Archive | November, 2014

Marion Barry, Art Johnston, and the Politics of Personality

24 Nov

Sunday brought the news that Marion Barry, the “mayor for life” of Washington, D.C., passed away at the age of 78. He was a living legend by the time I arrived in Washington, serving on the DC City Council long into his old age. Most people know him for his 1990 arrest for smoking crack. It was an especially awkward incident at the height of the inner city drug epidemic, one that epitomized DC’s dysfunctional government and broken culture, a sorry statement on life in the shadow of the Capitol.

Still, Barry was much more than the Rob Ford of his day. His popularity, from his first election to his final days, was genuine, as anyone who actually bothered to talk to people in Southeast DC would have learned. He was a real Civil Rights movement leader in his early days, and he did things to break down glass ceilings for African-Americans in DC. He had charisma, a winning charm that even allowed him to do well in snow-white Northwest in his first election, and his followers were rewarded handsomely.

I am always hesitant to walk on ground where racial questions loom so large, especially as I write on the night of the Ferguson verdict. But the style of politics Barry practiced transcends race, and has been around since the dawn of time. It is a style that substitutes charisma for institutions, and steamrolls any sense of genuine equity beneath a cynical patronage machine. In the end, the man became bigger than his project, and few things he does can outlive him. Perhaps it seemed the only method available in a city that had long before lost its compass; there in the heart of our imperial capital, where so many succumb to the desire to allow ends to justify means. It allowed him to rise above the rest, yes, but in the end, we are left with a distinctive character but little else. He was hardly alone even among DC politicians in harnessing the political machine; witness Jack Evans, of opulent Ward 2, who uses an absurd campaign war chest to bully any potential opposition into submission.

Barry had his moment, but did not know when to let go, and justified his political comeback in brutally honest terms: he needed power to keep himself sane. It had consumed him. By the end he was a dinosaur from a different era, still playing the same old cards as the DC he once led slipped away. The city’s African-American majority has disappeared behind the forces of gentrification, and will not be coming back anytime soon, barring a drastic change. The new DC is not necessarily a better place, but it is in need of a new champion, not someone whose politics revolves around himself.


An over-inflated sense of one’s own role is a common affliction in politics, and it is one I have diagnosed at times in Art Johnston, the embattled Duluth school board member. As the thousands of words spilled on this blog have shown, I’ve struggled to make sense of Johnston over the past year and a half. For the past seven years, he has fought a long and often very lonely battle against a school facilities plan and a number of other perceived failings of ISD 709.

The attorney hired by the District to investigate several accusations against Johnston has delivered her report. This past week, the Duluth News Tribune received the redacted version, which tells of Johnston’s alleged transgressions. The ultimate verdict is about what one might have expected. The supposedly racial comment, which always seemed the least plausible of the charges, was not substantiated. In a heat of rage, he did indeed loudly confront Superintendent Bill Gronseth and Board Chair Mike Miernicki at the Duluth East graduation in June, demanding to know why his partner, Jane Bushey, was being shuffled off to a different school. Having seen Johnston’s episodes when particularly incensed by Board proceedings, this is entirely plausible. It is out of line, and makes it easy to understand others’ discomfort in him. Is this bit of discomfort enough to supersede the will of the voters and axe a man from the School Board? That seems extreme.

We’re not done yet, though. The most interesting of the charges coming out of this is the alleged conflict of interest, in which Johnston sat in on many meetings on Bushey’s behalf. It was never entirely clear if he was there a school board member or a spouse, leading to some very understandable discomfort. Harry Welty, Johnston’s erstwhile Board ally, claims it would have been easy for the District to pitch Johnston from these meetings if it so desired; while true, this does not justify Johnston’s actions there.

We don’t have the full account, and may never actually have it. I’ll agree with Welty that the investigating attorney does indeed seem to have her narrative wrapped up awfully tightly. On the flip side, I’m not nearly as skeptical of her professionalism as Johnston’s defenders, whose willingness to believe the worst in people knows no bounds. (It’s been a while since I’ve been accused of having an overly rosy view of humanity.) The self-styled defender of truth in Duluth and his staunch allies remain incapable of getting out of the cave in which their truth exists.

Still, in the end, I’m left exactly where I started when these accusations first came out. I remain sympathetic to Johnston’s willingness to raise serious questions and (based on what I know) would not vote to remove him, but believe he himself has become too toxic to ever be an effective voice for his cause. This is bigger than him, and while the board’s majority may not act justly and should face the consequences at the ballot box, any defender of fiscal sanity or underrepresented voices should also be ready to move on. Johnston’s mediocre accusers may be the ones pulling the trigger, but he handed them the gun all too willingly. I am left only with a few questions for everyone involved, save Johnston, as my experience suggests he is unwilling to listen to somewhat divergent viewpoints, even when carefully qualified. (Nor do I really blame him for lashing out at this point in the saga; what else is he supposed to do?)

