Tag Archives: don ness

Duluth’s Comings and Goings

5 Jan

I cycled through Duluth this past weekend, and while I couldn’t hang around long enough to attend all the inauguration festivities, yesterday marked the transition from one set of elected officials to another. Whether this means the start of a new era is probably an entirely different story, but for now, we can dream (or lament, or shrug indifferently, as we see fit). It’s been some time since I covered many of these people regularly, but I’ve been keeping up from afar, such as I can, and have a few final words. (Initial reactions to the election are here and here.)

The ISD 709 school board, my favorite hobbyhorse, saw some serious turnover, as all three incumbents retired. Nora Sandstad, David Kirby, and Alanna Oswald all enter the board sounding all the right notes about moving past the old divides, and now have a chance to prove it. Given the radio silence in recent debates and even on Harry Welty’s blog, it seems like there’s a cease fire in place for now. Whether this becomes a lasting peace is a different story, but I’m more optimistic than at any point in the past eight years.

As always, I’ll say a few words about the outgoing members. One, Judy Seliga-Punyko, leaves after two terms as the great champion of the Red Plan. She nursed it through countless political wars, left her own mark on it with advocacy for swimming pools, and led the internal effort to bring down Art Johnston. While that part of her legacy may be the most obvious, she also stood up and fought for any number of issues, and would at times demand answers from the administration. Even among those who always voted for her, none of the remaining board members quite have her combative spirit, so we’ll see if the tenor of board meetings changes in her absence.

Bill Westholm always voted with Seliga-Punyko, but was in many ways her polar opposite. He often stayed quiet through board meetings, playing his cards close to his chest and speaking out only when he could make an effective point. Given his gravitas, I’d wish we’d heard more from him. He retires after one term, which is no great surprise; he wasn’t exactly speeding around the board room by the end.

Mike Miernicki also voted in lockstep with the old board majority, but his legacy is also a rather different one. The jolly Miernicki was the activities director at Duluth East during my freshman year, and hovered around the school for the next three; he always seemed an agreeable man who’d do good work for the district. His time on the board, however, tested his limits. In more peaceful times he might have been a model board member, but conflict did not suit him, and he failed to hide his exasperation and general sense of defeat. (I’m still proud of the time I described him as “a man waving his arms wildly at a cloud of gnats,” which drew praise from all sides of the debate.) It was sad to watch.

My opinions are probably leaching through here, but I’ll wrap this up by thanking them all for their service and once again praying that the new board rise above the old wars.

On the city council side of things, there’s no need for caution in the optimism: people seem genuinely excited about the new wave of energy in Duluth politics, which looks to build off the last one. Two of the six people elected last fall are familiar faces; Jay Fosle returns for a third term, while Joel Sipress begins his first full one. Elissa Hansen and Noah Hobbs continue the youth movement among the at-large seats, and bring new but distinct brands of energy. Em Westerlund follows in much the same vein in the Third District, and there’s also something very distinctly Duluth about Gary Anderson, who takes over on the far east side.

Among the four retirees, council veteran Sharla Gardner leaves after a distinguished career of advocacy for the center of the city, though I doubt she’ll disappear from view. Even if we disagreed, I admired her integrity, particularly when she stood down a mob of angry Park Pointers and defended city staff. Jennifer Juslrud, whose decision not to run again still surprises me, was a strong voice for her district, and probably has a political future somewhere if she wants to get back in the game. Linda Krug brought a strong commitment to processes to the council, and also wasn’t afraid to fight or take controversial stands. While that did at times lead to a few dust-ups, one of which effectively cost her the council presidency, she was consistent and stuck to her guns, and had the wisdom to step down when pressured.

