Don Ness’s Duluth and its Divisions: Election 2013 Analysis

I’ve written a lot about Duluth politics in recent months, with coverage of every city council and school board meeting, plus some coverage of yesterday’s election (results here). Lost in most of this political talk, however, was mayor Don Ness.

The lack of Ness coverage is, in part, his triumph. In this recent NPR interview, he said his goal was to make Duluth politics “boring” again. Six years into his tenure, he’s done that. He remains incredibly popular, and with good reason, considering the successes of the causes he’s supported. The economy has been fairly resilient despite a rough national economic climate. The city has won some major victories against noted antagonists, most notably Jim Carlson. Duluth has a bunch of new schools; despite some wobbly moments due to the way those schools were pushed through, they will be well-funded thanks to the passage of the two levies. Funding for libraries and parks has increased. The city even confronted its huge retiree debt burden and, while it probably hasn’t gone as far as conservatives want it to go, the Ness Administration has proven it isn’t beholden to special interest groups, and that it tries to avoid tax increases when at all possible. Don Ness is the dream mayor of the center-left, and if he is so inclined, he could easily make a strong run in a state or national race. (He even has the adorable children necessary for that sort of thing.) Ness’s warmth has rubbed off on people around him, as eight of the nine City Councilors now lean left. This city has been thoroughly renovated in the image of Don Ness.

However, underneath all of the solid colors that appear on the election maps are a lot of details that are worth exploring. The somewhat unexpected results of three races jumped out at me: Zack Filipovich surpassing Barb Russ for first in the City Council At-Large race after finishing second in the primary, the passage of the second ISD 709 levy question, and Art Johnston’s re-election to the School Board.

All three of these results underscore the east-west divide in Duluth. That’s a delicate topic, as School Board Member-Elect Harry Welty learned with his “gangrene” comments, and obviously it generalizes, and there are plenty of people on both sides of the city who cut against the east-west stereotypes. Still, one trend clearly emerges in election results: the west side’s rejection of the east side liberal establishment.

It’s especially significant when you consider that people from the west side are not a demographic you’d normally associate with conservatism. It’s not a wealthy or suburban/rural region, and in state and national races, it’s still reliably Democratic. This is no bastion of the Tea Party or libertarianism, as shown by the passage of the first levy question in all but one precinct and Ryan Stauber’s inability to break through in many places. Still, the west side is not moving in lockstep with the Ness agenda, and it’s worth asking why.

We’ll start with a look at the City Council At-Large race, in which I’ve mapped out the winners of each precinct using the wonders of Microsoft Paint:

City Council At-Large

Zack Filipovich, as you can see, had a very strong showing on the west side. As a recent college grad working in finance, Filipovich doesn’t really fit the blue-collar stereotypes one associates with the west side. Still, his campaign (whether by design or not) was certainly less explicitly liberal than Barb Russ’s, and since he’s young and fresh, he’s not really an establishment figure. Unlike Russ, he made a concerted push to get beyond the establishment, and campaigned out west. For that reason, I suspect he was able to generate a lot more support, especially in an election where voters could choose two candidates. Ryan Stauber was an easy first choice for Duluth’s more conservative voters, but I’d hazard to guess that Filipovich, who remained rather vague and upbeat in his campaign, was most likely to be their second choice. That coalition probably carried him to a lot of victories on the west side.

This anti-establishment-liberal pattern is even more distinct in other recent elections, with the west side being far less interested in sending more money to the city than the east side. In Ness’s first election, he won the east side and lost the west side to the more conservative Charlie Bell. Jay Fosle, the lone conservative on the Council, represents a far west district. Garry Krause, the recently-resigned conservative District Four councilor, was from the west side, and got a decent share of the vote despite having withdrawn from the race. If he’d stuck around, I suspect he would have won. If you want a map that really underscores this trend, though, take a look at the way the city voted on the school board levies:

School Board Levy Map

This really wasn’t a case of the city coming together to support the second levy. It was a case of the east side having just enough votes to drag the west side along with it.

While much of the rest of the city is exasperated by anti-Red Plan crusader Art Johnston, he was re-elected to his far west side district. In the West End area, there seemed to be a lot of passion over the school board race: Bolgrien’s base of support was right around Denfeld High, and Johnston had a bunch of signs in the areas just beyond the Bolgrien core. Heading east into Lincoln Park, however, there were hardly any yard signs. Even so, Lincoln Park broke for Johnston. It wasn’t a vicious rejection of Ness and his School Board allies, but it was a clear one.

School Board Dist. Four

I rarely agree with Art Johnston, but to his very real credit, he too has acknowledged these trends. He posed the question to the Board at a recent meeting, perhaps not realizing that his own presence on the Board is a product of these trends: why does it appear that west-siders do not share the east side’s emphasis on education, and willingness to open the pocketbook to support it? No one answered him, and he deserves an answer.

