Tag Archives: dfl

Primaries, Facebook Fights, and Park Planning: A Duluth September Political Roundup

17 Sep

When I can sit out on my front porch in mid-September and write, rest my sore knees beneath trees frosted in hints of red and orange, bask in sun and Lake Superior breeze, that’s Duluth at its finest. Writing about politics seems vaguely dirty for a day like this, but I am nothing if not duty-bound, and have a document with some fiction in it open right now too. Here, then, is a roundup of recent political happenings in Duluth, which is an example of Duluth at its finest, not at its finest, and various places in between, depending on where one sits.

A Few Primary Election Comments

Busy life events kept me from making an immediate response to last week’s primaries, so I’ll toss out a few comments on the results here. The major takeaway was the dominance of the Duluth DFL, despite my rumblings about possible cracks last week. Zack Filipovich, the only at-large city council candidate to receive a party endorsement, was well clear of the field; in the Fourth District, Renee Van Nett, who was not DFL-endorsed but was two years ago as a school board candidate and certainly was the closest to the center of the party of the three candidates, ran comfortably ahead of incumbent Howie Hanson and Tom Furman, and as she’s certainly better positioned to collect the votes of the eliminated Furman, Hanson is probably toast. At-large incumbent Barb Russ, who was not DFL-endorsed this time but was four years ago and is certainly more of an established DFL figure than any of the others in the field, surprised me by running second. And while her margin over Janet Kennedy and Rich Updegrove was slim, and promises a tight fight in November, it’s certainly a strong showing.

The only other point I’ll make is a repeat of an old mantra that lawn signs do not win elections. Signage for Updegrove would make one think he was going to compete with Filipovich for the top spot instead of finishing fourth; Jan Swanson, who had some strong concentrations of signs in certain neighborhoods, did not build on that support elsewhere. On my reconnaissance run through a bunch of west side neighborhoods, it was hard not to think Loren Martell would make it out of the primaries in the school board at-large race, while Dana Krivogorsky was doomed. Instead, she eked past him.

I’m not sure how much good it will do her: while Martell’s voters will almost certainly flip to Krivogorsky and Harry Welty, those two ran far behind the two DFL-endorsed candidates. As noted in my preview, I find it more than a little paradoxical that people in DFL circles think this district has serious equity issues and is suffering for its six-period days, and then proceed to summarily ignore, if not straight-up denigrate, the only candidates who are actually proposing concrete solutions to these problems. I’m not saying I agree with their solutions across the board, but the rigidity with which people inhabit their camps based on old Red Plan fault lines—whether they supported or opposed it—is sad.

This Is Why We Don’t Waste Our Time on Internet Rants, Kids

The other bit of Duluth political news last week, if it can really be called that, was a flap between city council president Joel Sipress and DFL district chairman Justin Perpich. Sipress and Perpich exemplify one of the fault lines in the DFL that I thought could fracture this coalition, as they are on opposite sides of the debates over the merits of mining projects on the Iron Range. I’m sure there is some backstory as to how things got to this point, and I don’t really care to know all the details; in short, Perpich criticized the failure of the anti-mining group Duluth for Clean Water to disclose its campaign spending on a Facebook post by Sipress’s wife, and the council president, who found the characterization of Duluth for Clean Water as some sort of dark money organization misleading, told Perpich to “go fuck himself,” among other things. Perpich promptly shared this private Facebook message with the press.

No one really looks good here. Perpich’s posts seem awfully petty, and the ultimate financial disclosure does appear to debunk any claim that Duluth for Clean Water is getting lots of money poured into it by non-Duluthians. (Unsolicited advice to pro-mining camp: trying to sound like you’re the resource-poor is side in this debate is…not going to get you much sympathy with the general public.) On the other hand, this was also a city council that recently generated enough pressure to get Linda Krug to step down from the council presidency when she used her bully pulpit to harangue a colleague on the council. Difficult as this may be to remember in the Trump Era, we traditionally have had higher standards for politician conduct in public, though of course this runs into the question of whether or not a form of messaging that Facebook calls “private” is actually private. Hence the lesson that was beaten into me from a young age, which Sipress has just learned the hard way: never, ever, ever assume that anything you share with anyone on the internet will remain private.

Speaking for myself, I’m not terribly offended to learn that a politician uses the occasional vulgarity, but other people have different standards, and anyone in the public eye should probably be aware of that. (And, since I’m on a roll, some unsolicited advice for the anti-mining camp: gallivanting up to the Range to tell people you do not know that their lives aren’t *that bad*  or treating anyone who supports mining as an idiotic simpleton seems like a pretty safe formula for turning onetime union Democrats into Trump voters. How each side in this debate frames its case can make all the difference in the world.)