The final figure to mention here is Emily Larson, who now accedes to the throne. As the new mayor, she’s riding a tide of goodwill and a council that should be happy to work with her. Don Ness might be a tough act to follow, but he’s also left the house in much better shape than it was. Larson certainly is primed to carry forward that energy, but I doubt she’ll move in lockstep, so we’ll see what unique twists she brings. As long as she surrounds herself with smart people and keeps the fiscal house in order, there’s no reason to expect the positivity to fade.

As for Don Ness: well, damn. You took a city that time had left behind and made me believe in it again. As is always the case, we haven’t agreed on everything, and this more jaded soul couldn’t didn’t always share your persistent idealism. But I suppose that’s exactly what made you so easy to like for so many people, and what it took to turn the ship around. You’ve left quite the legacy, and I hope you continue to build on it in your career outside of formal politics. Also, “will your new non-consulting consulting firm be hiring?” asks the kid who finishes graduate school in May.

And, lest we thought we were done with local political intrigue for a little while, the Duluth congressional delegation is due for a shake-up. Roger Reinert, who sounds quite busy with a number of ventures in his personal life, will step down from the Minnesota Senate after six years this coming fall. Erik Simonson, the current state representative for District 7B, immediately announced his candidacy for the seat. Simonson is a strong DFL figure with working class cred, so he has the political clout to run away with this race; presuming he does, the real question becomes one of who will emerge in the now open west side house district. That one, on the other hand, could be a lot more interesting.

Good luck to all the newbies. I’ll try not to be too mean when I breeze in to offer my comments.

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Duluth’s Divisions, Revisited: 2015 Election Analysis

9 Nov

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.

Oswald

School Board At-Large race, Alanna Oswald vs. Renee Van Nett (Shown in terms of Oswald’s vote share)

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.

2015 Duluth Mayoral Race, shown as Emily Larson's margin of victory over Chuck Horton

2015 Duluth Mayoral Race, shown as Emily Larson’s margin of victory over Chuck Horton

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.

Elissa Hansen's performance, 2015 city council at-large election.

Elissa Hansen’s performance, 2015 city council at-large election.

Noah Hobbs' vote share, 2015 city council at large election.

Noah Hobbs’ performance, 2015 city council at large election.

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's performance, 2015 city council at-large election

Jim Booth’s performance, 2015 city council at-large election

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.

2015 5th District city council race, Jay Fosle vs. Janet Kennedy, shown in terms of Fosle's vote share

2015 5th District city council race, Jay Fosle vs. Janet Kennedy, shown in terms of Fosle’s vote share

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.

See two more maps in a follow-up here.

Duluth General Election Results and Comments, 2015

3 Nov

Another election season has come and gone. Your results, with percentages followed by actual vote totals:

Duluth Mayor

Emily Larson 71.9 (15,352)

Chuck Horton 27.5 (5,862)

It’s a long-anticipated coronation, as Larson rolls into office. She’s basically been inevitable since most of the realistic challengers stood down early in the election cycle, and now she finally gets to move toward governance. Her policies will likely be a continuation of those of her predecessor, Don Ness; under Larson, Duluth should continue its re-invention as a creative, energetic city. Still, she’ll certainly have an opportunity to carve out her own legacy outside of Ness’s long shadow, and we’ll see what innovative ideas she brings forward, and how she looks to manage those who aren’t all on board with the Ness agenda. She is Duluth’s first female mayor.

City Council District One

Gary Anderson 61.9 (3,902)

Karl Spring 37.9 (2,389)

No great surprise here, as the far east side elects the more liberal candidate to replace Jennifer Julsrud.

City Council District Two

Joel Sipress (I) 97.5 (2,891)

After an unopposed run, Sipress returns to a council where he is suddenly among the more senior members. First appointed in 2014 after Patrick Boyle was elected to the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners, he now gets a full four-year term.

City Council District Three

Em Westerlund 82.4 (2,278)

Barri Love (withdrew from race) 16.8 (465)

Love’s withdrawal left Westerlund with no competition in this race to replace Sharla Gardner in the center of the city.

