Well, we have a race. I didn’t really want to write about it, largely out of protest over the excruciating length of political campaigns launched fourteen months ahead of the election, but a few people have goaded me into it. For the first time in many years, there will be a politician in Duluth opposed to the current administration who aspires to something more than a protest vote.
City Councilor and local blogger Howie Hanson has chosen to go in for the race for mayor of Duluth, mounting a pseudo-challenge to incumbent Don Ness, Duluth’s champion of boring government. Ness, of course, hasn’t decided whether he’ll run again yet, and was put in an awkward position by Hanson’s direct challenge to him. (Sort of. Despite coming out guns blazing, Hanson also gave Ness plenty of credit, and admitted he would be difficult to defeat.) In response, Ness stuck to his guns and kept to his original decision-making timeline, while also saying he was ready for a debate. The entire drama played out on Facebook comment boxes, prompting the expected sniping and grumbling and misunderstanding and so on and so forth. (I know, I know, it’s hypocritical for a blogger to gripe about the rise of social media. Deal with it.)
Cards on the table: I have never been a very large fan of Hanson’s work, a sentiment that goes back to a kerfuffle some five years ago on some of his writings about local hockey. (There was a time when his name was something of a punch line in local hockey circles, though this might have faded some since he abandoned opinion writing about hockey after these incidents.) It’s nothing personal, and I try to maintain a strict division of hockey and state in my thinking. By and large, Hanson’s heart is in the right place. He’s trying to be a voice for citizens in Duluth who aren’t thrilled with aspects of the Ness Regime, and I’m all for principled opposition.
That stance is a total about-face from where he was a year ago—see the end of this post for some critical comments about his predecessor for not being on the same page as Ness—but I think that’s a genuine conversion that he’s gone through in his first year on the Council, and as he’s learned more about local government. He may not be the smoothest operator, but there’s a political vacuum that he’s in a great position to fill, and he’s given himself enough time that he could, theoretically, pull it all together. On paper, a west-sider with deep stakes in the community who relies on fiscal restraint and common sense sounds like a serious contender.
Hanson, however, has done little to suggest he will be able to seize that mantel. Flexibility and common sense are good things to a degree, but with Hanson, the underlying philosophy just seems formless. He is quick to come up with new proposals, which he paints as outside-the-box thinking, but many of them are so poorly vetted that they are difficult to take seriously. Above all, he has just seemed more ill-prepared to govern than any other city councilor in recent memory, with a glaring lack of understanding of how things work in city government. That isn’t all bad—his resistance to bureaucracy-speak is sometimes an asset—but any politician put in charge of an executive department needs to know how to speak this language, otherwise the whole enterprise will fall apart. He has a folksy sort of charm, though he also has some blustering bravado that comes out in spurts, only to be quickly covered up when he realizes he’s rubbed someone the wrong way. It could be a winning combination in the hands of a tactful politician. All of the evidence up to and including this flap over his announcement suggests that Hanson is not one right now.
He has a lot of time, though, so I won’t dismiss him out of hand. We’re going to have a painfully long campaign ahead of us, and if Ness does indeed run, we may have our field set a year in advance. If he doesn’t, Hanson has probably forced the other possible successors to make up their minds soon. (I’ve heard names, but I won’t speculate publicly.) Hanson will be a long shot even if he doesn’t have to face Ness—a near shoo-in for re-election if he runs—but with enough confusion among the people aiming to capture the Ness coalition, he might be able to make things interesting.
Boring government was fun while it lasted. With Hanson in the field, it certainly won’t be that.