Tag Archives: duluth politics

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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Duluth Primary Prognosis 2017

10 Sep

For the past ten years, Duluth has been ruled by what we might call the Don Ness Consensus: effectively, an optimistic union of center-left and activist left. On the city council, this meant that people like Sharla Gardner, Joel Sipress, Zack Filipovich, Dan Hartman, Emily Larson, Barb Russ, Jennifer Julsrud, and Linda Krug were all effectively allies within a majority pushing a common vision. They have all enjoyed support from labor, environmentalists, and the more moderate wing of the DFL that is more aligned with business interests. Any disputes within this camp were often more personal or stylistic than political.

This movement enjoyed considerable electoral success, as it drew down the older conservative guard to one single member (Jay Fosle) but also did not allow for any real inroads from the Green Party types who also sometimes made it out of election primaries. Because it was so consensus-driven and flexible enough to accommodate neighborhood concerns, it built up a lot of political capital, and has been loath to spend it on anything other than questions of long-term fiscal sustainability, as in Ness’s battle with pension debt and Larson’s current push to fix up the streets. Its goal, so to speak, is a unified city with a fresh new image and little in the way of controversy. Ness himself once said his goal was to make politics boring, shorn of the ideological firefights of old.

No political coalition is eternal, however, and while Larson at the top still seems to command the respect of Duluth DFLers of different stripes, there are signs of fractures beneath, and we’ll learn just how real those are in this fall’s election. A new wing of the Duluth left has risen in recent years. The national political climate has driven this somewhat, as an anti-Trump left feels a new sense of urgency to assert its ideals on the local level after somewhat neglecting that sphere in the Obama years. Some national issues have particular salience in Duluth: after a battle over oil pipeline construction drew national attention in Standing Rock, pipeline questions have hit home in a city where Enbridge has a base of operations; debates over non-ferrous mining in watersheds upstream from Duluth and the Boundary Waters rage on; and the city now has a taskforce is assessing the plausibility and possible methods of implementation of earned sick and safe time, a national progressive cause. Subtle shifts in the Duluth electorate also play a role: the city has become somewhat younger and somewhat more diverse than it was 10 years ago. All of this adds up to less patience among activists with the gradual, more cautious approach of some local politicians who want these things to go through long vetting processes and avoid taking loud stances on hot-button issues unless they’re sure they have broad public support.

What strikes me about all of this is just how small the ultimate policy differences are between the major left-leaning candidates. For the most part, these are differences in tone and emphasis, and this being the Duluth DFL, there is no shortage of personal umbrage and intrigue involved, too. Still, I think this race has at least some chance of re-working Duluth politics, and not necessarily in predictable ways.

City Council

This is all most obvious in the city council at-large race. There are four left-leaning candidates here, at least three of which (and quite possibly all four) will advance to the final round. Zack Filipovich, Janet Kennedy, Barb Russ, and Rich Updegrove all represent different pieces of the old Ness coalition. Updegrove personifies the rising leftward flank in Duluth politics, using his charisma and Bernie Sanders campaign credentials; Kennedy, an African-American activist who lost out to Fosle in the fifth district in 2015, joins him in having earned an endorsement from Our Revolution, the Sanders campaign’s movement to win local elections. A young environmentalist Sanders acolyte and a candidate who draws strongly on her experience as a black woman in Duluth represent two sides of a newly ascendant left, and map on to changes in the national Democratic party. Barb Russ got a DFL endorsement when first elected four years ago, but didn’t land it again; she represents an older, perhaps endangered brand of Duluth liberalism as the Congdon-dwelling retired county attorney with a fairly consistent, low-key voice. Filipovich, the only candidate who secured a DFL endorsement amid a contested convention, attempts to keep everyone happy in a big tent, and spends more time in the weeds on policy than his opponents. (Go figure: the 27-year-old accountant never seen in public without a tie is the most skilled at locking up the DFL’s old labor base. Is there any question about how important relationships are in local politics?)

Again, the policy differences between Updegrove, Kennedy, Russ, and Filipovich are not large at the end of the day. It’s not uncommon to see yard signs mixing and matching the four of them. Outside of a highly engaged coterie around the candidates or related movements, preferences often have more to do with individual ties and ground games than association with distinct camps in the Duluth left. But the primary will tell us a lot about the magnitude of the rising leftist call for activism in local politics, and the staying power of the big tent, let’s-all-get-along-despite-our-differences Nessism.