City Council District Five

Jay Fosle (I) 56.4 (2,215)

Janet Kennedy 43.4 (1,705)

The far west side of the city retains its contrarian streak and returns Fosle, a frequent skeptic of the Ness governing consensus, for a third term. Kennedy made up some ground on her primary gap, but ultimately failed to break through. Fosle is usually left playing the grumbling protest vote, though I definitely give him credit for occasional independent streak that produces some insights and occasionally highlights some perspectives that wouldn’t otherwise get a seat at the table. He is now the most senior member of the council.

City Council At-Large (Two open seats)

Elissa Hansen 37.8 (12,192)

Noah Hobbs 28.8 (9,271)

Jim Booth 21.5 (6,922)

Kris Osbakken 11.5 (3,699)

This script looks just like the one two years ago, as the two DFL candidates move through, leaving a conservative in third and a local Green Party figure in fourth. Hansen, a dynamic candidate with a background in economic development, was a shoo-in from the start. Hobbs, a younger guy with a lot of passion for the west side, should provide an interesting voice in coming debates over the future of that side of the city. The other two were always long shots.

City Council Big Picture: The Council’s ideological composition didn’t shift at all, as the lone conservative incumbent retained his seat and moderate liberals cleaned up everywhere else. There is on notable shift, though: there’s a youth movement afoot. Three of the nine councilors are now under thirty, and a fourth is in her thirties. In Don Ness’s wake there has been a generational shift in this city, and there’s a lot of young energy making its move into city politics. Do my generation proud, kids.

School Board District Two

David Kirby 59.7 (2,776)

Charles Obije 40.0 (1,857)

Kirby’s big lead from the primary carried through to the general election, and it’s little surprise to see him cruise through in a wealthy district that values its public education. He succeeds the polarizing Judy Seliga-Punyko, and he now gets to negotiate the school board minefield: is his positive talk a genuine desire to move forward from all this past junk, or will he follow his predecessor in staking out the battle lines? I thought Obije appeared a strong candidate, and hope he remains involved in some capacity.

School Board District Three

Nora Sandstad 64.2 (3,111)

Loren Martell 35.2 (1,705)

This makes three elections and three decisive losses for Martell; I thought he had a chance this time around, given his exposure through Reader columns and a more forgiving district. Instead, Sandstad carried the day. Like Kirby, she’s largely kept mum on big issues and said all the right things about staying positive and moving past recent ugliness; the big question now is how her apparent independence will play out in practice.

School Board At-Large

Alanna Oswald 51.5 (9,621)

Renee Van Nett 47.6 (8,910)

The tightest race of the evening also involved its biggest shift from the primary, as Oswald came back from an early deficit to ease past Van Nett. She was probably the most dynamic campaigner of the bunch, and if she can bring this energy to the board, it will be a very different place. If she can retain her independence, she’ll be a force. I also hope Van Nett continues her advocacy in key areas even though she’s not on the board.

School Board Big Picture: It’s a potential changing of the guard in ISD 709, as three consistent votes in the monolithically pro-administration bloc retire and three fairly new faces in Duluth school debates make their way in. Unlike some of the current and outgoing members, they don’t have long records siding with one side of the dead horse Red Plan debates. With two solid pro-administration votes and two staunch critics among the remaining members, these three now have the power to play kingmaker. Whatever they decide, one hopes they will stay above past squabbles, ask tough questions, and dig into the district’s most pressing debates. Color me cautiously optimistic that some new blood will leave the old debates behind and provide a much-needed jolt of energy for the real issues at stake.

Ranked Choice Voting Ballot Question

No 74.7 (15,564)

Yes 25.3 (5,271)

Mission accomplished.

My own opinions aside, this was quite the decisive vote. It shows how a campaign with considerable outside financial backing can fall to a largely grassroots local campaign (though Walter Mondale did weigh in on the ‘no’ side in the final week). It’s also distinctly Duluth, as the city chose not to follow in lockstep with the trend in the Twin Cities. Duluth elections will be a bit simpler for it, and perhaps we’ve finally heard the last of this well-intentioned but poorly supported and ultimately misguided attempt to “improve” democracy. Back to the real issues.

