After a minor delay, here’s a dip into the details of the latest election. As you may notice, my map-making skills have come a long way since I last did this.
We’ll start with the closest race of the night, the battle between Alanna Oswald and Renee Van Nett for the at-large school board seat. Van Nett’s campaign had a more explicit emphasis on racial equity—even if it was a bit vague on how that was supposed to look in practice—which probably explains her success in the city’s most liberal districts on the east side and in the center of the city. She also may have benefitted from sharing a ticket with the popular David Kirby in District Two in the center-east part of the city. Oswald, meanwhile, focused more directly on east-west equity, which helped her carry the west side. Oswald’s more critical history of the administration and endorsements from the likes of Harry Welty also likely helped her out west, where skepticism of the administration is higher. Still, she was much more than an anti-establishment protest candidate, as evidenced by her success in places like Lakeside and the areas over the hill. She was a nuanced candidate who ran a strong campaign, and gave Duluth a rare upset of a DFL-endorsed candidate in a city-wide race.
The main event of the evening doesn’t look all that thrilling; Emily Larson won every precinct in the city in the mayoral race. Still, the margin wasn’t consistent, and reveals the old east-west divide that has punctuated most two-horse races in this city for at least the past decade, if not longer. (Someone with a longer historical memory than a 25-year-old will have to weigh in on the older details.) These results suggest the east side is again driving the agenda, while the west comes along for the ride with varying levels of agreement.
In the city council at-large race, Elissa Hansen won all but four precincts, though her margins again tend to map on to the east-west divide. Like Larson, she is a poster child for continuing the Ness governing vision with her optimism, youth, and emphasis on inclusion. She lost three precincts to Noah Hobbs, and the two tied in the fourth. All four were pretty predictable: Hobbs, a recent UMD grad, carried the precinct on the UMD campus, and did the rest of his damage on the west side. Hobbs is a died-in-the-wool west-sider, so this only makes sense. (It wasn’t an accident that those lawn signs had Denfeld colors.) This is a second straight election that a younger person has eclipsed the establishment favorite on the west side, but I wouldn’t read anything too deep into this. Zack Filipovich simply had a stronger ground game than Barb Russ on the west side, and Hobbs’ ties carried the day on Tuesday.
Jim Booth, a Duluth Heights resident, did best up in that region. As the relative conservative in this race, I thought he might do somewhat better on the west side, and while his percentages were somewhat higher, he still ran behind Hobbs nearly everywhere. An explicit west side focus outweighs any ideological loyalty. Anyone who seeks to speak specifically for that side of the city will do well.
Sticking with the west side theme, these trends become more acute with if we hone in on the Fifth District race. Here, Jay Fosle beat Janet Kennedy by a fairly comfortable margin. Still, the district has two clear halves: in the Denfeld and Oneota areas, Kennedy kept things very competitive; she was within 21 votes in the four easternmost precincts in the district. However, she got whipped in the far west precincts, particularly in Fond-du-Lac, Gary-New Duluth, and Morgan Park. This is Fosle’s home base, so it’s not stunning, and across the board, these very far west areas were some of the strongest areas for the more conservative candidates in the field. To the extent that the west side now has an anti-establishment reputation, it is rooted in the very far west.
This may be a long-running trend, and the precincts in question are a small enough sample that personal ties for someone like Fosle can make a big difference. Still, this gap endures despite a very intentional effort by the Ness administration to launch a redevelopment effort in this particular corridor over the past two years. That’s significant, and shows that the west side, even if they like the leader of the River Corridor Coalition as a city councilor, still isn’t entirely on board. Once again, the west side wants to talk about west side issues, not the broader liberal ideas one tends to hear from the establishment candidates.
At the risk of conflating a mild political divide and a much deeper discussion, the west side’s demographics hew to a recent attention-grabbing study on the plight of working-class white men. This group feels increasing alienation from the people in power, and whether this involves suicide or more insidious forms such as heavy drinking or drug use—a concern that Fosle, to his great credit, was waving in the face of the Council several years ago—they are dying at a faster rate than before. It’s certainly not hard to see how this affects politics. (See Trump, Donald.) These are somewhat more existential questions on the fate of the American Dream, some of which I’ve explored before, and that theoretical discussion needs to continue. In the meantime, though, cleaning up that steel mill site and other post-industrial dreck, building some new housing on the site of a shuttered school, and bringing some jobs back to the west side will have to do.
In the big picture, however, Fosle’s constituents have themselves a protest vote. Don Ness was not running for office on Tuesday, but he loomed large over the whole race, and his ethos reigns supreme. The city’s government is younger, and solidly on the left side of the political spectrum. Ness’s legacy will last long beyond his eight years in office, and while it will be many years before we can cast final judgment, there’s certainly more cause for optimism now than there was eight years ago. For most Duluthians, the trajectory forward was so obvious that it wasn’t really up for debate in this election cycle.
Still, there is nuance here. Duluth rejected the vogue electoral system because it didn’t get caught up in the latest flashy trend with no actual evidence backing it, and that is a win. A mild upset in the school board at-large race shows some discontent with the direction of the school district, and a refusal to impose a single vision upon it without debate. There is room in the tent for east side liberals and west-side loyalists; for total believers in the Ness vision and a loyal opposition. The more open the process, the greater the odds that a portion of the city won’t get left behind. We’ll see what Emily Larson and friends do with that new mandate.