Longtime readers will know that this blog grew up on coverage of Duluth politics. While my current job is politically sensitive enough that I’d rather play it coy on many issues in front of the city these days, I will aim to venture a few comments here and there going forward. This past week is as good a chance as any, following the State of the City address; names are starting to pile up for this fall’s elections too, and as usual, I can’t resist the urge to comment on the ISD 709 school board.
Mayor Larson’s Coming-Out Party
Emily Larson delivered an eye-opening State of the City address on Monday. For the most part, Larson hasn’t set out to be a show-stopper, either during her time on the city council or in her rise to the top spot in City Hall. She’s a team player and a listener, and the first part of her address was devoted to recognizing the everyday work done by city employees to improve Duluth. But Monday night also hinted that there may be more to Emily Larson.
Her State of the City was an ambitious, effective speech. She hammered home three key themes: combating the opioid epidemic, creating affordable housing, and reducing energy emissions. It was a clear, broad vision, and while I’m sure many of us could lobby for certain other things getting higher billing, she does understand how these all interconnect. Her remarks on housing were particularly strong, both for the ambition of her plans and in the acknowledged nuance of housing policy and the market forces that drive it. Her comments on climate change drew the largest cheers from a staunchly liberal crowd, but this wasn’t some diatribe about the direction of national politics; while she acknowledged all of that, she repeatedly made it clear that the way forward required a focus on local action, on controlling what we can control, and shutting out the broader noise. “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach,” she said, quoting from a constituent letter. (Whether or not she reads a certain local blog that rather likes this topic, it’s refreshing to see that sort of consistency of vision.)
On Monday night, Larson showed she has the acumen necessary to keep together the broad governing coalition built by her predecessor, Don Ness. This is harder than people think, especially when it’s such a wide-ranging coalition that includes both the Chamber of Commerce crowd and an increasingly vocal activist left. Even though I’m fairly certain I know Larson’s opinion on the issues that have divided these two groups over the past year–oil pipelines, non-ferrous mining, earned sick and safe leave—she’s a smart enough operator to know not to waste her political capital on those debates. She puts herself in positions where she doesn’t need to fight tooth and nail to get her agenda done; she just provides the energy to spur it along, and builds complete movements. Unlike too many politicians who preach unity while ignoring half of their constituents, she actually does want to keep everyone on board. (Whether they will all be willing to stay there may be a different story.)
In contrast to Ness, Larson has never been deeply involved in the Democratic Party apparatus; perhaps for that reason, I had yet to give much thought about her as a candidate for higher office. But in this speech, I saw someone who has the charisma and the political skill that could allow her to make that run. With the climate change push, she’s even taking on an initiative that could be scaled up to another level, although she would certainly need to be even more nimble to succeed in a political environment such as the Minnesota 8th Congressional District. If she has the desire and can continue to balance the competing interests in her coalition, I think she has the skill to pull it off. Duluth has itself a powerful mayor, and while the form of power may not match a traditional definition of power, it is power nonetheless.
The Moribund Right
There will be little resistance to Larson’s agenda. To the extent that there are any cracks in the Ness-Larson coalition, they’ve come from people on the leftward flank of that coalition who aren’t fans of the business class, not from a challenge to the right. One doesn’t have to go too far back in Duluth political history to find a long tradition of fiscal conservatism, with recent proponents such as Jim Stauber, Garry Krause, Todd Fedora, and Chris Dahlberg. They were never a majority, but they had a consistent voice, and exercised some influence. Nowadays, with the partial exception of Jay Fosle—a somewhat more complicated figure—that species is all but extinct in Duluth politics.
To some extent, this reflects broader shifts in the American right. Older, civic-minded moderate patricians have much less of a place in the Republican Party now than they did a few years back. In some ways, Chuck Horton’s run for mayor presaged the Trump candidacy; while I wouldn’t draw too tight a parallel, they both tap into a stream of testosterone and had a white working class following. That sort of politics has a fairly low ceiling of support within Duluth proper, though, and (again, with the semi-exception of Fosle) doesn’t seem like much of a winner. At the same time, the Ness Administration was pretty disciplined fiscally, so there wasn’t much ground to attack it on that front. There’s a lot less ground to occupy here. The only recent attempt to run a distinctive campaign on a nuanced, Duluth-specific conservative platform front came from state senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, and she was running in a race she couldn’t win.
I doubt, however, that the Duluth electorate has changed that much in the past five years. Especially now that a few city councilors are taking a much harder leftward tack, I think there’s a clear opening for some center or center-right candidates to do well in elections here. The fourth district (Duluth Heights, Piedmont, Lincoln Park), which elected Garry Krause not that long ago, has an election for what will be an open seat this fall, and would be an obvious target. And while the at-large field is crowded with two incumbents (Zack Filipovich, Barb Russ) plus a few other left-leaning figures, it’s not hard to imagine a more distinctive voice running through a crowded field to at least make it past the primary. After that, a strong candidate would at least have a fighting chance, especially if there’s any division among the DFL ranks over whether to support the comparatively moderate incumbents or not.
For now, however, there are zero candidates stepping in to take that chance. I’d like to see someone try, even if I may not agree with said person on everything. One-party rule of any variety is cause for concern, and elected bodies should approximate the full range of views within a city. We’ll see if any viable takers emerge.
Meanwhile, Back at the School Board
Speaking of moribund…
When I started covering school board meetings on here nearly four years ago, I was very critical of the anti-Red Plan crowd, which at the time consisted of Art Johnston and a few hangers-on. They sounded devoid of ideas, and more interested in reliving a war that had already happened.
How the tables turn. Johnston, who benefits from having allies to keep him on point, has added Harry Welty and now the dynamic Alanna Oswald to his effort to needle the administration; over at the Reader, Loren Martell’s columns have become increasingly lucid. Agree or disagree with them, the school board minority is now putting creative ideas forward for dealing with the district’s issues, and has a new wave of energy. As for the majority and the administration? Well, current district teachers are now writing letters to the DNT editor filleting Superintendent Bill Gronseth’s job searches in other communities. At this point, I’m honestly not sure what the ISD 709 establishment stands for other than opposition to whatever it is that the minority supports. That’s a curious way to govern.
Four of the seven school board seats are up for grabs this fall. Since he was re-elected over a strong opponent with a favorable political climate four years ago, I suspect Johnston can have a third term in his far western district if he wants it. On the far east side, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the most steadfast opponent of the minority, is up for re-election. Two of the three at-large seats are also up; Welty will run for re-election, and I’d expect that Annie Harala will be back for another cycle, too. They’re both fairly strong incumbents, as Welty enjoys name recognition and the general tide of public sentiment, while Harala won very comfortably four years ago. At the time, she ran as a post-Red Plan unity candidate, and while she made some efforts to bridge gaps near the start of her term, she’s become a full-on member of the majority over time. That race will say a lot about the ISD 709 school board electorate, though the ability of the minority to recruit a capable candidate is paramount to making it competitive.
If the current minority can hold Johnston and Welty’s seats and pick up just one of Harala and Loeffler-Kemp’s, they’ll no longer be a minority. That would change the tenor of the board room debate in unpredictable ways; it could make things far more contentious between the board and staff, but it could also open up what has long been a stultifying debate. Are Duluth voters willing to take that chance?
Even more so than at the city council level, I think this has the potential to be a huge election year for the school board. There hasn’t been any noise about candidates here yet, but depending on how people play their cards, we could be in for a dramatic shake-up. I’ll be watching things here very closely.