To the board majority: is this worth it? Let’s say you do go through and axe Johnston. What comes next? The fight for his cause will go on, you know. Don’t kid yourself; there will be some blowback, no matter what. He has a loyal following and a mouthpiece in a weekly local paper in Loren Martell. Do you really want the next election to be a referendum on this decision? You may find Johnston obnoxious and tiresome, and at times terribly wrong, but is a single voice in the wilderness really a serious threat to your agenda as a board member?

To Harry Welty: well, it’s pretty much up to you to try to get as many answers as you can during the hearing on December 2. Still, let’s say the Board does go through and remove Johnston. Is this really the cross you want to die on? Do you really want to escalate this war, with so many pressing issues at stake in the district? Obviously justice is a worthy ideal, but it also runs the risk of turning into a hopeless circus act. Think Mike Randolph 2.0, since I know you weren’t too fond of some of the perhaps unexpected consequences of that whole affair. Tread carefully.


I’m not naive. I know politics is personal, and that it will inevitably lead to results like this. It’s part of the game. But, as I sit here watching things go up in flames in Missouri, it puts things in perspective. For all the madness, for all my acceptance of messy reality…there are situations that just cry for someone to rise above it all. Neither of the men detailed in this post ever did so. I don’t expect it, but the Answer to Everything does allow for it, from time to time. Perchance to dream.

What’s a Minnesotan, Anyway?

19 Nov

Earlier this week, the Star Tribune reported on a forum planned for Wednesday night at the Walker Arts Center, at which a series of panelists would grapple with the question of whether Minnesotans are “Midwestern” or not. This might seem like tiresome semantics, and an exercise in one of the more stupid definitions of “culture.” But as one read the article and dug down into the motives at play, there was a lot more going on here than the headline lets on. Another commitment prevented me from attending, but that won’t stop me from having an opinion.

Growing up in Minnesota, it was always easy to call it part of the Midwest, sometimes with the qualifier “Upper” before the Midwest to indicate our higher latitude and relative lack of corn fields. Still, my idea of the Midwest didn’t line up with everyone else’s; for example, I’d never have called Ohio “Midwest,” but that seems to be exactly what East Coast people associate with the word. There’s an awful lot of stuff wrapped up into Midwest, and Minnesota, as one of its most distant extensions, sits more awkwardly in that region than many other states. The phrase has some less-than-stellar baggage (flyover country, empty cornfields), so I can buy the need for a new region.

So when it comes to the proposed alternatives, “North” does have a nice ring. I appreciate the way it’s pitched as a shameless embrace of our cold. So what if it’s cold? We have fun with it. Still, I will quibble: Eric Dayton claims the U.S. doesn’t have a “North,” but, well, we did. It was a combatant in the Civil War. We no longer think of that North as a region because it doesn’t have the historical memory of its antagonist, the still-extant South, but claiming the Northern mantel might have some unexpected connotations. (Minnesota was an infant state at the time of the Civil War and certainly contributed to the Union cause, though it can hardly claim a central role.)

There’s also the question of whether anyone else actually belongs to Minnesota’s region, and could unabashedly embrace the North. The parts of North Dakota along the Red River Valley make some sense, but anything to the west is decidedly Great Plains, and would be an odd mix culturally. Iowa isn’t quite North in the way that Minnesota is. That leaves us with Wisconsin, which I do think is a reasonably good fit once we get over the Packers’ ownership of the Vikings, and perhaps the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is very North. It’s not much, though. Are we really celebrating our region, or just our state? For that matter, are we even still bothering with the half of the state that does look a fair bit like Iowa?

Here I will confess a fair amount of unease around the real motive here: this attempt to stake out a regional identity seems to slide into a marketing campaign for Minneapolis and St. Paul. I live in and like Minneapolis, but there are still worlds of difference between it and northern Minnesota, which is essentially what the people quoted in the Strib are after. It sounds as if these scions of the creative class want to appropriate all of the Lake Wobegon homeliness and the wilderness allure of Greater Minnesota for the MSP brand while at the same time dismissing small-town Minnesota as “slightly hick.” Those towns are just relics of history, insufficiently vibrant for any properly urbane “creative” person, but we’ll gladly claim their boots and backpacks as ours, because aren’t we so rugged here in Northeast? Spare me.

I’m at some risk of turning this into a Wendell Berry rant about how the cities strip-mine rural America, a relentless brain drain that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (We’ll save that discussion for another day.) I’m not sure how much we can fight the tide. Regional power would be a valuable thing for MSP, and if it snaps up some of the cultural cachet of its surroundings for its own, at least that’s being valued and passed along in some form. My own city, Duluth, is aiming to follow the same path on a more modest scale, and I have no burning desire to open up a kangaroo court and judge people by some measure of alleged authenticity. On the whole, the hipster ethic at the heart of the New North blends vestiges of local culture with cosmopolitan city life, making for a richer experience for the rest of us. If done right, it really could shore up the foundations of a regional economy.