There is some chance it’s not just those four who advance: the past two election cycles have seen a conservative candidate advance to the general election with relative comfort, and Jan Swanson has a pretty strong lawn sign presence out west. Taking on two incumbents and two lefty candidates with broader support is not an easy task in Duluth, but Swanson has some chance of making it through. If she were to bump one of the above four, I would suspect it will be Russ.

The other primary in a city council race is in the 4th District, which includes Lincoln Park, Piedmont, and Duluth Heights. This is an interesting one, given the range within that district and the fact that incumbent Howie Hanson was uncontested in 2013. Hanson, who once criticized his conservative predecessor for not adhering to Ness orthodoxy, has made a complete conversion to fiscal conservatism. This might give him some chance of escaping the primary in one of the more conservative districts in the city, but even then, his (euphemism alert) lack of polish makes him a long shot for a second term. His challengers, Renee Van Nett and Tom Furman, are both firmly to his left. Furman has been the more vocal leftist of the two and has an Our Revolution endorsement, while Van Nett strikes the more consensus-oriented tone and has the DFL nod.

Finally, there’s no primary in the 2nd District, where incumbent Joel Sipress has secured basically every major left-leaning endorsement. I live in this district and just had to look up the name of his challenger (Ryan Sistad) since I’ve seen zero presence to date, which is probably a pretty safe sign that Sipress will win without breaking a sweat.

School Board

While the city council’s composition seems to evolve, the school district keeps the same old battle lines. The first and fourth districts on opposite ends of the city don’t have primaries, as incumbents on opposite ends of most school-related fights (Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and Art Johnston) take on challengers who are directly working with their opponents (Kurt Kuehn and Jill Lofald, respectively). It remains to be seen whether these are marriages of affection or convenience—these things haven’t always moved in predictable ways—but for now, the house money is probably on the incumbents. Oh joy, more of the same.

The only question in the primary will come in the at-large race, where five candidates will fight for four general election spots. The two from the anti-Red Plan camp are very familiar, as incumbent Harry Welty seeks another term, and Loren Martell launches his fourth consecutive run for a seat. Longtime readers will know I have a positive history with Welty, given his willingness to engage with a kid blogger a few years back in serious dialogue over the course of the district and fully own my criticisms of him. That’s not easy to do as a politician, and I only wish I could have drawn the same sort of engagement out of someone in the board’s majority. But lately he seems more interested in squabbling with Loeffler-Kemp and even some of his older rivals, and is tossing out some odd ideas regarding high school consolidation. (Didn’t he spend most of the past decade and a half opposing a school merger imposed from above to the detriment of neighborhood schools?) Martell, to his credit, is taking a somewhat different tack this time around, with his lawn signs calling for east-west equality, something I consider a noble goal but am somewhat concerned may mistake the forest for the trees. He’s gotten steadily more polished over the years, and this may be the one where he breaks through.

But if I’m wary of going back to the old Red Plan warriors, I’m possibly even more reluctant to give the DFL-endorsed candidates much benefit of the doubt given the track record of most of the party-endorsed candidates over the past decade. My skepticism here is not policy-driven; their platforms rarely amount to much other than vague expressions of having children’s best interests at heart. Making note of the district’s divides and promising to fix them (with few to no details) is not a platform. One sees nothing in their campaigns that indicates any willingness to ask hard questions, to do more than rubber-stamp the administration’s proposals, and to meet with all parties involved to demand a higher standard for this district.

This leaves a fifth candidate, Dana Krivogorsky, with neither the DFL stamp of approval nor the name recognition of the longtime Red Plan warriors. Because of her outsider status, she’s probably the most likely to be the odd one out, and she’s been tied in with Welty and Martell somewhat. If she has some hope, it’s that she occupies roughly the same ground that Alanna Oswald did two years ago when she pulled off an upset over a DFL endorsed candidate. For what it’s worth, I think Oswald has been the best addition to the school board in quite some time.

This in an off-year, non-mayoral primary, so much of this race will come down to turning out voters. Traditionally, that’s a good thing for anyone with the DFL tag, but with newly inspired left-leaning activists who weren’t endorsed by the party and some fatigue over its stewardship of the school board, I see some potential cracks this fall. If 2016 taught us anything, some very unexpected things may slip in through the cracks when they appear, so grab some popcorn and make plans accordingly.

Think Local, Act Regional

2 Aug

Local election season is starting to heat up, with Election Day now three months away here in Duluth. I won’t tip my cards yet, if I ever do; in many cases I’m not even sure who I’ll vote for at this point. But there are a couple of things that the people I do end up voting for will need to have. One is a sense of regional consciousness, and another is an emphasis on the particulars of local affairs rather than adherence to some outside platform.  At first blush these may seem like contradictory strains of thought, but both are necessary for effective statecraft, whatever one’s political orientation.

