Exit Don Ness (Eventually, and For Now…)

15 Oct

Don Ness will not seek a third term as mayor of Duluth. This is old news by now, but, then, I’m not here to break news; I’m just here to comment on it. He spilled out his thoughts in a Facebook post yesterday, conceding that it’s time to move on. In usual Ness fashion it’s a bit long and earnest, but the sincerity is clear. It’s a bit silly to write a political obituary for a man who still has over a year in office, but there are a few things I want to say about the announcement.

At first blush, I do think he concedes too much to “critics,” which are relatively few and far between. Ness is possessed by a sincere desire to please everyone, and while he knows on a certain level that no one can do this, it still bothers when he encounters negativity. I don’t really blame him; I know that feeling well myself. He is so dead-certain that he is doing the right thing, and so honest in his attempts to reach out and do so, that failures to connect get to him some.

I’m also of two minds on one of his reasons for retirement, which is to “protect” his children from hearing negative things about him. It’s impossible to criticize the importance he places on his children, and I wouldn’t have raised this point if he’d just said he wanted to spend more time with them. But it is possible for love for one’s children to go so far as to be over-protective; sooner or later they will come to understand who their dad is and what he means to Duluth, and that he is not adored by all and may have a flaw or two. Ness tries hard to be a normal guy, and that’s obviously a big part of his appeal, but his rapid rise through the city’s political system will forever mark him as a bit different so long as he lives in Duluth. I don’t think he should shy away from that.

His concern may also over-inflate his role. I graduated from East with the kid of a prominent city councilor; no more than a handful of students had any idea her dad was a city councilor, and it wasn’t a big deal to those who did know. Ness is clearly the biggest local political personality, but in the grand scheme of things, being mayor of Duluth isn’t something that’s really going to stir up a bunch of schoolkids. I know this is all easy to say for someone who isn’t a parent yet, but I do believe pretty deeply in not sheltering kids from reality. I don’t think another term would have led to any serious damage.

Ness’s other explanation—his fear that city politics will calcify without some change—rings much more true. He’s right on in his belief that city government needs renewal with new ideas and new people. Twelve years would be an awful long time for one person (and his loyal followers) to take charge, especially now that their opposition is very insignificant. This is even more true in a city like Duluth, which has a strong mayor system. I wouldn’t have opposed a run for a third term, but I applaud anyone who has the foresight to know when to go—or, at the very least, take a break and recharge for a spell, perhaps until after the kids are out of the house. It’s always important to cycle back out.

Similarly, I’ll be Ness’s staunchest defender against the charge that he’s somehow shirking his responsibility by not running for higher office. The Star Tribune lamented the fact that he’s not showing much interest in heading down to St. Paul or Washington, suggesting it’s a sad sign of a toxic political culture. In part, yes. But it’s also a reflection of what made Ness such an effective mayor: he knows his limits, and the skills that make him such a dynamic force in Duluth might not apply so well elsewhere. It’s important to remember that he has never really left.

The world could also use more politicians like Ness; more people who dedicate their lives to one very small corner of the world that they love dearly, and shepherd it along. Local politics would be a sorry place if it were just a launching pad for higher-level positions, and when it comes to day-to-day effects on people’s lives, the local stuff is far more immediately relevant. It may lack the glamour, but it can be incredibly rewarding. Ness gets to see and live in the city he’s helped bring back from the post-industrial morass, and, barring an unexpected turn, a thankful city will likely show its appreciation for years to come. Even most of his critics (a category that occasionally includes me) seem to like him here. He’s left a legacy in a way no congressman or senator ever really could.

This doesn’t mean that all seekers of higher office are soulless strivers. Some people have priorities that transcend locality or are less tied to a sense of place; some people have that burning ambition, and can’t ever settle. With some important asterisks, it takes all types. Don Ness, for the most part, seems to know which type he is, and there is a lot to be said for that.

We’ll see what he can do in his final fifteen months in office, where he’ll head next, and whether he’ll ever get that itch again. (I’m guessing he will, though it might be a while.) In the meantime, let the succession intrigue begin!

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