Part of it may be demographics. The school-aged population is much higher on the east side, so more people have a stake in the schools there. East side voters, content with the generally high test scores at their schools, see the value in supporting the District, while west side voters, seeing more mixed results, may not. (I have never understood the logic behind giving struggling schools less money, but plenty of people explain their votes that way.) Perhaps most importantly, the west side has more people living on fixed or lower-middle-class incomes who are nonetheless not living in poverty or qualifying for many government support programs. Because of that, they tend to be less willing or able to handle a tax increase.  That fact can explain the fiscally conservative bent one sees in the west side’s city councilors, too.

But while socioeconomics may explain a lot of the divide, they are not destiny. To that end, it’s important to understand why a number of Duluthians (no matter which neighborhood they live in) may not be completely thrilled with Don Ness’s Duluth. For that, I’d point readers toward my post from a few months ago on Duluth’s future. It’s a long and meandering post, so I’ll summarize one key part here.

Under Ness, Duluth has made a concerted effort to reinvent itself. It has also made itself a desirable place for young people to live, harnessing its natural beauty and developing a decent artistic and culinary scene. (Yay, good beer!) It has spent a lot of money making itself attractive, and to date, I think that move has been reasonably successful. With the decline in U.S. manufacturing, it was necessary to take that stand and create a new brand for the city, and while I have my quibbles here and there, I’m largely on board with Ness. I was also a staunch supporter of both levies, and I believe world-class public schools are essential to this whole project. However, former Councilor Krause raised an essential concern, and one I am not sure the Ness camp has properly addressed: is Duluth’s interest in shiny, new things coming at the expense of the mundane? Yes, it’s great to attract new people, but what about those who have been here for a long time, and are simply trying to get by?

No matter how many elections Ness and Friends may win, these questions will still exist. They need to be magnanimous in victory, and recognize that simply cruising along with a mandate still leaves some people on the outside looking in. No, they can’t satisfy everyone all of the time, but no one should be left behind because they never got a chance to be heard.

Speaking of being on the outside, the lack of racial diversity here is also worth mentioning: after this election, everyone on the School Board and City Council will be white. This isn’t terribly shocking in a city that is over 90 percent white, and there were two minority candidates this fall who simply did not run very impressive campaigns. Mary Cameron had a very long tenure on the School Board, proving that minority candidates certainly can do well in Duluth. Several of the white elected officials have long histories of work with minority groups. Even so, there is a trend in modern American liberalism in which people politely acknowledge minority interests while doing little to actually address them. I’ve talked up the east-west divide here, but downtown can’t be lost in the shuffle, either.

This all brings me back around to “boring” government. Yes, boring government is certainly better than people screaming at each other nonstop, but there is a danger here, too. This quote from Councilor-Elect Howie Hanson in the October 29 News-Tribune comparing himself to his predecessor brings it out clearly:

“I think Garry [Krause] was a little frustrated because he was in the minority on a lot of votes,” he said, noting that Krause frequently found himself at odds with Mayor Don Ness’ administration and much of the council.

“If we’re going to move Duluth forward, I think you need to set aside your personal agenda and petty politics and get everyone on the same page,” Hanson said.

This bothers me somewhat, and I do not think it is an accurate characterization of Krause’s work, even if I didn’t always agree with Krause. Good governance does not involve everyone being on the same page and rubber-stamping one another’s proposals. It needs constructive, perhaps even heated, arguments. To its immense credit, the City Council has managed that in recent years; the School Board, on the other hand, has not, as it went from being a rubber stamp machine during the Red Plan days to a fractious and ugly war zone during Art Johnston’s first term. With Welty and a possibly conciliatory Johnston on the School Board, I have some hope that it might finally come to a healthy balance. The new Council, with its new left-leaning supermajority, must make sure it doesn’t fall into one of those twin traps that bogged down ISD 709 in recent years.

Duluth’s politicians have the potential to do some great things in the next few years, and the future is there for the taking. We’ll see how they do.

Duluth General Election Results and Comments, 2013

The results are in!

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

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

City Council At-Large

Zack Filipovich 55.2 (9295)

Barb Russ 53.0 (8932)

Ryan Stauber 44.6 (7514)

Ray Sandman 14.2 (2398)

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

City Council District Two

Patrick Boyle (I) 98.5 (2099)

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

City Council District Four

Howie Hanson 61.1 (1782)

Garry Krause 37.6 (1098) (withdrew from race)

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

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

School Board At-Large

Annie Harala 56.9 (10648)

Harry Welty 39.3 (7342)

Nancy Nilsen 35.7 (6670)

Henry Banks 24.4 (4567)

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

School Board District One

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp 56.1 (3220)

Joe Matthes 43.5 (2497)

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

School Board District Four

Art Johnston (I) 54.0 (1624)

David Bolgrien 45.7 (1374)

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

ISD 709 Levies

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

Existing levy re-approved

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

New, additional levy implemented

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

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

St. Louis County Commissioner 2nd District Primary

(2 advance to general election)

Patrick Boyle 34.4 (2389)

Jim Stauber 27.4 (1901)

Scott Keenan 26.9 (1868)

Cary Thompson-Gilbert 4.8 (333)

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

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

Duluth General Election Preview 2013

The Duluth general election is just over a week away. I’ve done a bit of driving around the city doing some completely unscientific counting of yard signs to see who appears to have an edge, but with local elections, it’s hard to get a really good feel on the situation without doing a lot of legwork. Turnout in the primary elections was low enough that things could still swing drastically on Tuesday the 5th.