At the risk of sounding like the grumpy young millennial scolding the old people around him on how to use the internet, this sort of thing is exactly why I go to great lengths to avoid political junk on Facebook. This isn’t to say I never engage, and the line between politics and the rest of life isn’t always clear. We all need some cathartic moments, too. But these days I find myself increasingly frustrated with the number of people I observe spending large parts of their day devoted to internet political drivel, no matter the flavor.

In an effort to generate something resembling positive discourse out of this rant-fest, I recommend the following litmus test for anyone who wants to post anything political on Facebook:

  1. Is my post a call to immediate action, or is it more of a general lament detached from any ability to influence anything?
  2. How many times have I made this same exact point in recent memory?
  3. Does this post contribute anything new or insightful, or am I merely regurgitating someone else’s work, or an opinion that anyone who actually knows me knows I already hold?
  4. Will this post inspire hard feelings (particularly of the personal variety) from people who will see it, and if so, is this cause so important to me that I am willing to risk that relationship?
  5. Are the people I am engaging colleagues or good friends/family who I know will take my opinion seriously and respond in kind, or is this Fred who I haven’t seen since high school graduation?
  6. Is the voice I am using in this discourse the same I would be willing to use to the face of someone who is the subject of my rant?
  7. Have I ever been guilty of whatever it is I’m currently charging my political opponents with?

Or you could, you know, just close Facebook and go outside or read a book or something. Or, if you really must stare at political things on screens, just explore the archives of a much more interesting and nuanced blog.

On the Flip Side: Democracy in Action

Last Thursday, I attended a public meeting at the Lower Chester warming house to discuss the future of that small park tucked in between 15th Ave. East and Chester Creek. In winters, it is currently home to several rinks run by the Congdon hockey association, which needed a new home when the Red Plan paved paradise and put up a parking lot next to Congdon Elementary. In summer, the main rink becomes a skate park, while the rest of it sits rather forlorn and patchy; a few neighbors spared no details in describing the lurid activity that takes place there some nights. There was a hint of everyone crammed into this grossly inadequate space: neighbors with kids who wanted the playground, some with said kids in tow; hockey parents, with a few hockey player kids also in tow and wandering the park; older neighbors who’d lived next to the park since the Wilson Administration or something like that; plus some kid for whom this sort of meeting is a perfect confluence of interests. Someone took it upon themselves to engage the skateboarders rolling around the rink, too. (The neighbors, incidentally, said the park’s upkeep had improved immensely since they moved in a few years back.)

The plan presented by the Parks Department went a long way toward accommodating all parties. The details aren’t all settled yet: the pleasure rink is not in the current plan, the playground location was the subject of some debate, and anything that emerges here is going to take money, none of which is currently budgeted. But when one attendee suggested closing down 15th Ave. in front of the park to create more space that could accommodate everyone, there seemed genuine consensus from all parties. (Except, perhaps, the city’s Public Works Department, but we can work on them.) It was a heartening moment, and a reminder that democracy really does work best in cramped little town halls, not in the far more cramped world of the things pecked out by internet warriors on a cell phone keyboard at odd hours of the night. Once again, Duluth provides a renewal of faith.

Correction: A previous version of this blog post stated that Renee Van Nett received the DFL endorsement in the 4th District race. She did not, and the text has been updated to reflect this.

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Exit Jim Oberstar

3 May

Jim Oberstar passed away in his sleep on Friday night, ending a 79-year life of political service. Love or hate his views, the Chisholm native was a giant on the northeast Minnesota political stage over the past forty years, and his impact spans generations. The eighteen-term representative and former Transportation Committee chairman was arguably the most powerful Minnesotan congressman of the last half century, though unlike some of his better-known contemporaries, he did most of his work behind the scenes. His time was not a happy one for the region he represented, and most of that for reasons beyond his control, as the mines shut down and the manufacturing jobs dwindled, a decline that was followed by a long period of stasis. Like any good long-tenured congressman, he brought home the bacon and did some work to stop the bleeding. Many of the little factors that have helped spur Duluth’s burgeoning optimism, from its emergence as an aviation industry hub to its networks of trails, have their roots in Oberstar’s work.