Non-Binding Lakeside Liquor Ban Repeal

Yes 59.3 (11,528)

No 40.7 (7,912)

This was, weirdly, a city-wide question, and the rest of the city had stronger opinions than the Lakeside residents did. Even so, opinion in Lakeside has shifted some since the 2008 referendum on this topic; at that point, it fell one vote short, while the DNT is now reporting the repeal got about 53 percent of the vote. Before I die, I will be able to buy a damn beer in my childhood neighborhood. (No, the 3.2 Coors at Super One does not count.)

Method of Setting City Council Pay Ballot Question

Yes 67.0 (14,031)

No 33.0 (6,917)

This procedural move lets the Charter Commission set council pay, which seems a bit wiser than letting them just vote on it themselves. Any new pay grade will still require Council approval. We’ll see if anything actually comes of this and revisit it if and when that debate starts up.

Time-permitting, I’ll be back with some comments on precinct-by-precinct results in the near future. Stay tuned.

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!

Howie Hanson and the End of Boring

24 Sep

Well, we have a race. I didn’t really want to write about it, largely out of protest over the excruciating length of political campaigns launched fourteen months ahead of the election, but a few people have goaded me into it. For the first time in many years, there will be a politician in Duluth opposed to the current administration who aspires to something more than a protest vote.

City Councilor and local blogger Howie Hanson has chosen to go in for the race for mayor of Duluth, mounting a pseudo-challenge to incumbent Don Ness, Duluth’s champion of boring government. Ness, of course, hasn’t decided whether he’ll run again yet, and was put in an awkward position by Hanson’s direct challenge to him. (Sort of. Despite coming out guns blazing, Hanson also gave Ness plenty of credit, and admitted he would be difficult to defeat.) In response, Ness stuck to his guns and kept to his original decision-making timeline, while also saying he was ready for a debate. The entire drama played out on Facebook comment boxes, prompting the expected sniping and grumbling and misunderstanding and so on and so forth. (I know, I know, it’s hypocritical for a blogger to gripe about the rise of social media. Deal with it.)

Cards on the table: I have never been a very large fan of Hanson’s work, a sentiment that goes back to a kerfuffle some five years ago on some of his writings about local hockey. (There was a time when his name was something of a punch line in local hockey circles, though this might have faded some since he abandoned opinion writing about hockey after these incidents.) It’s nothing personal, and I try to maintain a strict division of hockey and state in my thinking. By and large, Hanson’s heart is in the right place. He’s trying to be a voice for citizens in Duluth who aren’t thrilled with aspects of the Ness Regime, and I’m all for principled opposition.

That stance is a total about-face from where he was a year ago—see the end of this post for some critical comments about his predecessor for not being on the same page as Ness—but I think that’s a genuine conversion that he’s gone through in his first year on the Council, and as he’s learned more about local government. He may not be the smoothest operator, but there’s a political vacuum that he’s in a great position to fill, and he’s given himself enough time that he could, theoretically, pull it all together. On paper, a west-sider with deep stakes in the community who relies on fiscal restraint and common sense sounds like a serious contender.

Hanson, however, has done little to suggest he will be able to seize that mantel. Flexibility and common sense are good things to a degree, but with Hanson, the underlying philosophy just seems formless. He is quick to come up with new proposals, which he paints as outside-the-box thinking, but many of them are so poorly vetted that they are difficult to take seriously. Above all, he has just seemed more ill-prepared to govern than any other city councilor in recent memory, with a glaring lack of understanding of how things work in city government. That isn’t all bad—his resistance to bureaucracy-speak is sometimes an asset—but any politician put in charge of an executive department needs to know how to speak this language, otherwise the whole enterprise will fall apart. He has a folksy sort of charm, though he also has some blustering bravado that comes out in spurts, only to be quickly covered up when he realizes he’s rubbed someone the wrong way. It could be a winning combination in the hands of a tactful politician. All of the evidence up to and including this flap over his announcement suggests that Hanson is not one right now.