Still, I feel the need to sound a few alarm bells. The creative class theory currently in vogue has serious shortcomings. It is a mindset fully in the thralls of current economic winds, and it can further the split between this new elite and those on the outside. It’s enjoyable if you’re an upper middle class liberal (that is, the people who run Minneapolis and St. Paul, or any of the people who appeared on the panel), but for other groups, it’s a trickle-down effect at best.

So by all means, MSP, claim the mantel as the capital of the North. I may gripe, but better here than anywhere else. Just remember that your relationship with your region ought to have some give-and-take, rather than you simply being the metropole sucking all else to the center. Remember that people who are not on the cultural vanguard deserve a spot at the table. And don’t think for a moment that branding yourself as more “varied” and “diverse” will be some engine of balanced growth. It can certainly help, but there’s a lot more to it than that. And if you can acknowledge that fact, us kinda hick people from the hinterland might be a bit more willing to come along for the ride in your great new North.

Looking Back on Six Years of Hockey Rankings

13 Nov

The Minnesota high school hockey season is upon us, with tryouts under way in earnest. My AA preseason rankings came out yesterday, and can be found here.

Someone asked if I could post previous preseason rankings for the world to see, so I’ve gone and dug them all up. Here are preseason rankings followed by end of regular season rankings (plus state finish) of teams in my rankings dating back to their inception in 2009. I’ve added some comments after each year as well, and later I look back on some of the biggest upsets over this six-year period.


  1. Wayzata             1. Edina (1st)
  2. Hill-Murray          2. Hill-Murray
  3. Benilde                3. Lakeville N. (2nd)
  4. Edina                  4. Wayzata
  5. Blaine                 5. Blaine
  6. Eden Prairie       6. Burnsville
  7. St. Thomas        7. St. Thomas
  8. Elk River            8. Elk River
  9. Burnsville           9. Duluth East (6th)
  10. White Bear         10. Eden Prairie (4th)
  11. Prior Lake          11. Eastview
  12. Maple Grove      12. Andover
  13. Centennial         13. Eagan (3rd)
  14. Eagan                14. Maple Grove
  15. Minnetonka        15. Holy Family

Unranked State teams: Roseau (just missed; finished 5th), Stillwater (upset special), Centennial (20s; upset MG and Blaine)

-Lakeville North is the obvious miss here. Benilde, White Bear, and Prior Lake were overrated; Duluth East and perhaps Eagan underrated.


  1. Benilde               1. Hill-Murray (2nd)
  2. Edina                  2. Benilde
  3. Eden Prairie        3. Duluth East (3rd)
  4. Minnetonka         4. Eagan
  5. Hill-Murray          5. Minnetonka
  6. Andover              6. Edina (1st)
  7. Duluth East         7. Blaine
  8. Grand Rapids      8. Wayzata (4th)
  9. Burnsville            9. Grand Rapids
  10. Cloquet              10. Eden Prairie
  11. Prior Lake          11. Centennial (State)
  12. Elk River            12. Burnsville
  13. Blaine                13. Bloom Jeff.
  14. Eagan                14. Prior Lake
  15. Moorhead           15. Elk River

Unranked State teams: Moorhead (in the 20s; weak section, but finished 5th), Lakeville North (weak section), Eastview (20s; upset Eagan)

-I got waaay too 7AA-happy in the preseason rankings that year, with Andover and Cloquet too high. I also underrated Eagan and Wayzata, and maybe the 5AA teams, though Blaine flopped in sections and Centennial was 2-and-out at State. It’s interesting that Edina was highly rated at the start, dropped some during the regular season, but then put it together to win the title.


  1. Duluth East         1. Duluth East (5th)
  2. Minnetonka         2. Minnetonka
  3. Benilde                3. Maple Grove (State)
  4. Eagan                 4. Edina (State)
  5. Maple Grove       5. Eagan (6th)
  6. Grand Rapids      6. Eden Prairie
  7. Burnsville             7. Benilde (1st)
  8. Edina                   8. Wayzata
  9. Hill-Murray           9. Hill-Murray (2nd)
  10. Blaine                  10. Lakeville S (3rd)
  11. Moorhead            11. Moorhead (4th)
  12. Eden Prairie         12. Burnsville
  13. Bemidji                 13. Elk River
  14. Wayzata               14. Grand Rapids
  15. Lakeville S            15. Blaine

All State teams ranked

-This was looking like an awesome year for me until everything blew up at State. Like Edina in 2013, Benilde struggled a bit in the regular season but put it together in March. The cream rises to the top, apparently.