I focus on a regional perspective because it is all too rare in politicians. It always has been, and probably always will be. When it comes to questions of scale, many see themselves strictly as representatives of the constituents who elect them, meaning their city or district within a city and the arbitrary boundaries that such divisions normally imply. Sometimes this comes with a genuine effort to give a personal touch to the small group of people one represents, while at other times it can just be territorial. But when local leaders block out their neighbors, either intentionally or through benign neglect, they only hurt the people they claim to represent.

Take Duluth, for example. I see a lot of Duluth-centrism in local political rhetoric today; that is, Duluth politicians who are fixated only on things happening within Duluth boundaries. To an extent, I admire this attempt to hold Duluth to a higher standard. But we also can’t pretend that Duluth is an island, or not deeply interconnected with its neighbors and its state. Nearly 60 percent of the people who work in Duluth do not live in it, while over 30 percent of Duluthians work outside its boundaries.

This applies to both city councilors and school board members. On the council side, it applies to the labor market, which is a complicated thing to define but should pretty clearly include Superior, Hermantown, Proctor, Rice Lake, Esko, and Cloquet—at the very least. Attempts to regulate it, however well-intentioned, should recognize how interconnected all of this is. Leaving aside the merits of something like earned sick and safe leave, has there been any effort at all to recognize this interconnectedness in this debate? If there is, I sure haven’t seen it.

Education “markets,” so to speak, expand beyond single districts, a trend we see all too clearly in families voting with their feet and open enrolling across boundaries or into private or charter schools. My scare quotes there show my leeriness about referring to education as a market—and public schools, by dint of requirements that they educate all comers, including those who come from families with no initiative to seek out alternatives, will always look worse than some of the alternatives and give a very warped view of what actually goes on inside the buildings. But this is the environment in which people make their decisions. East-west equity has become a central concern in this year’s ISD 709 school board races, and there are certainly good reasons to fixate on that. But any sort of solution will not come from pitting one side of the city against the other, or gutting one side to prop up the other. If any candidates want to make this upcoming race about east-west equity alone, they’re missing the forest for the trees.

And while they’re not on the ballot this year, I’d say the same thing about regional legislators. It’s great if the Duluth delegation is aligned in St. Paul, but it includes all of five people, two of whom have much larger constituencies outside the city than in it. Duluth’s unique situation within the state should put its members in a position of influence. On the one hand, Duluth is part of Greater Minnesota, and there are a number of cases where it makes more sense to align with the more rural delegation, including others in northeastern Minnesota who would seem to make obvious allies. There is enough interconnectivity with the North Shore and the Iron Range that support for certain initiatives, from broadband to education to infrastructure, should drive Arrowhead legislators to vote as a bloc. But on the flip side, Duluth’s urbanity at times makes the city look much more like Minneapolis or St. Paul, where equity concerns and redevelopment are central issues—and, indeed, its legislators usually vote along with those in the central cities. (In a year that was fairly good for economic development funding, redevelopment dollars were mysteriously absent from the budgets that came from a legislature controlled by rural and exurban GOPers.) In a tightly divided government, there should be scenarios in which Duluth’s legislators have the power to play kingmaker, and if they’re not exploring opportunities to do so, they’re missing the boat.

Without regional action, the Duluth area won’t ever live up to its potential. I’m not necessarily saying greater Duluth should formalize this through government and move in the direction of a Twin Cities-style Metropolitan Council. But there should be venues for greater regional conversations, where appropriate. There are some such conversations, but they are scattered, and not every organization that has the power to make an impact here is using it to its fullest extent. Too often, we see Duluth boldly pursuing some bold and well-meaning push that ultimately has a limited or even perverse impact because it is constrained by its boundaries and lack of broader context, while the outlying areas lapse into a reflexive rejection of those vaguely urban problems beyond their reach. We can do better than this.

Perhaps a more immediately pressing concern of mine is a rise in candidates who define themselves less by the places they serve and more by the principles or political platform with which they identify. These politicians have their lenses and preferred policies, and look to apply those within the region over which they have control (and beyond, whenever possible). It can come in any stripe, from the limited government Republicans loyally following certain tax pledges to platforms promoted by the left. A recent example: while all other candidates balked at a questionnaire asking them to fall in line with a group’s demands, Ray Dehn, the leading vote-getter in the DFL primary in the Minneapolis mayoral race, caused a stir when he said he couldn’t imagine not voting in line with Our Revolution, the leftist organizing movement that has grown out of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Whatever Dehn’s merits may be relative to the two other frontrunners in that race (a troubled incumbent in Betsy Hodges and a hungry climber in Jacob Frey), this is an immediate red flag for anyone with an appreciation for the ins and outs of local governance. While any number of groups from unions to clean water advocates will make demands from leading candidates, and have every right to do so, any adoption of said platforms should be critically vetted for their particular context, not just aped talking points embraced out of convenience.