Here is a Sample Ballot.

Polling Places and District Designations | Map

Here is a rundown on every race in the city; in this post, I try only to give neutral assessments on what each candidate’s election would mean for their respective bodies. Candidates are listed in the order of finish in the primary. Click their names to view their web pages, and if I missed a web page or if there’s a more detailed version than the Facebook pages I’ve linked to, let me know—I searched for everyone’s, but some didn’t generate results.

City Council At-Large

2 open seats

Barb Russ | Zack Filipovich | Ryan Stauber | Ray Sandman

Russ led the primary vote by a comfortable margin and has shown no signs of losing her momentum; she offers a crisply articulated version of Duluthian liberalism, and has a long history of community involvement. This likely sets up a showdown between Filipovich and Stauber for the second open seat; Filipovich had a stronger showing in the primary, but Stauber seems to have built some support since, and got himself a News-Tribune endorsement. Both are in their 20s, and their campaigns are a bit rough around the edges; Filipovich has a crisp image but is rather vague, while Stauber has more defined ideas but is rather scattershot in his presentation. While Filipovich appears more business-minded than your average liberal, this competition can easily be seen as a left-right competition; if Stauber loses, there will only be one Councilor who clearly qualifies as “fiscally conservative.” Sandman seems to have a decent base of support on the west side, but he also has a large gap to close, and his platform doesn’t really go beyond a vague call for living wage jobs.

City Council 2nd District

Patrick Boyle (Unopposed incumbent)

No excitement here, but Boyle is running for the Second District County Commissioner seat as well (see below).

City Council 4th District

Howie Hanson | The Ghost of Garry Krause

This race also appears to be a foregone conclusion, barring a massive protest vote from the residents of District Four in favor of the former Councilor Krause, whose name remains on the ballot despite his resignation in September. A Councilor Hanson would ostensibly tip the Council further left, though it’s hard to say much about him since he hasn’t had to run much of a campaign. If elected, Hanson would be seated immediately so as to fill the Council vacancy. All other people elected on Nov. 5 will be seated in January.

Edit from earlier version: I’ve updated the link above, which now leads to his Facebook page, instead of his blog.

School Board At-Large

2 open seats

Annie Harala | Harry Welty | Nancy Nilsen | Henry Banks

Harala was the top vote-getter in the primary by a decent margin, and has run a safe, positive, community-centered campaign since, earning plenty of endorsements. The wild card here is Welty; he leads the field in signage, has done a lot of legwork, and he’s also the only candidate who is attentive to the people still frustrated by the Red Plan, even though he supports the levies. I was going to say he’d run a textbook campaign until I saw his bizarre, paranoid ad in this past week’s Reader. (Judge it for yourself here–yes, this was a print advertisement.) This is what you get with Welty: doses of nuance and political acumen coupled with rambling attempts at honesty that, while well-intentioned, can be rather head-scratching, to say the least. His foil here is Nilsen, an unabashed Red Plan supporter who wants to finish the work from her first term on the Board. (I couldn’t find any web presence for her.) As with Sandman in the City Council race, Banks had a chance to give the Board some real diversity; his candidacy was slow to generate much momentum and remains on the vague side, but he does seem to have increased his presence in the past few weeks.

School Board 1st District

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp | Joe Matthes

Loeffler-Kemp cleared fifty percent in the primary, but Matthes has run a strong campaign since, with thorough answers at forums, a lot of door-knocking, and a News Tribune endorsement. Loeffler-Kemp has over twenty years of experience in school affairs, though, and that is quite the mountain to climb. Either way, this district has two of the stronger candidates out there, and the winner will have earned the position.

School Board 4th District

David Bolgrien | Art Johnston (incumbent)

Polarizing Board Member Johnston faces a serious challenge in this race; the third candidate in the very tight three-way primary has endorsed Bolgrien, a longtime education activist on the west side. Johnston has spent the last four years as a protest vote against anything Red Plan related, but now is attempting to walk the fine line of claiming he can be a voice of reason despite his burned bridges on the Board. Diverse voices are all well and good, but Johnston’s challenge is to prove he can offer something of substance and actually build a coalition on the Board to support his views. He is the only candidate in any School Board race who opposes the levies.