He has a lot of time, though, so I won’t dismiss him out of hand. We’re going to have a painfully long campaign ahead of us, and if Ness does indeed run, we may have our field set a year in advance. If he doesn’t, Hanson has probably forced the other possible successors to make up their minds soon. (I’ve heard names, but I won’t speculate publicly.) Hanson will be a long shot even if he doesn’t have to face Ness—a near shoo-in for re-election if he runs—but with enough confusion among the people aiming to capture the Ness coalition, he might be able to make things interesting.

Boring government was fun while it lasted. With Hanson in the field, it certainly won’t be that.

Farewell Duluth II: On Culture

3 Aug

Culture is a notoriously murky term, one that can be used to explain just about anything without actually proving causes or relationships or anything of the sort. Trying to define a culture is a frustrating exercise that throws a lot of unlike things into the hopper that then spits out a vague, abstract Thing that we claim has some substance. An awful lot of bad social analysis has used it to glorify or defame a group of people, and “cultural studies,” while potentially valuable, can also become repositories of mediocre thought and self-absorption.  At its most fundamental level, culture is a shared identity, which just goes to show how hard it is to pin down; no one person’s identity can be summed up by a few simple words, and it’s only going to get worse as we add more people. There is also a good chance that, even at a time where people are more and more likely to surround themselves with others who share their views, half the people on one’s block wouldn’t qualify as sharing one’s culture. There are a million different ways to measure it, and it’s tough to argue that one has any more intrinsic value than another.

Just because it is hard to capture something, however, does not mean that it is not real, or that it does not have considerable power. Duluth, Minnesota has a very distinct culture, one that makes it undeniably unique, and just about everyone from the city who ventures out and thinks about this knows it.

We can try to list some stuff that makes up the culture. There’s a hardiness and stoicism in the face of long winters, with a strong Scandinavian ethos to it. There’s a blue-collar legacy of a transportation hub near the Iron Range in there, and there’s also a strong element of Congdon Old Money and its resultant noblesse oblige. There’s an outdoorsy ethic, from biking and boating in summer to skiing and pond hockey in winter. There is relative racial homogeneity, the ruling DFL coalition, and an obsession with talking about the weather. There are neighborhoods and schools and businesses, all generators of their own sub-cultures; some predictable, some less so.

Culture, however, is never static, and Duluth has undergone a considerable shift over the past decade. It didn’t begin with mayor Don Ness—before him, there was Canal Park and the Munger Trail and a number of other efforts (of varying success) to get Duluth past its 1980s post-industrial mire. But Ness’s cool Duluth energy is part and parcel with the surge of renewal in recent years. In his own words, it plays to “authentic strengths” of this city, instead of trying to pretend we’re something we’re not. And so we have booms in biking and beer and indie music, plus the rise of urban farming and the industrial chic architecture used to revive derelict lots and crumbling old buildings. All the artsy quality of life stuff is moving in tandem with legitimate economic expansion, from the aviation sector to engineering to some good, old-fashioned manufacturing. Duluth has character, and a genuine sense of direction, too.