Implicit throughout this post has been a mild critique of the Duluth DFL, which is often the only real player in local politics. I don’t mean to trash it; it’s a heterodox bunch, and I know, respect, and am friends with various members of it. But one of the things I’ve always appreciated about Duluth politics, especially in comparison to other cities I’ve lived in such as Minneapolis or D.C., is that it has an independent streak to it that can usually recognize some of the excesses of its dominant party and avoid jumping on the train. Instead of the vicious division in some other places, we see general community consensus on such topics as community policing practices (granting that our demographics limit the centrality of certain racial questions to the Duluth experience) and, at least until the Red Plan, in education. We’ve rejected some vogue ideas with questionable actual evidence in their favor like ranked choice voting, and our campuses have not become hopelessly politicized in a manner that shuts out half the country and drives it to question the very value of higher education. The continued presence of labor in the DFL coalition is also notable, and while I have my critiques of labor, the ability to retain that political base has kept the Duluth DFL from becoming an institution totally out of touch with the working class, as the national party has gone. I groan when I hear some of the petty things that divide members of the local political class, but at the very least these conflicts tend to stay under the table.

Willingness to buck trends and not blindly follow a party line is one of the most admirable traits possible in a politician, and until recently, most city councilors, even if elected behind the full weight of the DFL and labor endorsements, get that to some level. And while I recognize that the Democratic base is fired up in the age of Trump, I hope they’re not losing track of the nuts and bolts and a basic ability to manage neighborhood relationships that drive local politics, which are far more relevant than one’s stance on the source of outrage du jour in D.C.

If I have a goal here, it is to give new life to that old claim that all politics is local. I wouldn’t go that far; some things obviously require state or national action. But I would like to return to a phrase that may seem tautological at first, but that few stop to ponder properly: policy should be made on the level most appropriate for such policy. Some things are genuinely local; some are completely outside the purview of a city council. This sense has eroded in an era in which people get their politics from their favorite network of choice or whatever dark recesses of the internet one’s social media acquaintances happen to inhabit. It is easy to try to simplify the world by imposing national narratives, but the realities zoning disputes and school funding decisions and search for pathways to the American Dream rarely conform to those national platforms. The world is a complicated place, and deserves our respect as such.

Decline Porn, Duluth, and Love Amid the Ruins

24 May

J.D. Vance, in a review of Janesville: An American Story in Commentary magazine:

Having grown up in a blue-collar family that has largely abandoned the Democratic Party in droves, I have an unusually high tolerance for the many profiles of Trump voters in struggling industrial towns. Lately, however, even I have grown weary of what Noah Rothman calls “decline porn.” There are only so many words in the English language, and nearly all of them seem to have been used at least three times to help the denizens of Williamsburg and Dupont understand red-state voters and dying factory towns. Enough already.

Vance penned the most orgiastic piece of decline porn in recent memory, Hillbilly Elegy–apologies for my juvenile enjoyment of this metaphor–but there has been no shortage of titles in this genre, and a survey of this blog will find me devouring much of it, from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids to Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, from George Packer’s The Unwinding to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart to Brian Alexander’s Glass House. It need not even be American; I could carry on with examples for a while. Decline porn is a fertile ground in contemporary non-fiction, and its best works tell haunting tales of realities that anyone vaguely involved in the shaping of political or economic trends must wrestle with. They also tap into a into a lament for things lost speaks to a certain part of the human psyche and permeates my own writing at times. Someone who knows me well can probably psychoanalyze this wistfulness easily enough, but I come back to it for reasons that are philosophical as well as personal, and I could devote a lot of words to defending it in those terms. Meditations on loss go back to Eden and the early creation myths, as Paz so masterfully explains in the last chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude. It’s a near universal human trait.

Despite this, I don’t consider myself a declinist. That golden past usually had its own ugly features, and nostalgia and selective memory whitewash the worst of it. Coping with change is also one of the greatest engines of human ingenuity and heroism, and if noting else, it’s remarkably educational for those of us looking not to repeat past errors. If we fixate only on decline, we become depressing, tiresome people who are locked into a single lens and not much fun to talk to at parties.