School Board Levies

“Yes” Vote Page

There are two ballot questions. The first renews an existing operating levy; its failure would lead to a budget shortfall, likely necessitating deep cuts and class sizes ranging up toward 50 students in a room. The second raises property taxes by approximately $4 per month on a $150,000 home. ISD 709’s stated purpose is to use this money to lower class sizes; if passed, Superintendent Bill Gronseth claims they will be lowered by 4-6 students across the board. Yard sign counts aren’t of much use here since there isn’t much of an organized “no” campaign; if forced to speculate I’d say the first question has decent odds of passing, while the second faces a bit more resistance.

The “yes” vote has built some momentum in recent weeks, with endorsements from the News Tribune, the Chamber of Commerce, and Mayor Don Ness; and also thanks to yeoman’s work by some of the School Board candidates in their door-knocking for their own campaigns. Several people related to the Tea Party and longtime School Board critics have mounted some public resistance, however. They claim taxes in Duluth are high enough as it is, and that the Board’s behavior during the Red Plan means it is untrustworthy, and may not direct money where it is most needed (into classrooms to fight the large class sizes). The “Vote Yes” crowd counters this claim by pointing out the small size of the tax increase and across-the-board support for smaller class sizes from all of the pro-levy Board candidates.

St. Louis County Commissioner 2nd District Primary

Patrick Boyle | Scott Keenan | Jim Stauber | Cary Thompson-Gilbert

Following the passing of Commissioner Steve O’Neil in July, residents of the east side of the Duluth will go to the polls to select the two candidates who will advance to the January 14 special election. The field for this seat is loaded, as all four bring plenty of experience to the table. Based on a lawn sign count and general knowledge of the east side’s proclivities, the two frontrunners appear to be Boyle and Keenan. Councilor Boyle is the O’Neil family’s desired successor and a liberal champion, while Keenan doesn’t really fit an ideological label, having shown streaks of fiscal conservatism and environmentalism during his two terms on the Council and during his tenure on many local boards. Outgoing City Councilor Jim Stauber is the most conservative voice in the field, though he isn’t exactly a confrontational one; if elected, four of the five members of the County Board would lean toward the right. He doesn’t have any noticeable lawn sign presence, though he does have plenty of name recognition, and with his son on the City Council ticket, the Staubers have the potential to have a big night. Thompson-Gilbert is the only candidate who hasn’t served on the City Council, though her husband (Greg Gilbert) has, and she has a solid résumé of community activism. Adam Jaros and Nik Patronas are both on the ballot, but have withdrawn their names; Jaros endorsed Boyle, while Patronas exited for health reasons.

That about sums it up. Get out and vote no matter who you support, and stay tuned for results and analysis after the election.

The Harry Welty Paradox

I’ve been reading  the blog of erstwhile School Board candidate Harry Welty some recently. This is probably dangerous for my health, but I’m adventurous that way. And, to his credit, he has some interesting stuff to say. His most recent posts (as of this writing), on the aftermath of wars and his meetings with Superintendent Bill Gronseth, are superb. Reading Harry requires some stamina and thought, and not all of his posts are created equal. But if you dig deep, there are some real insights in them.

Harry hovered around ISD 709 affairs throughout my childhood. My first memories of him involve regional spelling bees in middle school, in which he was the reader, and had a certain talent for mispronouncing things. In fact, there is a Duluth News-Tribune photo from sixth grade in my childhood bedroom, with me standing at the microphone with my arms crossed as “the judges discuss a point of pronunciation,” according to the caption. So Harry and I go way back, sort of. Also, that bedroom could use some re-decorating.

Later, after I got sucked into the Duluth East hockey culture, I read his thorough account of East coach Mike Randolph’s temporary dismissal from his post in 2003. It was an impressive attempt at objectivity, even if that objectivity was only born of prior ignorance of anything hockey-related, and while I do not agree with him on everything, I appreciate his efforts to get to the bottom of a nasty mess of accusations and counter-accusations. Later, once the Red Plan debate had begun in earnest, I recall an intense (though respectful) back-and-forth between him and a high school teacher I admired after a School Board meeting. I might not have been on the same page as Harry very often, but he was clearly a thoughtful man who meant well.

Harry has also done a lot of writing, is not afraid to put his opinion out there, and leaves it up no matter what. He sticks to his guns, and that takes some guts. It also may be the sign of a large ego, and there is a noticeable dose of self-righteousness in many of his posts. But there are also moments of subtlety and even contrition, and as his yard signs say, he is honest; sometimes brutally so. I don’t really like the phrase “I call it like I see it,” which is too often employed by people puffing out their chests to make their uninformed opinions seem worthwhile, but Harry is complex enough to be able to make that sort of boast. Egos can actually be good things, so long as their owners are self-aware and can deliver on their promises.