Another of Duluth’s strengths is its civic engagement, which has fueled the recent renewal. People love this city and want it to succeed, and will spend endless hours prepping for public meetings on school and park plans and so on. At the same time, though, some of its greatest outbursts are in opposition to new planning, and that’s definitely not always a bad thing. It is an erratic and often untamed force, as evidenced by the overzealous attempt underway to recall city councilor Sharla Gardner. Still, it’s a force that slows some of the more harebrained schemes and preserves some of the better aspects of local culture. At its best it’s simply a direct application of common sense, a counterbalance to the plans from on high that manages a strong voice without going into excess. It’s exemplar at the moment is Jay Fosle, the west side city councilor whose populist conservatism stands in sharp but (usually) respectful contrast to the left-leaning visionaries. As I wrote in my account of the first Council meeting I attended, he can waver between wise insights and serious head-scratchers with little warning. But Fosle is not there simply to say no; he is willing to work with people, and no one does a better job of effectively organizing citizens and bringing them forward to speak to the Council. The authenticity of the voices on both sides of Duluth’s political debates keeps things from falling into the stale platitudes of national politics, and that complexity is another source of life.

Still, as I’ve said many times—here in culture, here in politics, here in education—there’s an elephant in the room that threatens the whole project. This is, of course, the east-west divide. It’s always been there, of course. But the most obvious thrust of the current renewal, with its cultural enrichment and “creative class” cultivation, does not produce evenly spread results. If things just plug along as they are, it’s not hard to predict a split in which east side (and Hermantown) reap the benefits of a vibrant city, while the west side sinks into stagnation, a place without a future. Families with children are an excellent bellwether, and nothing is more haunting than this map of the city’s last school board levy. It’s also what makes Don Ness’s seeds of a vision for the west side so worth watching: if Duluth is going to transcend the common narratives of renewal by gentrification, this is where it will have to take place. It won’t be easy.

The plight of the debate around Duluth’s public schools is a sign of what can go wrong when the enlightened planners impose their vision while dodging public debate. Many of the critiques of that plan and its opaqueness had merit, even though I have little patience left with many of its foremost critics. Duluth’s echo chamber of education debate is a bizarre and unpleasant place, filled with catfights and resentment and overblown egos. Funnily enough, through it all, Duluth remains a pretty good place to raise some kids. It has enough big city stuff to be interesting and keep them engaged, has just enough variety to show them all walks of life, yet is small enough that they still get that much-hyped small-town feel. Every week, someone in the media laments the fact that kids don’t get to play freely anymore, but that’s not what I see when I look out my window. Children roaming and playing are one of the most obvious signs of communal health, and it was heartening to hear a recent visitor to the economic development agency where I intern gushing about all of the families she saw out and about on Duluth’s streets. A little part of me died when the Congdon hockey rinks got cleared out to make room for a parking lot.

This discussion of education and childrearing brings me back to the thrust of this post: the primacy of culture, from which everything else follows. Set things in motion early on, build a supportive environment, and your odds are as good as any, even if your background isn’t one of great wealth or education. Duluth does that well for most people, but as with anywhere, there are exceptions, and when they’re relatively few in number, the contrast can be glaring. There is still a substantial amount of poverty in Duluth, and while I’ll leave aside most of that debate about subcultures and pathologies and other things that bog people down, poverty and its associated ills often leave people incapable of participating fully in the broader culture and reaping its benefits.

To be sure, part of this problem comes from the culture itself. Aspects of culture can be both good and bad when it comes to business climate, and despite Duluth’s attentiveness to many of its ills, good intentions do not always beget good results; sometimes it can make things worse. Minority populations here (racial and otherwise) are so small that it’s hard for them to generate their own vibrant, self-sustaining cultures; they can either assimilate into the general culture, or be alone. It’s hard to know what can be done about this; if we did know, we’d have solved a lot of problems long ago. (Perhaps the most important point here is that these are not problems to be solved, but the stories of lives of real people to be unspooled into the fabric of a community.) Duluth has no shortage of well-intentioned people who want to overcome these troubles, and with the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie group and a vocal group of activists, there are real dialogues, though it’s not hard to ignore them, either. In time, demography will probably make these questions more relevant. One would hope that Duluth’s general tolerance will make this smoother than in other places, but it’s easy to claim tolerance when it’s rarely put to the test. Culture will always divide us, for good and ill.