Still, Vance likes Janesville. Despite the oversaturation of the genre–porn is everywhere these days, after all–its author, Amy Goldstein, gets to the heart of the flawed human stories, and instead of merely lamenting loss, looks to assess the responses to it. This one would likely strike home for me, too: my earliest memories are of the short stint my family spent living in a small town just north of Janesville, Wisconsin, and my mother worked there for a time. Unfortunately, Goldstein comes to fairly depressing conclusions. The basic tools of the trade in economic development, Janesville argues, have done little good to stem the tide of decline. Neither have worker retraining efforts, a rare point of bipartisan consensus on putting communities back to work. It adds up to a depressing summation of post-industrial America, with no obvious way forward for anyone.

Unless, of course, there might be any exceptions to the trend out there. I happen to be living in one.

Duluth, Minnesota is not heaven on earth. Its economy is not booming, its poverty rate is high, and there has been a rash of opioid overdoses, as in so much of the America exposed so ubiquitously in decline porn. But I will submit that it’s important to think about what it could have been, and that Duluth’s story is as much a triumph as any medium-sized Rust Belt town. In the early 1980s, its unemployment rate was second only to Youngstown, Ohio, which is not exactly great company to have. Population plummeted, manufacturing packed up and left, and a billboard asked the last person to leave to turn out the lights.

Most Rust Belt cities remain mired in the post-industrial swamp; the few that have broken free, like Pittsburgh, are the large ones that operate on a very different scale. And yet Duluth has charted a respectable course since it hit rock bottom in the 80s. Unlike every other Rust Belt city, its population has been stable since 1990, instead of continued shrinkage. (See the table on this page for comparison cities.) The city is basically at full employment. Income growth around the greater Duluth area, while not on par with the booming coastal metros, does outpace the stagnant national average since 1990. The median income within the city itself, while not stellar ($40-some thousand), is a clear step above the Eries, Akrons, South Bends, and Scrantons of the world. The city’s image rehabilitation has been thorough, as it now comes off as an outdoorsy playground for Twin Cities residents on vacation. The Trump tide made little headway in the city proper (though precinct-level data challenges some aspects of the dominant media narrative, and suggests Trump was largely a rural and exurban phenomenon in Rust Belt states, not something that happened inside its former industrial engines). Sure, “we’re better than Flint!” isn’t exactly a winning slogan, but it’s important to understand what the odds were, and what could have been.

There are two ways to explain this.

The first is one of leadership and vision and a certain Duluthian exceptionalism, which us Duluthians would certainly like to believe. A lot of credit in this line of thinking goes to Don Ness, the young mayor who served from 2008-2016 and brought the city’s debt under control and led a massive rebranding effort. But he had some strong forerunners. At the height of the crisis in the 80s, Duluth elected 29-year-old John Fedo. Unlike the consensus-driven and generally beloved Ness, Fedo was a warrior who wasn’t afraid to make enemies to push through his vision, but he also operated in a very different environment, and push through his vision he did. Fedo’s strategy was Keynesianism par excellence, with a junkyard reinvented as a tourist district and work crews set to work rebuilding streets for the sake of work and little else. Those efforts endure in obvious ways. His more market-oriented successor, Gary Doty, tried a lot of things to revive the economy, and while not all of them stuck, the general thrust was positive, as the city landed companies that are the cornerstones of the aviation and healthcare clusters that remain among its most promising foundations for sustained success. Beyond those three mayors, there’s the political influence of some clever longtime political operators who knew how to bring in the benefits like Jim Oberstar and Willard Munger, who were ahead of their time with ideas for building trail networks and capping freeways.

We can’t just credit the politicians, though. Duluth’s rehabilitation always had strong support from a loyal private sector, which continues to support changes through development and philanthropy. Pizza roll magnate Jeno Paulucci was a complicated figure with a complicated relationship with Fedo, but he did bankroll a lot of the changes in Canal Park. Several other big names in business left their mark, as did some of the legacy families whose early 20th century wealth continues to support local foundations and scholarships. That old money remains a boon to Duluth, as does a strong civic culture with its roots in Scandinavian immigration and a thriving arts scene that allows the city to punch far above its weight.

This, however, feeds into the other explanation, which has much more to do with structural factors than any brilliant maneuvering by the people in charge.

First off, geography has had its say. We call Duluth a Rust Belt city because it used to be a manufacturing center on the Great Lakes, and suffered the loss of that economic base and a drop in population comparable to other Rust Belt cities. But it’s isolated from the rest of them, and that may contain some spillover effects or a general sense that everything is going downhill. Instead, it sits in Minnesota, home to one of the wealthiest and most white collar metropolitan areas in the country in Minneapolis-St. Paul. As a regional center with a university and some hospitals, Duluth has some staying power that an Akron, just down the road from Cleveland, may not.