  1. Edina                     1. Hill-Murray
  2. Hill-Murray             2. Eden Prairie (1st)
  3. Eden Prairie           3. Wayzata
  4. Wayzata                 4. Maple Grove
  5. Duluth East            5. Edina (4th)
  6. Benilde                   6. Benilde
  7. Minnetonka            7. Duluth East (2nd)
  8. Apple Valley           8. Grand Rapids
  9. Maple Grove          9. Minnetonka
  10. Burnsville               10. Apple Valley
  11. Eagan                    11. Eagan (3rd)
  12. Roseau                  12. Burnsville
  13. Bloom Jeff.             13. Bloom Jeff.
  14. White Bear             14. Bemidji
  15. Lakeville S              15. Moorhead (State)

Unranked State teams: White Bear Lake (just missed rankings, upset Hill), Blaine (just missed rankings, upset MG), Lakeville North (weak section, upset LVS)

-Maybe my best year. Roseau at #12 is the only thing that is at all off, really.


  1. Eden Prairie             1. Minnetonka (2nd)
  2. Minnetonka              2. Wayzata
  3. Bloom Jeff.               3. Edina (1st)
  4. Benilde                     4. Burnsville
  5. Blaine                       5. Eden Prairie
  6. Hill-Murray               6. Blaine (State)
  7. Woodbury                 7. Hill-Murray (3rd)
  8. Holy Angels              8. Centennial
  9. Cretin                       9. Bloom Jeff.
  10. Elk River                  10. Eagan
  11. Edina                       11. Duluth East (5th)
  12. Centennial                12. Holy Angels
  13. Moorhead                 13. Elk River
  14. Duluth East              14. Moorhead
  15. Wayzata                   15. Andover

Unranked State teams: Lakeville North (weak section), Apple Valley (not far off; picked up steam through sections and upset Blaine at State), Roseau (somewhere in the 20s; upset Moorhead)

-Ranking Edina out of the top 10 looks quaint now. Misfired on them, Burnsville, and Wayzata; Benilde way overrated. 3AA really didn’t cooperate. One of the earliest lessons I learned was to respect the depth of the deepest programs in the state.


  1. Edina                         1. Edina (5th)
  2. Hill-Murray                 2. Eden Prairie (1st)
  3. Bloom Jeff.                3. Bloom Jeff.
  4. Eden Prairie              4. Blaine (3rd)
  5. Centennial                 5. Duluth East (State)
  6. Duluth East                6. Minnetonka
  7. Blaine                        7. Holy Angels
  8. Holy Angels               8. Benilde
  9. Woodbury                 9. Wayzata
  10. Minnetonka               10. Maple Grove
  11. Moorhead                 11. Centennial
  12. Benilde                     12. Hopkins
  13. White Bear                13. Moorhead (2nd)
  14. Cretin                        14. Woodbury
  15. Elk River                    15. Cretin (4th)

Unranked State teams: Hill-Murray (lost a lot of players due to suspensions and struggled down the stretch, though they were dangerous by Tourney time), Rochester Century (not close—one of the weakest 1AA entrants ever)

-Hill fell off because of player suspensions, so all in all a pretty strong effort. 5 6AA teams in the top 12. Missed Male Grove, Wayzata somewhat.

Top State Tournament Upsets, 2009-2014

There have been 12 upsets in 42 Tourney championship bracket games since 2009, though not all are created equal. Here they are, ranked by me. The numbers are teams’ seeds at State.

  1. Moorhead over (1) Edina, 2009 Quarters

-Edina, the defending runner-up, was loaded with 9 future D-I players, including the senior class dream team of Lee, Everson, and Gaarder. Moorhead had one D-I player, a backup freshman goalie. And yet this game wasn’t close, with the Spuds flattening the star-dependent Hornets 5-2.

  1. Lakeville South over (1) Duluth East, 2012 Quarters

-In the Year of the Upset, Justin Kloos and company fought past another heavily favored defending runner-up. An early goal waved off seemed to tip the momentum, and Mike Randolph was powerless to flip it back, no matter how many strings he pulled.

  1. Apple Valley over (3) Blaine, 2010 Quarters

-The Eagles had young AJ Michaelson and Hudson Fasching, but not much else of note. Somehow, they found a way to slip by the deeper Bjugstad/Brodzinski Bengals that year. 5AA hasn’t won a Tourney game since.

  1. Cretin-Derham Hall over (4) Duluth East, 2009 Quarters

-Overshadowed by the Moorhead-Edina game just before, but this one was nearly as big. Sloppy play in back cost East a serious state title shot despite a 3-1 edge in shots and sustained periods of total domination.

  1. Moorhead over (3) Eagan, 2012 Quarters

-The Michael Bitzer show, in which the Spuds’ goalie shut down a deep and experienced Eagan squad.

  1. (2) Edina over (1) Minnetonka, 2010 Final

-Not a huge upset from a ranking standpoint, but the Hornets do get some style points for jumping on the Skippers—the #1 team all season—early, and never giving them a chance.