In the eyes of some, the divisions coming out of culture are reasons for its dismissal. Better to cast away these things that tie us to imperfect places and people. An afterlife or some ideal form of human life takes precedent. Doing this, however, chokes off many of the greatest sources of earthly happiness. There are things I could do without in Duluth’s culture, but, in looking around the world, there is so much here that is worth preserving and enhancing. It has a strong sense of self, and now it also has a trajectory to match. It’s fighting the standard narratives of decline and measurements of success in cities, and these days, more often than not, it’s winning.

That makes Duluth unique, and explains why some people who aren’t native Duluthians find it hard to ever quite settle in here. But it works for Duluth, and it is, of course, never static. It goes along, guided by both inertia and a lot of hands that have claimed it as their own. It is a city with a soul, a sheer sense of being; a sense of motion through time, cyclical, coming and going, life and death flowing in and among one another. It has a rhythm, a pace, perhaps unique to each who walks its streets, yet felt like a beating heart, grounding one within it, leaving no doubt: a sense of place. It’s home.

Part 3 is here.

Defending Gardner and Succeeding Ness

6 Jul

It’s been a lovely 4th of July weekend in Duluth. While any attempt to bike on the Lakewalk will bring about plenty of cursing under one’s breath about meandering tourists and those God-awful four-wheeled bike cars, it’s still a brilliant time of year for this city, teeming with life and filled with people in all their fascinating messiness. (One last bit of snark, though: did anyone else think the lit-up bridge bore an unfortunate resemblance to the French flag?) At any rate, I’ll wrap up this weekend with that most American of activities: arguing about politics!

With a three-week gap between public meetings, I figured I’d venture a few comments on the two juicier bits of political news to come up in the city over this past week. The first is the recall campaign directed at 3rd District City Councilor Sharla Gardner, a push led by Park Point residents upset over her willingness to defend a plan to re-route the S-curve on the Point.

I have a soft spot for the populist instinct in politics, whatever the flavor. The people at the top should never get too comfortable, and as someone who likes to think things through as thoroughly as possible, I’m rarely one to dismiss people as mere NIMBYs. As I wrote after the meeting on the Point plan, this is local politics in all its glory and messiness…and it worked. There was enough of an uproar that the plan fell flat. And yet, now, people call for Gardner’s head. The victory, apparently, must be complete and total.

The leaders of the revolt, who unconvincingly tried to plead reluctance in the initial News Tribune article, contend that Gardner has not represented Park Point’s interests. (Their words before the Council on May 27 were anything but reluctant, but instead indignant and obstreperous.) That may or may not be true—Gardner had a thorough rebuttal in today’s DNT that effectively shredded the sloppy and unconvincing case made by her accusers—but it’s no grounds for her ouster. Politicians are not elected to ape their constituents’ every whim. We elect people, not platforms. Sharla Gardner was elected to govern as she sees fit, and people will have to learn to deal with that until the next election. If there were a real ethical violation here, or something more sinister, okay—and in that case, a councilor’s removal would likely be taken up by her peers or perhaps the courts—but there just isn’t. In this case, yeah, Park Point, you’re being a bunch of NIMBYs. (I am writing this post from the home of a family member on the Point, so I have some knowledge of the situation.)

All of this confirms a growing sense that the recall is among the most obnoxious tools available in democratic politics. The push for a recall stems from a desperate notion that change, any change, will somehow be better. Instead, the political climate seems to deteriorate from there. Sometimes we’re just on the losing side of debates (or, in the case of the S-curve and even in the case of Art Johnston, the winning side that cannot handle dissent). Smart political players don’t lash out viciously in these situations; they build a base for the next election, so as to turn the tide and create a more positive campaign; a campaign not just predicated on rejecting the past and present, but with a substantive vision for the future. For democracy to work, we need to respect the wishes of voters, even if we think the voters were voting against their own self-interest.