Local geography makes a difference, too. While Duluth isn’t overflowing with buildable land, it has had some pockets for new subdivisions that allowed for continued new home construction. Duluth has also proven somewhat resistant to the mass suburbanization of other Rust Belt cities; while there has certainly been growth beyond the city limits, it hasn’t come at major expense to the city’s tax base. A tour of the other Rust Belt cities will show that none of them has a Congdon: while some of the larger metro areas do have wealthy suburban neighbors, basically none of them have concentrations wealth of any size within the city limits. (The only real exception, surprisingly, is Charleston, West Virginia, which benefits from the machinery of a state government that most Rust Belt cities lack.) For that matter, precious few Rust Belt cities have many Lakesides, Woodlands, or Piedmonts, those stable, comfortably middle class neighborhoods that allow for upward mobility and keep perceptions of public schools afloat. Many of these neighborhoods (and even little nice blocks that don’t show up in census tract data) are fairly isolated, strung out along Duluth’s 27 miles of ridgeline and separated by streams and parks. Even though they are older, they feel fairly suburban, and the park-like nature of the whole city just makes it more resistant to changes that might march smoothly down more cohesive urban grids. It has so many different little pockets, and that diversity begets resilience.

Speaking of diversity, Duluth has always been a very white city–yes, a 1920 lynching probably played a role in that–and the relative lack of racial dynamics make it distinct from a lot of Rust Belt cities that convulsed with conflict in the mid-20th century.  White flight didn’t happen in Duluth on any meaningful scale, and while I wish I could claim this was due to some enlightened thinking on behalf of Duluthians, in reality there probably just weren’t enough people of color to set off that chain reaction. (Typically, this happens when the non-white population hits about 20%; Duluth remains over 90% white.) While the center of Duluth has hollowed out like basically every American city, Rust Belt or not, that probably had more to do with a declining old housing stock and poverty among white people. Other than perhaps some very recent school-driven outmigration, the growth in Duluth’s more suburban areas had much more to do with an abundance of buildable land and desire for space and newer homes than anything related to the people in Duluth itself. The city has been crawling toward greater diversity over recent decades, and if that trend continues or accelerates, Duluth’s response could well determine its future.

All of these factors are most likely intertwined in feedback loops, the causes impossible to separate from one another. There are few obvious lessons here, and some of Duluth’s strengths are accidents of geography in a city at the end of the line in the far north. But the relative successes are real, the leadership examples are real, and some of the things Duluth needs to do to remain an exemplar of Rust Belt success are clear, and cut across all such small cities. It needs to maintain its strong neighborhoods, keep its schools afloat, and prepare for an increasingly diverse future. Continued growth in diverse economic clusters will build a stronger safety net against future crashes. Concentration of poverty will only exacerbate divides and cut off pathways to eventual mobility. Duluth also needs to think on the level of a regional system, so that its future doesn’t devolve into squabbles between the city proper and the outlying areas. They’re all interconnected, part of one economy and one labor market, and their fates are intertwined.

As addicting as the decline porn may be, I’d much rather have an amorous adventure with something real, and with something that can learn from the past and grow into a future with me. It’s all right there before us.

Duluth Area Election Preview, 2016

6 Nov

The tragicomedy also known as the 2016 presidential race is about to come to a merciful close (well…maybe, depending how rigged the loser thinks the election is), and I’ve said all I have to say on that mess. To the local races we go. In the Duluth area, there is perhaps a little more intrigue than usual in an even election year: we’ve become used to a competitive race for the region’s U.S. House seat by now, and there are a handful of local races that could shake things up some.

The Eighth District congressional race should be a barnburner. Incumbent Rick Nolan isn’t an Iron Ranger, but he is an old guard candidate who typifies the DFL coalition that has held sway over its politics for so long. He is a liberal Democrat who is generally pro-mining; that’s a bit of a dying breed in the DFL, which is increasingly dominated by conservationist urbanites instead of the rural farmers and laborers acknowledged in its name. It’s a sign of his crossover appeal that both the unions and Lourenco Goncalves—the colorful CEO of Cliffs, the mining company that has come out of this latest ore price crisis looking the strongest, and is plotting a takeover of the stillborn Essar project in Nashwauk—have both come out in his favor. But Nolan’s patient folksiness my not jive with the political climate of the moment, and he’s faced a relentless stream of attacks in a true swing district. Stewart Mills has polished up his operation this time around in more ways than one.