Oberstar began as a classic northern Minnesota DFLer, a proud member of that generation of Minnesota liberals who gave the state its national political face. As the son of an Iron Range miner, he captured the DFL’s base with his emphasis on labor and taxation on the wealthy. He traveled far beyond the Range in life, though, studying in Belgium, Quebec, and at Georgetown, and was fluent in French. Never much of a revolutionary, by the time I came along Oberstar had the air of a patrician doing what he could to gently steward his district. Still, he never entirely abandoned his working class roots, and there were wrinkles in his platform—most notably, his consistent pro-life stances—that cut against the grain of the liberal elite. His ability to balance his ambitions and worldliness with his Iron Range core was perhaps his most admirable trait, and he made that balance work for a very long time.

Oberstar’s political career came to a stunning end in 2010, when he was taken down in one of the greatest coups of the Tea Party wave election. With its population in decline, Minnesota’s Eighth District had slowly leached south into Michele Bachmann territory, and political rookie Chip Cravaack took advantage of the changing demographics. The real nail in Oberstar’s political coffin, though, probably had more to do with his declining support in his home territory up on the Range. His patient, piecemeal approach and congeniality clashed with growing frustration over decades of economic stagnation, and there was a notion that his balancing act had finally fallen, that he had lost touch after so many years in Washington. Setting aside Cravaack’s own hypocrisy on that front, it was a critique with some merit: every political era must come to an end, and 36 years is quite the tenure. The time for fresh blood had come.

His passing is just another in a slow but steady series of markers of the end of an era. Northeastern Minnesota’s influence on the state political scene has dwindled some—witness Gov. Mark Dayton’s apparent “suburban strategy” for re-election—and the current congressman, Rick Nolan, a DFLer of Oberstar’s generation, is probably only a placeholder. It’s possible that someone of a similar disposition will come along, much as Amy Klobuchar has taken up the torch of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale in the Senate. But the man best positioned to fill that DFL vacuum, Duluth mayor Don Ness, has taken the cautionary tales of Oberstar’s disconnect to heart. As a profound family man, he seems unlikely to run.

Beyond Ness, the regional DFL machine is in a complicated place in the post-Oberstar era. As the name implies, it’s a coalition with some unusual constituents, from Duluth’s east side elite to the fraying but enduring big labor camp, from the environmental activists to the working-class Rangers who support new mining projects. There might be a window for some new coalitions to emerge, though the inertia of the existing parties may be enough to hold things together, and any challenge from the right will need to develop a coherent policy agenda to gain any traction north of Hinckley. It’s hard to know quite what will come next for the politics of the region, but whatever happens, it will all be somewhere in the shadow Jim Oberstar.

Duluth General Election Results and Comments, 2013

5 Nov

The results are in!

I’ll have a few more comments tomorrow once the city publishes district-by-district results and try to put everything in a broader context—complete with adventures in amateur map-making! I’ll also have more comments on the outgoing councilors and board members when their terms expire. For now, here are the results and their immediate implications.

Bolded candidates won. The numbers after the names are percentages of the vote, followed by the raw vote total.

City Council At-Large

Zack Filipovich 55.2 (9295)

Barb Russ 53.0 (8932)

Ryan Stauber 44.6 (7514)

Ray Sandman 14.2 (2398)

For a second straight election cycle, the DFL candidates march to a solid victory in the At-Large races. Stauber hung in there relatively well, but in the end was nine points behind the second of the two DFLers, a similar margin to his primary gap. The biggest surprise here was Filipovich leading the way: Russ had a large lead and a more obvious campaign presence after the primaries, and as Stauber is the only real conservative in the field and has some name recognition, I thought Filipovich might have a fight on his hands. Not so, as the recent UMD grad rolls into office.

City Council District Two

Patrick Boyle (I) 98.5 (2099)

As expected, the unopposed Councilor Boyle sails through, and also led the field in the District 2 County Commissioner primary. If elected to that position, the Council will appoint a replacement for the next two years.

City Council District Four

Howie Hanson 61.1 (1782)

Garry Krause 37.6 (1098) (withdrew from race)

37.6% is a fairly substantial vote total for a candidate who isn’t in the race, suggesting there were some misgivings with the otherwise unopposed Hanson, but he still heads into the Council after a stress-free campaign. My personal experiences with Howie have not been positive, but they were also in a very different context. I hope he proves a more skilled politician than he is a sportswriter, and I’ll give him a chance to prove he can be a good representative for this district, which could use some stability after running through an awful lot of councilors in the past few years. Due to the vacant seat, he’ll be seated at next Monday’s meeting.