Of course, the dark side of that willingness to put out an opinion is a long paper trail, especially for someone who’s been in or around local politics for as long as Harry has. He’s written so much stuff that his careful reasoning can seem contradictory at times, and he can harp on certain things that would probably best be left to lie. Moreover, there’s the issue of the company he’s kept. I understand it may not be fair to lump all the Red Plan critics into one boat—just as it would be wrong to assume anyone who favored it is in bed with former Superintendent Keith Dixon—but in his zeal to fight back against Dixon, he joined forces with some “interesting” people. One he explicitly endorsed was Loren Martell, and whatever merits Mr. Martell might have, his ability to cultivate an attractive public image is not one of them. Harry is committed enough to his worldview that he’s not afraid to court controversy in the lengths he’ll go to promote it.

All of this brings me to his pitch on his School Board campaign website. It is vintage Harry: full of exhausting personal backstory and hyperbole via extended metaphor, but all in the pursuit of truth. We could bicker over his rhetoric or some of the finer points, but the narrative he so vividly tells is a strong one. Even if it turns you off, you can see his sincerity. And that’s why his voice is a genuine, necessary plea: skeptical Duluthians probably don’t believe current Board members or Red Plan backers when they say the failure of the levies would have dire consequences. They don’t trust them. Harry, on the other hand, is one of theirs. He’s casting himself as the savior of the District, and if he really can bring enough skeptics on board to support the first levy, he just might be.

Harry’s potential downfall, I think, could come in being cast as the town eccentric. Red Plan supporters could easily dismiss him for his past stances; they see all the yelling in that essay, not the more nuanced stuff on his blog, and conclude he’s all hot air.  Red Plan opponents will vote for him because he’s the candidate most sympathetic to their wishes, but their collective disgust at the School Board could lead them to ignore his pleas over the levy. Most voters, however, probably aren’t hardened into either camp. So is Harry a voice of reason who can convince them of the levy’s necessity for the future of the community, or is he just that weird guy who has loud opinions on the schools?

The answer to that question could just swing the election. I’m also not sure which two at-large candidates I’ll support in the general election. I voted for Annie Harala in the primary, and I really like her emphasis on community schools and think she’ll win a seat no matter who I vote for. Henry Banks’s campaign hasn’t really taken off yet, but I think he has potential, and the Board could really use some diversity. But in addition to racial diversity, it could also use diversity of opinion; Harry offers that, and in a much less nutty manner than Art Johnston. (I don’t expect Art to be re-elected, anyway.) Unfortunately, I can only choose two of those three.

I’m tempted. Convince me you can help close the deal on the levy, Harry, and you’ll have my vote.

Comments on Duluth Primary Election Results

Ah, the joys of local politics: I turned on the TV to watch for immediate candidate reactions and such on the late local news, but everything had been pushed back due to President Obama’s speech. Turns out the network executives think the possibility of the U.S. blowing up some other country is more important than the fate of unserviced bond debts on city street repairs. Their loss, I suppose.

My pre-election comments on the candidates: City Council | School Board

Complete results are available here. Turnout was a bit on the low side (by Duluth standards), even for a local primary in a non-mayoral election year. You can look at past Duluth election results here.

City Council At-Large (Top four advance; numbers are percentage of vote, followed by total number of votes)

Barb Russ 35.8 (3943)

Zack Filipovich 28.0 (3081)

Ryan Stauber 20.8 (2295)

Ray Sandman 10.7 (1175)

Ray Whitledge 4.8 (525)

It’s no surprise to see Russ roll here, and with Filipovich in a comfortable second, it was a good day for the Duluth DFL. Stauber, though in third by a wide margin over Sandman, has to close a fairly substantial gap over the next two months, and as I explained in my initial comments, his campaign needs a much more polished and convincing pitch. It’s no great shock, but Whitledge struggled to garner much support, and since he was already such a niche candidate, I doubt his small number of supporters will sway the general election much. Conservative Duluthians will almost certainly unite behind Stauber now, and it will be interesting to see how much momentum they can generate, and who—if anyone—his supporters will pick with their second vote. Sandman made the cut, but has little hope of doing much else aside from conceivably playing a spoiler role.

School Board At-Large (Top four advance)

Annie Harala 25.8 (3028)

Harry Welty 19.1 (2246)

Nancy Nilsen 17.7 (2073)

Henry Banks 16.4 (1926)

Loren Martell 10.9 (1283)

Joshua Bixby 10.1 (1190)

Harala’s strong showing has her on the inside track for a seat on the Board; the margin was small enough that she isn’t a completely sure bet, but I don’t really see two of the other four finalists passing her. After Harala, it gets interesting. Perhaps it’s name recognition; perhaps it’s the strength of personal ties in a local election, but I was a bit surprised to see such a large gap between the two former Members (Welty and Nielsen) and the two insurgents (Bixby and Martell). I’d hazard to guess it will come down to a race between Welty and Banks for the second seat. Given her ties to the Red Plan, I don’t think Nilsen has a very high ceiling, nor is she likely to gain many votes from the supporters of Bixby or Martell—though, granted, she has surprised me somewhat already by finishing ahead of Banks in the primary. Banks has the DFL machinery behind him, which could help boost his turnout substantially. Welty, on the other hand, is by far the most likely to pick up any disaffected Bixby or Martell voters who didn’t already vote for him. On a night when most of the Red Plan critics didn’t do especially well, Welty had a strong showing, suggesting that the voters of Duluth did a pretty good job parsing out the intelligent critics with strong education backgrounds (Welty) from those who didn’t quite meet those standards (Martell). I ranked Banks ahead of him in my preview post, but with the semi-critical voice I supported (Bixby) out of the race, I am going to give Harry a chance to convince me. Ridiculous as he can be at times, I do think his heart is in the right place, and the Board could use a critic who is not Johnston-esque.