  1. (3) Duluth East over (2) Edina, 2011 Semis

-2011 Edina was the first team since 1996 to have 10+ D-I players on its roster, though they weren’t really peaking at State that year, and East was plenty good in its own right.

  1. Hill-Murray over (2) Maple Grove, 2012 Quarters

-Maybe a bigger ranking gap than the previous two, but fairly predictable, what with Hill’s experience and the Crimson making their first Tournament appearance.

  1. (3) Edina over (1) Hill-Murray, 2013 Final

-Hill had been #1 for a while, but this one wasn’t hard to predict given the way the teams had been playing.

10. (5) Eagan over (4) Duluth East, 2014 Quarters

-By this point, these are just upsets in name only. These two were pretty much even, perhaps with a slight edge in talent to Eagan, and East was doing a lot of shuffling due to an injury.

11. Benilde-St. Margaret’s over (4) Edina, 2012 Quarters

-Benilde was really the favorite here, despite the seeds; even so, they had to withstand a strong Edina push in the 3rd period before grabbing the winning goal.

12. (3) Edina over (2) Duluth East, 2013 Semis

-East was the higher seed after an overachieving regular season, but everyone knew Edina had far more talent, and they pulled it out in the 3rd period. The only real scare Edina has had at State in their 3 recent championship Tourneys.

Biggest Section Upsets, 2009-2014

There’s not much in 2009 and 2010 here, but I think that’s just how things shook out those years, rather than me failing to remember the magnitude of certain wins. Remembering all of these is a good reminder of how entertaining sections can be; it was hard to  create this list.

  1. Stillwater over (2) Hill-Murray, 2014

-The Ponies came out of nowhere, and also beat a decent White Bear team en route to State.

  1. Eastview over (4) Eagan, 2013

-Zach Driscoll steals the show and puts the Lightning on the map.

  1. White Bear Lake over (1) Hill-Murray, 2011

-The rivalry factor made sure this wasn’t a total shock, but that Hill team is the only #1 heading into sections that didn’t make State.

  1. Robbinsdale Armstrong over (6) Eden Prairie, 2012

-About as stunning as it gets.

  1. Champlin Park over (7) Blaine, 2013

-Another shocker.

  1. St. Paul Johnson over White Bear Lake, 2012

-Not a great White Bear team, but one huge upset for a historic program.

  1. Centennial over (14) Maple Grove and (5) Blaine, 2014

-The Cougars were the defending section champs, but they sure surprised in winning this one, especially by knocking off a powerful Blaine team.

  1. (8) Wayzata over (5) Minnetonka and (2) Benilde, 2013

-Pat O’Leary’s Trojans arrive on the scene by taking down two big-time powers and preseason favorites in convincing fashion.

  1. Lakeville North over Lakeville South, 2010 and 2011

-The Panthers had little business beating the Kloos-led Cougars, yet they did so for two straight years.

10. Benilde over (4) Wayzata, 2014

-Not a huge upset considering Benilde’s talent, but Wayzata had been playing very well down the stretch, while the Red Knights struggled at times.

Honorable mentions: Eagan over St. Thomas, 2014; Rochester Century sneaking to State as a 4-seed in a weak 1AA in 2009; Benilde over Minnetonka in 2012; Jefferson over Burnsville in 2014; Blaine over Maple Grove in 2011; Roseau over Moorhead in 2010.

A November Weekend in Duluth

9 Nov

I made it back up to Duluth this weekend for the first time since my August departure, just in time for the first dusting of a snowfall. It’s coming. The city looks resolute under the steely November sky, and even in a short absence there are things to get excited about. The Maurices headquarters is going up, with the new downtown transit center soon to follow, while my old running route along Seven Bridges Road is open again; out in Lincoln Park, Frost River Trading Company, in conjunction with Bent Paddle Brewing, is buying up some property with the hopes of rehabilitating a dreary stretch of street that nonetheless has great potential. Ah, the transformative power of beer.

Here are a few things that came up amid a weekend of schmoozing and perusing the local news:

Linda Krug Steps Down. City Council President Linda Krug resigned from the Council presidency on Thursday, sparing us a fight over her possible forced removal. I applaud her willingness to take one for the team and avoid that sort of drama, and her acknowledgment, however halting, that she’d erred when she shut down Councilor Julsrud at the previous meeting. That can’t have been easy, and hopefully that puts this controversy to rest. Emily Larson now takes over the top spot for the remaining four meetings this year, and will presumably be elected to serve for the whole of 2015 as well. The vice presidency is now vacant, so we’ll see who steps forward to become next in line. Councilors Julsrud and Filipovich appear the likely candidates.