The most relevant factor in the Duluth region for the national and congressional races is turnout in the city of Duluth itself. Duluth is a bigtime DFL town, and much of that DFL leans pretty far left; Bernie Sanders carried the day here in the primaries. Hillary Clinton probably doesn’t need a big Duluth turnout to win Minnesota, and wouldn’t be affected if any disaffected leftists stay home or vote third party. In the Minnesota Eighth Congressional District, however, it could make or break the race. In a year when turnout is likely to be down for a presidential year, Rick Nolan needs Duluthians to go to the polls.

At the same time, I’m curious to see Donald Trump’s margins in the Minnesota Eighth Congressional District, particularly on the Range. We all know the Range is a traditional DFL bastion, and that probably won’t switch overnight. But the region’s demographics—largely white, relatively few people with bachelor’s degrees, mining-dependent, economically wobbly—are the poster child for an area where the Trump Era Republicans are supposed to make gains. Does that hold true, or do Rangers buck the trend? While I haven’t followed most Range races closely enough to say too much, I was amused to see a local candidate with a bunch of “Make the Range Great Again!” signs on the East Range on a recent road trip. Aaron Brown will be my source of information on that region.

Much like the Range, the west side of Duluth bears watching, too, and not only for how it breaks in national races. The Third District St. Louis County Commissioner’s race appears heated, and could be one of the more exciting local races in recent memory. This is a competition for the seat currently held by Chris Dahlberg, who very nearly became the Republicans’ gubernatorial candidate in 2014. Jay Fosle, a three-term veteran of the city council, squares off against children’s advocate Beth Olson. At the city level Fosle largely serves as a protest vote, at times frustrated but also at times insightful. A Fosle win would solidify the west side’s reputation as having a more conservative streak than East Duluth, at least in a relative, local sense. On the more politically diverse county board, he’d also have a serious chance to enact policy. An Olson win, on the other hand, would show the limits of Fosle’s appeal and move the board somewhat leftward.

A Fosle win would also force the city council to appoint a replacement, which could lead to all sorts of drama.  As we’ve seen in recent years, appointing replacement councilors is not among the strong suits of an otherwise functional, responsive body of government. Replacing Fosle would bring with it an ideological dimension not present the last time we went through this, as a council with seven Democrats and one Howie Hanson would have to find someone to fill the shoes of a man who, while idiosyncratic, has basically become the voice of the right in Duluth-area government.

Sticking with St. Louis County board races, the other two should be easy re-elections for incumbents. In the towns and townships surrounding Duluth, Pete Stauber will beat some guy whose campaign is built around a personal gripe with the board. On the east side of Duluth, Patrick Boyle should cruise; his opponent is Linda Ross Sellner, a familiar face from my days watching city council meetings. The longtime local activist has said she’s basically just running to bring attention to climate change issues.

Democrats will likely coast in most Northland state legislature elections. In several of the Duluth-area races, however, the Republicans have gone with candidates who buck the typical party mold in search of a win, which is worth noting. Dylan Raddant, 20-something transgender person, doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of a stereotypical Republican, but is right there on the ballot, and his policy stances are indeed largely in line with the GOP. A near-nonexistent campaign infrastructure, however, will lead to the predictable lopsided loss to incumbent Jennifer Schultz, a UMD economist.

Republican state senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, meanwhile, has a much more visible campaign. She too is idiosyncratic, as a part Native American who is running a positive, centrist campaign based around public service, education reform, and cleaning up bureaucratic red tape.  She also sounds the more typical (if rather vague) notes about fiscal conservatism, and I don’t know if she has a realistic chance in a low-information local race where so many people vote the party ticket. Her opponent, Erik Simonson, is a powerful old-school DFL figure, with two terms of experience in the state House and heavy union support. But if any Republican has a chance in a Duluth-wide election, it’s probably someone like Bergstrom.

Fiscal conservatism appears to be the defining issue for the folksy Tim Brandon in the race for house district 3A, which covers bits of Duluth Heights and the communities and townships surrounding the city. If campaign signs mean anything (and it’s hard to say if they do) he’ll probably do better than Republicans usually have in this district, but he takes on 40-year incumbent Mary Murphy, who’s reliably brought home the bacon to the region and who has signs that politely ask voters for their support. A committed listener, Murphy feels like a figure from a different era of politics, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. The West Duluth 7B House seat being vacated by Erik Simonson will likely go to DFLer Liz Olson; her opponent, Cody Barringer, offers standard conservatism in his limited campaign presence.