I voted for Bixby, but I’m not terribly shocked by his last-place finish. He’s new to the Duluth political scene, his campaign didn’t have a very big presence, and while I appreciated his nuanced stances, I can understand how some voters might come away unsure of what he actually stood for. I hope he continues his involvement in Board affairs, despite the loss. Martell, meanwhile, has been whacked in both elections in which he has run. We’ll see if he continues his monthly crusades at the Board meetings.

District 1 (Top two advance)

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp 53.7 (1086)

Joe Matthes 26.0 (526)

Marcia Stromgren 20.3 (410)

As expected, it was smooth sailing for Loeffler-Kemp, who cleared the 50% mark in the primary and would probably have to get herself caught up in some sort of scandal to lose at this point. Considering the opposition, Matthes had a reasonably good showing, though his odds of moving beyond this point are low. I was most interested by Stromgren’s low total here; after all, she did garner 46 percent of the vote in the general election for this seat four years ago, albeit against an incumbent (Ann Wasson) whose hands were all over the Red Plan. As with Martell, I’d say the writing is on the wall for her future in School Board affairs. They raised their ruckus, but as cathartic as that may have been, their anger probably marginalized them in the eyes of voters who saw them as extremists. Once a person has that label, it’s difficult to shed it, and unlike Welty, neither one of them showed much in the way of political savvy.

District 4 (Top two advance)

David Bolgrien 37.6 (463)

Art Johnston (I) 33.4 (411)

Justin Perpich 28.9 (356)

The race I named the most interesting lived up to its billing, with roughly 50 votes between each of the candidates. Considering how polarizing Johnston is, the odds are that the Perpich supporters are more likely to jump on the Bolgrien bandwagon. If I were a betting man, I’d say that Johnston needed to win this primary by a reasonable margin to retain his seat, and is now in serious trouble. But as in the all the races here, it’s hard to know what increased voter turnout will do in the general election; has Johnston already hit his ceiling, or are there a lot of disaffected people on the west side who will come out of the woodwork to support him in the main event? There are a lot of votes potentially up for grabs amongst the Perpich people, and to win them over, Johnston would probably have to change his tone somewhat. I don’t think he has much interest in doing that, which means that School Board meetings could be a lot more boring come January. A lot more boring, and a lot more constructive.

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Still, this is all idle speculation: the voters will decide things on November 5. We’ll see if there are any surprises in the meantime.

I had some ambitions of trying to tie the primary results to my “Duluth’s Future” post from a few weeks back, but I don’t think the results offer anything too conclusive, so I’ll wait until after the general election. There are some possible trends here, but nothing concrete. Stay tuned.

Duluth City Council Elections 2013: A Patient Primary Primer

With primary elections on Tuesday, here’s part two in my Duluth election series. See the notes on the School Board here.

For my coverage of City Council meetings over the past few months, click here.

Figure out where to vote, and which races you’re voting for, here | Map

This is what your ballot will look like. 

The Duluth City Council is in a different universe from the School Board. There are no hugely contentious issues before it, and the current edition appears to have a pretty good rapport. There is no rush to throw the bums out here, though we do have two open at-large seats, following the retirements of Councilors Jim Stauber and Dan Hartman. The entire primary will only eliminate one candidate.

At-Large

Five people are competing for four spots in the general election. Once again, I list candidates in my rough order of preference.

Zack Filipovich, a recent University of Minnesota-Duluth graduate, appears to have one of the better-organized campaigns out there. He’s been endorsed by the DFL, but his campaign also focuses on his experience in finance and economic development, which leads one to hope he’ll mind the checkbook better than some other well-intentioned but not-overly-financially-savvy left-leaning Duluthians. Councilor Hartman’s retirement also leaves the Council with a relative lack of young people, and Filipovich fills that niche. That’s an important thing to have, especially in a city that makes a big deal out of attracting and retaining young people. His platform (website here) could use more specifics, but in a field where no one really blows me away, he’s at the top of the ballot for now.