The Art Johnston Investigation. An investigation of the alleged abuse by the polarizing school board member has finally produced a document, which is not available to the public. Harry Welty, predictably, is unimpressed. His account says attorney Mary Rice more or less allows calls the charges against Johnston plausible, without quite going so far as to endorse them fully. The rest of us are left waiting for other sides of the story, which we probably won’t ever get. It’s now up to the Board majority to decide if they want to act on the accusations. If they do, they probably have the votes to boot Member Johnston, but run the very serious risk of looking like a kangaroo court, and if there’s no public evidence to support their actions, it will look very sketchy indeed. That will inevitably be very ugly and a bad PR exercise. If they don’t act, then they’ll just look like they wasted a bunch of money on a lawyer for no good reason.  This whole thing is so dumb.

The IRRRB Is Getting a New Boss. This isn’t Duluth news, per se, but it certainly affects large parts of northeastern Minnesota. The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (“I-Triple-R-B”), for those unfamiliar with it, is a state-level agency based out of Eveleth that has no equivalent in the country. In place of a large property tax (which would ruin mines during bust cycles), northern Minnesota mines are taxed based on production, with the proceeds going to the IRRRB. It is then charged with distributing those funds for economic development purposes, both in support of mining and to diversify the local economy. (As you might guess, those two goals can come into conflict.) Aaron Brown knows the details better than I do, but Tony Sertich’s decision to step down opens the door for some new leadership. The IRRRB can leverage incredible financial power and has some successes to its name, but it has its share of flops as well. The new director will have a chance to harness a lot of resources for good of the region, so we’ll see which direction Governor Mark Dayton goes.

Be Glad You Weren’t in Duluth in 1918. It sucked. Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Dan Hartman, former Duluth City Councilor and current director of the Glensheen historic estate, on the city in 1918. Lots of young men got shipped off to war and killed, or came back to Duluth wounded and damaged. Then the Spanish flu hit in October, prompting a total quarantine of the city. The local papers kept a running scoreboard of new cases and deaths before eventually being too overwhelmed by it all. And then, to add to the fun, the Cloquet Fire broke out a few days after the flu hit, frying all of Cloquet and many outlying areas around Duluth, too. It was perhaps the greatest natural disaster in Minnesota history, a catastrophic inferno that appeared on the front page of London papers alongside World War I news. Refugees packed into a few structures, like the Armory—which is a great thing to do if you want to spread the flu even more. Yeah, it was miserable.

High School Hockey Transfer Drama. The Duluth News Tribune detailed the story of Cam McClure, a Denfeld senior and transfer from Marshall who was initially denied eligibility by the MSHSL. (Transfers who do not change residence normally have to sit out a year, but this can be waived in certain circumstances, including learning disabilities and financial difficulties in paying for a private school.) Junior Luke Dow, a Marshall-to-East transfer, is in a similar boat. This may not seem like news, and if the players’ reasons for transferring don’t hold up under scrutiny, there’s no good argument for not enforcing the transfer rule. It is worth noting, however, how rare it is for this to be enforced so strictly. Metro-area students transfer about willy-nilly with no questions asked, but in Duluth, for whatever reason, we’re seeing a crackdown this year. Either ISD 709 sucks at handling transfers, or something else is going on. Both players are fighting for their eligibility, and a ruling is expected on Tuesday. (Practice opens Monday; my preseason AA rankings, which could shift some depending on Dow’s status, will come out Wednesday.)

Seriously, Proctor? Seen on the drive up I-35: a billboard that reads: ‘Proctor. Close to Duluth, but far enough from it.’ Thanks for the support, neighbors. True, Duluth has some weirdness (witness the above political feuds), but, well…you’re Proctor. Do you really have that much to boast about? Oh well; all in good fun, I suppose. Just don’t think we’ll forget it the next time we try to annex a township that you’re coveting, too. (*Evil laughter.*)

Election Reactions 2014

5 Nov

Time to exhale in relief: the election is over. It’s hard to think of a more exhausting campaign season, or one so devoid of any sort of positive platform—and that’s a pretty low bar. The GOP won big by virtue of not being Barack Obama, and a presidency that once inspired optimism even in parts of the right is now lurching toward a tired end. The President has spent the past few months in a bunker, rarely venturing on to the campaign trail; it seems a fitting sign of the distance between all American politicians and the people who elect them.

It’s easy to blast the whole exercise. The relentless attack ads made a mockery of rational debate, as does a celebrity-obsessed media filled with people shouting at one another. (I turned on CNN for the first time in years last night, to watch the results come in; I didn’t last fifteen minutes before fleeing elsewhere in search of some sanity.) It was obviously a good night if you’re a Republican, but it’s not like the GOP has some grand Contract with America or Compassionate Conservatism in mind. For that matter, even the Tea Party energy wasn’t anywhere near what it was four years ago. Most know that Obamacare repeal isn’t really realistic, and were careful not to overplay the social issues. (If anything, excessive focus on social issues hampered some of the Democrats who failed to realize that abortion is probably not going to swing an election in this sort of political climate.) They played it safe and delivered, and the blankness of the national political agenda could, one supposes, leave room for some creativity. Or just an even more blatant brand of gridlock.

