Defending Gardner and Succeeding Ness

6 Jul

It’s been a lovely 4th of July weekend in Duluth. While any attempt to bike on the Lakewalk will bring about plenty of cursing under one’s breath about meandering tourists and those God-awful four-wheeled bike cars, it’s still a brilliant time of year for this city, teeming with life and filled with people in all their fascinating messiness. (One last bit of snark, though: did anyone else think the lit-up bridge bore an unfortunate resemblance to the French flag?) At any rate, I’ll wrap up this weekend with that most American of activities: arguing about politics!

With a three-week gap between public meetings, I figured I’d venture a few comments on the two juicier bits of political news to come up in the city over this past week. The first is the recall campaign directed at 3rd District City Councilor Sharla Gardner, a push led by Park Point residents upset over her willingness to defend a plan to re-route the S-curve on the Point.

I have a soft spot for the populist instinct in politics, whatever the flavor. The people at the top should never get too comfortable, and as someone who likes to think things through as thoroughly as possible, I’m rarely one to dismiss people as mere NIMBYs. As I wrote after the meeting on the Point plan, this is local politics in all its glory and messiness…and it worked. There was enough of an uproar that the plan fell flat. And yet, now, people call for Gardner’s head. The victory, apparently, must be complete and total.

The leaders of the revolt, who unconvincingly tried to plead reluctance in the initial News Tribune article, contend that Gardner has not represented Park Point’s interests. (Their words before the Council on May 27 were anything but reluctant, but instead indignant and obstreperous.) That may or may not be true—Gardner had a thorough rebuttal in today’s DNT that effectively shredded the sloppy and unconvincing case made by her accusers—but it’s no grounds for her ouster. Politicians are not elected to ape their constituents’ every whim. We elect people, not platforms. Sharla Gardner was elected to govern as she sees fit, and people will have to learn to deal with that until the next election. If there were a real ethical violation here, or something more sinister, okay—and in that case, a councilor’s removal would likely be taken up by her peers or perhaps the courts—but there just isn’t. In this case, yeah, Park Point, you’re being a bunch of NIMBYs. (I am writing this post from the home of a family member on the Point, so I have some knowledge of the situation.)

All of this confirms a growing sense that the recall is among the most obnoxious tools available in democratic politics. The push for a recall stems from a desperate notion that change, any change, will somehow be better. Instead, the political climate seems to deteriorate from there. Sometimes we’re just on the losing side of debates (or, in the case of the S-curve and even in the case of Art Johnston, the winning side that cannot handle dissent). Smart political players don’t lash out viciously in these situations; they build a base for the next election, so as to turn the tide and create a more positive campaign; a campaign not just predicated on rejecting the past and present, but with a substantive vision for the future. For democracy to work, we need to respect the wishes of voters, even if we think the voters were voting against their own self-interest.

Gardner’s views and politics were never any great secret. She’s been elected twice, including an unopposed re-election in 2011, which means that any opposition to her has either been thwarted, or suffered from a terrible failure to mobilize. She’s often rather long-winded—the comprehensiveness of her defense of the S-curve plan was likely what set a few people off—but she did honestly think she was doing what was best for the city, and she always has the courage of her conviction. The notion that she didn’t fight for the loss of the fire hall also seems wrongheaded; whatever else she may be, Gardner is not one to give up a fight, and she is just one person on a Council of nine that was unconvinced. The critics misread her motives, overestimate her power, and have an entitled conception of democratic politics. There just isn’t any logical reason for this campaign at this time. Save it for the 2015 election, people.

Of course, I have few illusions about logic ruling things in politics; theories often only make sense from a thousand feet up in the air. I know it’s wrong to expect subtlety and careful political calculation out of the average citizen. (That line sounds elitist, but this is reality, and in many ways, I have a certain envy for people who don’t spend much time peddling in the nuances of politics.) The aggrieved parties will get to launch their little campaign and enjoy their day in the Park Point sun. This risk is always present in democratic politics, with the angry partisans waging total war by claiming they somehow represent the repressed or ignored. The system works because most people, thankfully, don’t consider these things life-or-death matters. Can we please just enjoy these beautiful days on the beach instead of seeing this vendetta through to its painful conclusion?

The second newsworthy bit was the revelation that Mayor Don Ness is leaning against running for a third term. Given his popularity and the unity of Duluth’s center and left behind him, he’d likely be a shoo-in to win, and, of course, plenty of people around him want him to pursue higher offices. But, in typical Ness fashion, he’s deflected most of those projections, and seems more content to play the family man.

We’ll see if that holds up when decision time comes, but I, for one, applaud his stance. A smart politician knows he is never bigger than his project, and Ness would be wise to make sure his vision for Duluth—which will outlive his mayoralty no matter what—is well-positioned to outlast him. In most things, it is better to go out on top than to hang on until one has outlived one’s welcome. I wouldn’t be opposed to a third Ness run, but fresh blood—as long as it really is fresh, and not the same old stuff stashed away in a vial in a back corner of City Hall—would make sure his project doesn’t stagnate along the same old questions and battle lines.

I haven’t always agreed with Don Ness, and as with anything, I’m sure I could pick apart his record if I wanted to expend the time and effort. But from a long-term perspective, his six and a half years have probably been the most momentous mayoralty in recent Duluth history. For the first time in my life, the city has a bit of optimism about it, and that should probably be seen through, and taken as far as it can go. There is a window of energy here that ought to be milked for all it’s worth, and Ness is doing that, daring to reach west and plan for the future. It may not turn Duluth into some shining beacon of a modern city, but the gains need not be wholesale to be substantial.

The cynics and critics still have an important role to play. If the coalition gets too comfortable, it will stagnate, and I’d welcome alternative visions and substantive debate. But realistically, and barring a drastic change in the local political landscape, whoever gets elected in 2015 is going to agree with Ness on most things. The day when the Duluth DFL monolith breaks down may come—there are cracks in the walls—but I don’t think we’re there yet. The real question, then, becomes one of how this project will evolve, and what wrinkles a new candidate might bring to Ness’s Duluth. A race to succeed him in 2015 would likely be very competitive, even if not terribly diverse in its political views, and that could inject a healthy dose of life to the system. A city with a dominant party needs that sort of internal debate, lest the vision atrophy. Those outside that party, on the other hand, need to come up with a positive platform, instead of simply raging at the people in power who they believe have wronged them.

Edit: Aaron Brown, who has an excellent Range-based blog on northeastern Minnesota, hits many of the same notes on Ness here, along with some of the points about living in community that I’ve repeated over and over again. Yes, yes, a million times yes. There’s a reason “culture” comes before “politics” in the tagline at the top of this blog.

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One Response to “Defending Gardner and Succeeding Ness”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Setting the Table: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/14/14 | A Patient Cycle - July 14, 2014

    […] big issues to another. We’re done with street fees and voting methods for the time being, while the drama surrounding the attempted recall of Councilor Gardner will unfold beyond the Council Chamber. Councilors Julsrud and Fosle were absent, leaving just […]

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