Barb Russ is probably the most experienced candidate in the field, and probably has the strongest campaign going, with a concise but clear agenda and lawn signs everywhere. Just as Rosie Loeffler-Kemp’s résumé just about screams “school board member,” Russ’s bellows “city councilor.” She is a very safe and predictable choice, and while she may not be wildly inspirational, she should be an effective Councilor. Website here

Ryan Stauber is the son of outgoing Councilor Jim Stauber, and his emphasis on “balance” suggests his views are fairly similar to his father’s. Like Filipovich, he’s young, and has likewise demonstrated a clear commitment to his city. Given the need for some balance and debate, I was very tempted to put Stauber in one of the top two slots. With the retirement of his father and Councilor Krause, two of the three more-or-less fiscally “conservative” voices on the Council will be gone, and I worry that simply supporting the two DFL-endorsed candidates may contribute to City Council groupthink. Victories by Filipovich and Russ would effectively marginalize the opposition on the Council, and leave it in the sole hands of Councilor Jay Fosle—and, given Councilor Fosle’s tendency to be a bit haphazard in his criticisms, I’m not sure that role suits him. Duluth’s recent experience with a lonely voice standing up to the rest of a board (coughArtJohnstoncough) has not been pretty.

Still, I need more than “balance” as a reason to support someone, and Stauber hasn’t quite inspired me. His main point of emphasis, city infrastructure, is also Russ’s, and other than a vague mention of stronger law enforcement (which is part of his background), there isn’t much here. If he goes through to the general election, I’ll certainly give him a second look. Unsolicited web site advice: putting childhood awards and volunteer experiences (ie. some governor’s award won in middle school, marathon volunteering) on your résumé just makes it look like you’re padding it. There is potential here, but the product isn’t quite polished enough yet.

A fourth candidate, Ray “Skip” Sandman, emphasizes his Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) roots on his website, and aims to bring diversity to the Council. Considering the recent controversy over an eagle staff and lack of racial minorities on the Council, this is all well and good; the problem is, I don’t see a whole lot of meat on the bones here. Other than a vague mention of living wage jobs, he doesn’t say what else he’ll do. Tell us more, Ray! Website here

The final candidate is Ray Whitledge, whose use of the Statue of Liberty on his campaign signs underlines his staunch libertarian views. His Facebook page (I couldn’t find a website) straight-up says he thinks taxation is robbery. To his credit, he sounds like he really practices what he preaches, and will only accept tiny amounts of voluntarily-donated pay if he serves on the Council. However, 99% of his proposals probably won’t fly, leaving him in that dreaded “lonely voice” category I worried about in my comment on Councilor Fosle above. His emphasis on ideology over community leads me to doubt he’ll be able to work with his fellow Councilors in a constructive way. I’m somewhat intrigued to see what a town governed by libertarians would look like, but I don’t want Duluth to be the guinea pig—nor is it realistic to expect that here, given Duluth’s deep left-leaning roots. This city is what it is, and the best of the candidates here accept that, even if they disagree on everything else.

District 2

Councilor Patrick Boyle is running unopposed, so there’s no intrigue here…yet, at least. Boyle has thrown his name in for the special election to replace late County Commissioner Steve O’Neil, and should he win that race in February, he will need a replacement. Stay tuned.

District 4

With Garry Krause’s surprise retirement this week, Howie Hanson is now running unopposed in this race. I had plenty to say about Mr. Hanson on Friday. Even for people somewhat more sympathetic to Mr. Hanson than I am, it is unfortunate he will not face a challenger who might at least force him to come up with some sort of platform. Instead, he will likely coast into the Council with his false charm and vague interest in the community on full blast. District 4 residents, if you have any ambition to enter local politics, now would be a great time for a write-in campaign.

The lack of competition in Districts 2 and 4 is, frankly, a bit disappointing. I suppose it might be a sign that people are fairly happy with the work the Council is doing—an understandable stance, given its relative efficiency and lack of drama of late—but a little debate here wouldn’t have hurt. It is what it is, though, and there are some diverse voices in the at-large race. Unfortunately, in my estimation, the candidates who venture away from the establishment are also the weaker candidates. I think there’s a lot to say about that, but I’ll hold off until after the primary, when we’ll have a better pulse on what the voters of Duluth are thinking.

Duluth School Board Elections 2013: A Patient Primary Primer

Primary elections in Duluth take place this Tuesday. Here’s my take on the school board candidates (city council to follow tomorrow).

For my coverage of School Board meetings over the past few months, click here.

Figure out where to vote, and which races you’re voting for, here.| Pretty map

This is what your ballot will look like.

Now, some comments on the race and the candidates.

As anyone who follows Duluth politics knows, the School Board is riven by lingering controversy over its expensive Long Range Facilities Plan (the Red Plan), which got the city a bunch of shiny new schools and a bunch of very angry taxpayers who have voted against anything school-related ever since. Opponents of the Red Plan didn’t make much headway in School Board elections, however, leaving Member Art Johnston the sole critic on the current Board. As a result, he has waged a scorched-earth campaign over the past four years, doing everything he can to disrupt the final stages of the Red Plan (which was implemented nearly in full before his tenure began).