So, how’s a jaded citizen to respond? In one of two ways, I’d think.

The first is one to which I am temperamentally inclined. This election simply shows how stories of grand sweeps of progress are never really right, and how two-party democracy always trends back to a balance point. It’s a cycle, one that could well swing back in two years when it’s the Republicans’ turn to defend a lot of Senate seats in blue states. New people come in, old ones get pitched, and we move along. Yes, the losers will moan about how everything is going to hell, but somehow, we all survive. We survived eight years of Bush, we’ll survive eight years Obama, and we’ll survive whoever comes next, too.

The process isn’t smooth. It isn’t going to please anyone who wants drastic changes. The legislation that comes out of it is always a mash-up of special interests and people working at cross-purposes. Still, we find a way to muddle through, and it isolates us from drastic shifts that could destabilize everything. If you look around at the rest of the world, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something better (with the possible exception of a couple homogenous northern European countries, some of which are on the verge of demographic crisis). The old Winston Churchill line comes back: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Disappointment comes only to those who have a far too rosy view of their own power and the vagaries of human nature. Backers of each party must soldier on, looking for little wins here and there and hoping they can claim some victories in the long view.


There is a second narrative, though, that expands on the first one, and it has some merit. It says that there is more than just a balancing act going on, and that there is a broader cultural shift that is slowly carrying the whole system along with it. One side of the spectrum rails against the expansion of the state, while the other fears the whims of the market unchecked. The argument, however, says that this is all a false choice: the two are joined at the hip, natural outgrowths of a philosophy of individual liberty.

This is an old critique of possible pitfalls of democracy, with roots in Aristotle and Tocqueville. As equals in mediocrity, everyone lives out their lives in an economic rat race, doing what they can to accrue status. With everyone fending for themselves, the state must step in and do something to guarantee order. And so the government creates complicated codes from on high, regulating things to keep us quiet and perhaps confused. We hold elections, but they don’t really matter. We trade one distant elite for another, all life subjugated beneath a tutelary power.

This isn’t a critique of the left or the right; both major parties are implicated. That mashed-up form of governance may work for a spell, but there will come a time when the contradictions are too serious to hold together. We want Medicare and social security, so long as we don’t have to pay for them; we want all our liberties, but anyone who disagrees is a bigot unworthy of a spot at the table. We end up with corporate welfare or a nanny state or whatever pejorative name you’d like, and a national security state fed by a military-industrial complex. The insidious trends of money in politics and greater inaccessibility leave us with only a shell of the supposed democracy.

This isn’t a very reassuring story. But, unlike the other one, it invites action. If this is reality, we’d better do something, and soon. Not a revolt in the hills; revolution has had its day.  Not the libertarian alternative currently in vogue; any realistic implementation of that vision only feeds the beast. Instead, we’re left with my old hobbyhorse: a retreat to the local, carving out little spheres where we makes things as right as we can in our own little corner.

Do I buy this wholeheartedly? Not quite. We still have a ways to fall before I’m convinced. I’d like to hope it isn’t true. But I can handle a world in which it is.


How does Minnesota fit in to all of this? It actually had a pretty unique election night. While the Republicans did regain the state House of Representatives, Minnesota remains an island of blue amid the red tide. DFLers swept the statewide races and retained the rural congressional districts that were up for grabs, most notably Rick Nolan’s Eighth District. This is really what makes Minnesota politics unique. The Twin Cities and their suburbs tend to behave by normal urban-suburban left-right dynamics, but Greater (Don’t-You-Dare-Call-It-Outstate) Minnesota just doesn’t cooperate. Some of this is probably the lingering power of an old guard from a different generation, as in the case of Collin Peterson and certain parts of the Iron Range. But still, Democrats have an awful lot of staying power in Greater Minnesota.

There’s been an attempt to argue that the Minnesota 8th District is now a swing district due to its relative cultural conservatism and the decline of union power of the Range. This story is pretty much wrong. The 8th could turn red again as the suburbs sprawl northward while the northeast shrinks, but Republicans won’t win in northeast Minnesota until they find a message that is more than boilerplate conservatism (perhaps with some lip service to mining tacked on top). It’s going to take something creative to dislodge the DFL machine, and said creativity is nowhere to be seen. The next generation of Range politics looks a lot more like Carly Melin than it does like any Republican.

Duluth, to no one’s surprise, remains a DFL bastion, with the incumbents and newcomer Jennifer Schultz whipping the opposition in the local House races. Most of their opponents were also-ran sacrificial lambs, and the local Republicans just don’t have the infrastructure to muster anything serious. As on the Range, the DFL has been the adaptable party here, fielding candidates like Schultz and Erik Simonson who reflect the particularities of their sides of a rather divided city. Of course, one can be a pretty mediocre Democrat and still win in Duluth, but the onus is on the opposition to come up with something new that actually inspires people beyond the true believers. The same could no doubt be said of Democrats in deep red areas. Once again: if you don’t like the system, the way out is a focus on the local.

