than the U.S. does that it will have to deal with sometime down the line. I’m simply saying that U.S. power for international military influence is shrinking, and will probably continue to shrink.)

And so we’re left with our new world order, which, it turns out, is not some sort of march toward destiny (be it of liberal or a communist or a religious variety), but a mess of regimes rising and falling all over the place and dragging people into webs of intrigue worse than my high school love life. It isn’t pretty, but no one can accuse it of being boring, and as horrible as conditions may be in Syria, this is also (by historical standards) a pretty peaceful time. That might last; it might not. Further integration and democratic advance remain a real possibility, probably worth supporting when they do not require extreme exertion. (See Myanmar, for example.)

But that also might not happen, and any student of international politics must understand that, for sanity’s sake. We’re left with a diverse world full of interesting messes, and while this shouldn’t cause us to give up all hope of changing it, we do have to respect its complexity. If that makes us traitors to this America messianic mission of converting the world, then so be it. We are not slaves to the fate of humanity: we are free to carve out our own little communities of contentment and choose only the battles that we cannot avoid or that we know will not consume us. We can only control so much.

Edit: Ross Douthat has come out with a good, measured piece that wrestles with some of these themes.