Among those nonpartisan down-ballot races where most voters’ eyes tend to glaze over, there’s only one that has more than one candidate: the race for a Minnesota Supreme Court seat. Here, Natalie Hudson, whose campaign centers around integrity instead of issues, faces off against Michelle MacDonald, who takes more explicitly conservative stands.

Across the bridge in Superior, where different state laws leave local officials with far fewer tools for local economic development than they do in Minnesota, the city is trying to push through an initiative that would raise funds for downtown development. The only other race of any great interest is Wisconsin’s Senate race, where the conscientious liberal Russ Feingold seems likely to reclaim his old seat from Ron Johnson. The Seventh District congressional race is likely safe for Republican Sean Duffy, and there isn’t much else of note on the ballot.

Predictions, because why not: Clinton wins Minnesota and Wisconsin by five or six percent and the election by a margin somewhat smaller than Obama’s in 2012; Nolan ekes out another narrow re-election; DFLers sweep the Duluth area, but there’s at least one Republican surprise somewhere on the Iron Range. For all the talk about everyone’s frustration with American politics, it will be a good night for the status quo. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the country, but I’m less sure the alternatives are any better.

The more interesting questions revolve around what comes next. Does Trump press his “rigged” election case, and what ensues from that, or does he get bored and go home? Do Republicans allow Hillary Clinton to govern? Do the Democrats, who also regain the U.S. Senate and pick up seats in the House, try to push their advantage with a leftward agenda, or does Clinton still have some room to tack to the center, where she’d probably rather be? How does the Republican Party evolve: is there a case for a less crude version of a protectionist, immigration-reducing, religiously conservative platform that comes along and carries it to victory in two or four years, or does it pretend Trump never happened?

Right or wrong, I’ll be along with some analysis after Tuesday.

Sell Central

27 Mar

I didn’t leave many secrets about my opinion when the idea of a Duluth Edison charter high school first emerged a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve only studied under one of the state’s greatest critics of charter schools, Myron Orfield. While I don’t buy all that Orfield sells uncritically, his data only reinforces many of the points I tried to make at the time. As I said, I didn’t think there was any credible way to spin a new, large charter high school as anything positive for the existing school district. I still fear that the most likely result of a new Edison High will be a Denfeld even further drained of students, with dire implications for public education in western and central Duluth. The odds will be stacked against it, and its troubles would be troubles for the entire west side.

Now, however, the Edison has made a public offer for the Duluth Central site. The school board will meet Monday to hear community input, and may consider waiving its policy restricting the sale of buildings to other K-12 educators. The offer, a cool $14.2 million, is significantly more than the offer from a private developer that fell through last year. Central has long been an albatross for the district, which has struggled to sell a very large, somewhat difficult to access property with a giant school building on it. ISD 709 must pay to maintain the old building and the surrounding property, and revenues that were supposed to help pay off the Red Plan have never materialized.

The policy against selling buildings to potential competition makes sense. In any other line of business, it would appear crazy to dump off a facility like this. But as the charter-public “competition” dynamic shows all too well, education does not operate like a normal market. The “competition” is here, and now the question is whether ISD 709 can make some profit off its arrival. $14 million won’t plug up all the holes, but it will help pay down some debt and insulate the district from truly damaging cuts.

This all goes to show that there is only one logical and moral choice for ISD 709: sell it. Sell it now. The Edison high school is a fait accompli. Its leadership is committed, and the Duluth Central alumni base, not without reason, will note that this fills a hole in the center of the city. (Don Ness had quite the Facebook manifesto on the subject.) There will not be a better deal, or a better use of that site, in the foreseeable future. While Duluth is doing relatively well right now, it has not become a magical boomtown, and with a fair amount of apartment development under way, I’m not sure there’s a market for a giant new development atop the hill. Given the tepid interest to date, and the much lower single (known) bid by someone other than Edison, to go along with all the access-related and demolition challenges at the site, the signs aren’t encouraging. Using that old high school for its original purpose also serves the community in other ways, as it saves wetlands and spares traffic congestion around the corner of Rice Lake and Arrowhead, where Edison planned to construct a school from scratch.

The only reasonable counterargument claims that selling the building starts the clock on the high school’s opening sooner, which will only hasten the loss of funding that comes with a loss in students. Still, the price tag here appears good enough to recoup those losses, particularly if ISD 709 can negotiate an enrollment cap. And while I think the Edison people need to be more aware of the potential unintended damage of their new project, this need for mutual understanding goes both ways: the district, too, must respect Edison’s presence in local educational debates and engage the charter. For everything that divides them, they do have a common goal.

For too long in Duluth education circles, infighting, territorialism, and pettiness have kept the city from that goal. It’s time to start anew.

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.