City Council Big Picture: News flash—Duluth is a DFL town. With Stauber’s loss and Hanson replacing Krause, there is only one person on the Council now who really qualifies as a conservative in any sense of the word. Even in a liberal city, that’s quite the supermajority. I’ll have more on the dynamics of that sort of council tomorrow.

School Board At-Large

Annie Harala 56.9 (10648)

Harry Welty 39.3 (7342)

Nancy Nilsen 35.7 (6670)

Henry Banks 24.4 (4567)

No surprise in Harala’s big win, and as I suspected, Harry Welty’s uniqueness was enough to get him just past Nilsen. Welty comes into the Board following a somewhat ragged end to his campaign that included a weird ad and an awkward comment about gangrene in west side schools. As several letters to the Duluth News Tribune showed, a number of people do not trust this longtime Red Plan critic and former Board member. That said, I think he is a genuine person who simply has a habit of saying some tone-deaf things, and he probably deserves a fair amount of credit for getting otherwise skeptical people to vote for that second levy. If the other Board members approach him in good faith, he should be willing to work with them. Nilsen’s showing, which was decent but not good enough, shows Duluth’s continued mixed feelings about the Red Plan. Banks’s campaign had potential, but never did quite take off.

School Board District One

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp 56.1 (3220)

Joe Matthes 43.5 (2497)

After clearing 50% in the primary, it’s no surprise to see Loeffler-Kemp win, and her new seat is the culmination of 20 years of work in and around ISD 709. Matthes, meanwhile, ran a pretty strong campaign for a newcomer running against such a well-known figure. He seems to have a bright political future, and I hope he stays involved in ISD 709 affairs despite the loss.

School Board District Four

Art Johnston (I) 54.0 (1624)

David Bolgrien 45.7 (1374)

After a contentious race, Johnston emerges victorious and earns himself a second term. With the passage of the levies, his worry that the Board’s actions would cost it major public support were proven misplaced. To that end, it will be very interesting to see how he re-invents himself now that the Red Plan is fading into the rear view mirror. Will he take the passage of the levies as an opportunity to fix the various problems he sees in ISD 709 and attack them in concert with other Board members? Or does he think the voters were swindled by the Board, and does he continue to try to obstruct most everything it does? It’s his decision.

ISD 709 Levies

Question One: Yes 65.6 (12211); No 34.4 (6403)

Existing levy re-approved

Question Two: Yes 50.8 (9436); No 49.2 (9130)

New, additional levy implemented

It was a huge night for ISD 709’s bottom line, as voters approved not just the existing levy, but also the second one, for which I did not have high hopes. With more cash in hand and additional state aid on the way, the District should be able to pay off its debts and move to bring down class sizes. Education activists can’t just rest on this victory, though; they need to continue to work with the new school board to make sure the money is going to the right places.

ISD 709 Big Picture: It’s a bit of a split verdict here; while not unexpected given the lingering legacy of the Red Plan, it does have some interesting twists. Two of the Red Plan’s biggest critics are now on the Board, but their greatest fears have not come to pass, and they now have a decent amount of money they can use to attack the problems related (and unrelated) to the Red Plan. It will still require some important decisions, and with Johnston on the Board, things will never be boring. That said, this ISD 709 grad is feeling good about the direction of the District for the first time in a few years. While Duluthians are clearly demanding strong oversight of the Board, they also want to move forward, and the approval of the second levy shows a majority are willing to put the Red Plan behind them and do what they can to make Duluth public schools the best they can be. It’s a big win for Superintendent Bill Gronseth, whose gamble has paid off.

St. Louis County Commissioner 2nd District Primary

(2 advance to general election)

Patrick Boyle 34.4 (2389)

Jim Stauber 27.4 (1901)

Scott Keenan 26.9 (1868)

Cary Thompson-Gilbert 4.8 (333)

Boyle and Stauber, both sitting City Councilors, advance to the January 14 special election to fill the seat of the late Steve O’Neil. Boyle’s first place finish is no surprise; Stauber’s incredibly narrow win over Keenan, meanwhile, sets up a classic left-right showdown. Given the timing of the special election, there’s a healthy chance that turnout will have been better in the primary than in the actual election. That means that getting out the vote will be crucial for both candidates in January, as they look to build on their momentum. Stauber in particular will have to go to work if he wants to close the gap, as he doesn’t have a very large presence at the moment. Many Keenan supporters are up for grabs here; while Boyle would seem to be the favorite, his victory is not assured.

That’s it for now—check back for more tomorrow!