On a final note, there was one Duluth-area result that made me do a double-take: Marcia Stromgren won a seat on the Soil and Water Conservation District board. Yes, that Marcia Stromgren. The rest of the Soil and Water Conservation District board has my deepest sympathy.

Standing Before Lincoln

3 Nov

Election Day, 2008. I was a freshman in college in America’s capital, absorbed by the prospect of a career in politics. Unlike some, I had no grand vision of a radically transformed society under Barack Obama, but I certainly had an appreciation for symbolic power. It is easy to forget just how much we were all swept up in the moment; on election night, everyone at Georgetown ran to the White House, regardless of politics. The political consciousness of this generation knew no great achievement: the bungled 2000 election, the tragedy of 9/11, a failed mission to democratize the Middle East, and a sudden financial crisis. Finally, it seemed, something had happened that could make us feel good about ourselves.

The adolescent mind of the high achiever, conditioned by continued progress from one successful stage in life to another, saw reason to believe the wider world could act in the same way.  I needed a story that fit my belief in political action. In the absence of any other higher faith, any other guiding point with which to orient the lofty goals I had in mind, the gospel of progress was all I had. The next night, I made a more personal journey, a walk down to the Lincoln Memorial alone. The inscription above Lincoln’s head makes it abundantly clear: this is a temple, a monument to a holy figure in a national myth. If there was a road to an earthly Jerusalem, it surely went through here. Everything made sense, and I was a part of a movement to make things better.

Two years later I was in a very different capital, watching from afar as all that hype about progress crumbled. How far I’d wandered from my Duluth roots: an election party in a penthouse apartment in Mexico City, with a whole bunch of liberal expats and upper-crust Mexicans shaking their heads at what was becoming of the world. (The best of them was the Porfirio Díaz look-alike stumping around the place with a cane.) It was delightful. And yet, what of this challenge to my democratic faith? What to make of this world in which the “overwhelming force of unreason,” in the words of George Packer, had trumped the story of progress? I needed answers.

And so I went and stood before Lincoln again. This time, there was no temple, no reverent surroundings: just the man standing atop a pedestal in a dark park in Polanco, staring across a street at Martin Luther King. It was a crisis of faith, as I came to appreciate one of those nagging possibilities I’d known since a childhood brush with unreason, but never fully grasped: history may not make sense. But it was more than that. In that moment, I realized the liberating truth: it really didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if the political world all went wrong. I could still be a contented person. And I would be.

It took a while to understand exactly what had happened in the Parque Lincoln. One swing in congressional power isn’t enough to re-orient a worldview, nor should it be. Many events over the course of the next year—the Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden—suggested that there was yet cause for optimism. For a time, I clung to my liberal dream before it all came into clearer resolution: good things happen here, bad things happen there, murky things happen everywhere, and there’s no good narrative to fit it all. I needed some help to find a new story. Mexico had already armed me with the Octavio Paz interview, while Georgetown gave me a Catholic sort of critique, and in time there was The Answer to Everything. And, of course, I still had my roots, lurking there amid everything. I wrote relentlessly; old stories died, and frustration begat inward retreat before things started to take shape again.

Four years after that night in Polanco, I certainly haven’t forsaken the political realm. Parts of my old political philosophy remain, though not all, and I am ashamed of some earlier strident cries, and some refusal to see political opponents as friends or colleagues. Instead, I try to walk a tightrope, often playing the neutral role; I can see far from here, but I’m well aware of the risks of neutrality for neutrality’s sake, and the meekness of indecision. I still sympathize with stories many of my old liberal travelers tell themselves, and a fair number of their aims; I also now sympathize with those more guided by religious faith or nostalgia or a number of other stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all. None of those are mine, though I have my own stories, just as partial in their truth. It can be a lonely place, here before Lincoln; I must be on constant guard to avoid pretension or extreme distance. But I make no apologies, and it would be a shame not to share the view.

On Tuesday night, I’ll watch the election results, just as I did in DC and Mexico—and in Duluth two years ago, when I was definitively on the road to this approach. I may even celebrate or express my disappointment at times. But that will be all, and on Wednesday morning I’ll go back about my business with little regard for what happened the night before. I’ve found the freedom to cease being consumed by grand sweeps of progress, focusing instead on little niches where I really can make things right. (And make them right I will.) There is no right or wrong side of history; there are only more questions, questions that press endlessly against those presuppositions and neat little stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all.

I don’t have answers to many of them, and I’m fine with that. That’s no excuse for stopping the search, though. These past six years have been an exercise in learning the value of limits, but in one realm, the pursuit is relentless. The questions never end.