Gardner’s views and politics were never any great secret. She’s been elected twice, including an unopposed re-election in 2011, which means that any opposition to her has either been thwarted, or suffered from a terrible failure to mobilize. She’s often rather long-winded—the comprehensiveness of her defense of the S-curve plan was likely what set a few people off—but she did honestly think she was doing what was best for the city, and she always has the courage of her conviction. The notion that she didn’t fight for the loss of the fire hall also seems wrongheaded; whatever else she may be, Gardner is not one to give up a fight, and she is just one person on a Council of nine that was unconvinced. The critics misread her motives, overestimate her power, and have an entitled conception of democratic politics. There just isn’t any logical reason for this campaign at this time. Save it for the 2015 election, people.

Of course, I have few illusions about logic ruling things in politics; theories often only make sense from a thousand feet up in the air. I know it’s wrong to expect subtlety and careful political calculation out of the average citizen. (That line sounds elitist, but this is reality, and in many ways, I have a certain envy for people who don’t spend much time peddling in the nuances of politics.) The aggrieved parties will get to launch their little campaign and enjoy their day in the Park Point sun. This risk is always present in democratic politics, with the angry partisans waging total war by claiming they somehow represent the repressed or ignored. The system works because most people, thankfully, don’t consider these things life-or-death matters. Can we please just enjoy these beautiful days on the beach instead of seeing this vendetta through to its painful conclusion?

The second newsworthy bit was the revelation that Mayor Don Ness is leaning against running for a third term. Given his popularity and the unity of Duluth’s center and left behind him, he’d likely be a shoo-in to win, and, of course, plenty of people around him want him to pursue higher offices. But, in typical Ness fashion, he’s deflected most of those projections, and seems more content to play the family man.

We’ll see if that holds up when decision time comes, but I, for one, applaud his stance. A smart politician knows he is never bigger than his project, and Ness would be wise to make sure his vision for Duluth—which will outlive his mayoralty no matter what—is well-positioned to outlast him. In most things, it is better to go out on top than to hang on until one has outlived one’s welcome. I wouldn’t be opposed to a third Ness run, but fresh blood—as long as it really is fresh, and not the same old stuff stashed away in a vial in a back corner of City Hall—would make sure his project doesn’t stagnate along the same old questions and battle lines.

I haven’t always agreed with Don Ness, and as with anything, I’m sure I could pick apart his record if I wanted to expend the time and effort. But from a long-term perspective, his six and a half years have probably been the most momentous mayoralty in recent Duluth history. For the first time in my life, the city has a bit of optimism about it, and that should probably be seen through, and taken as far as it can go. There is a window of energy here that ought to be milked for all it’s worth, and Ness is doing that, daring to reach west and plan for the future. It may not turn Duluth into some shining beacon of a modern city, but the gains need not be wholesale to be substantial.

The cynics and critics still have an important role to play. If the coalition gets too comfortable, it will stagnate, and I’d welcome alternative visions and substantive debate. But realistically, and barring a drastic change in the local political landscape, whoever gets elected in 2015 is going to agree with Ness on most things. The day when the Duluth DFL monolith breaks down may come—there are cracks in the walls—but I don’t think we’re there yet. The real question, then, becomes one of how this project will evolve, and what wrinkles a new candidate might bring to Ness’s Duluth. A race to succeed him in 2015 would likely be very competitive, even if not terribly diverse in its political views, and that could inject a healthy dose of life to the system. A city with a dominant party needs that sort of internal debate, lest the vision atrophy. Those outside that party, on the other hand, need to come up with a positive platform, instead of simply raging at the people in power who they believe have wronged them.

Edit: Aaron Brown, who has an excellent Range-based blog on northeastern Minnesota, hits many of the same notes on Ness here, along with some of the points about living in community that I’ve repeated over and over again. Yes, yes, a million times yes. There’s a reason “culture” comes before “politics” in the tagline at the top of this blog.