It is frustrating to watch Member Johnston’s antics, and I say this as someone who does not want to see the School Board be a rubber stamp machine. I want to see critics; people who will make very careful decisions with the paltry pot of money the Board has to work with, look for creative new solutions, and who will question the tendency of the Superintendent and the Board’s majority to move in lockstep. The problem is that most of the existing critics are so eccentric or embittered by the Red Plan rancor that they are hopelessly disruptive, and show few signs of being able to work with the rest of the Board. That makes for good theater, but it does not make for good governance.

Thankfully, after this election cycle, the Board could very easily have only one person left over from the whole Red Plan debate (Member Seliga-Punyko, who beat Loren Martell last election cycle). Everyone else who implemented it could be gone, as could the “interesting” cast of opponents…if Duluth can come through and vote against them all. This is the easiest path to long-term health for ISD 709. Love or hate the Red Plan, it happened, and Duluth has to decide what comes next, not repeat old debates.

At-Large

Current Members Mary Cameron and Tom Kasper have chosen not to seek re-election, freeing up two seats here. There are six candidates, two of whom will be weeded out in the primary. I list them here in a rough order of preference.

In the search for a new Board member who will question the status quo, Joshua Bixby may be the best bet. His campaign website is easily the most extensive out there, and includes Mr. Bixby trailing on about issues large and small. When addressing the Board as a citizen, he came across as articulate, insightful, and responsive to public opinion. He is a recent arrival to Duluth, meaning he wasn’t even here when the Red Plan debates started, and wants to move past that while also wrestling with the financial issues created by the Plan. I’m not sure I agree with him on everything, but I think his voice is a necessary one, and could be a very constructive addition to a Board that has been anything but constructive lately.

Annie Harala is another youngish newcomer to ISD 709 politics. Her campaign website isn’t all that detailed, though at least she has one, and it does get points for prettiness. I applaud her support of “community schools”—that is, schools that emphasize a holistic education and unite the school with the surrounding neighborhoods through a number of initiatives. She looks to be a safe choice.

Henry Banks, a man best known for his radio show “People of Color with Henry Banks,” has been involved in a number of community organizations over the years, though none of them focus explicitly on education. An African-American, Banks is certainly in tune with Duluth’s serious achievement gap issues, and with Member Cameron’s impending retirement, he is the only potential minority School Board member. Beyond that, though, he’s hard to pin down; he doesn’t have a website yet (Facebook page here), and there isn’t much substance detailed there.

Even though he is not a new figure, I actually have a decent amount of respect for Harry Welty. I think he tries to assess things fairly, even if he is sometimes wrong in said assessment; he is well-informed and, tendency for hyperbole aside, seems to be a genuine person who is capable of working well with others. Sure, he has a huge ego and a talent for grandstanding, but he can also appreciate nuance and can be self-deprecating at times, too. (His long-running website will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about his life and his stances on ISD 709 issues.) I’m not voting for him in the primary, but if you think a member of the old Let Duluth Vote crowd deserves a voice on the Board, though, Harry has the strongest credentials.

Nancy Nilsen, a Board member from 2006-2010 who helped push through the Red Plan, is one I’d throw out as old news. I really don’t care whether or not she was right, or how well-prepared she is due to her work on other matters. She was a part of that whole mess, and the District needs to move on.

Loren Martell is a regular member of the anti-Red Plan crowd. To his credit, he’s done his homework on district finances, and he’s managed to get an audit of the District; I’m curious to see the results. However, even if the audit vindicates his stance, that does not suddenly qualify him to make decisions over the futures of Duluth students. His speeches in front of the Board can be painful to listen to, and that has nothing to do with their content: he rambles, casts about charges, and generally fails to sound coherent. (At the first few meetings I attended, I chose not to mention his appearances before the Board in my write-ups because I honestly thought he was somewhat “slow,” and that picking on him would be in poor taste.) At any rate, he gives little indication that he knows anything about what a school board does beyond his stance on a facilities plan that has already happened. He sounds like Art Johnston 2.0, only without Art’s penchant for good quotes. Maybe he’s been goaded into anger and incoherence due to his frustrations with the Board; not having followed Board affairs closely during my four years out of Duluth (2008-2012), I don’t know. But that frustration is the exact reason I can’t endorse him: everyone touched by that bitter debate is tainted. It’s time to move on.

District 1

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp has, quite simply, devoted her life to education. She has served in just about every PTA or parent-advisory position imaginable, and as she lives in the neighborhood, I remember seeing her at just about every school function while growing up. As with all the candidates here, her platform is a bit vague, but she is a relentlessly positive person, and no one will doubt her work ethic. Judging by an informal lawn sign count, she’s the favorite here, and since I’ve supported a couple of younger, newish people in the at-large races, I’ll use my vote in my own district for someone who has a little more experience. One word of advice on the lawn signs, though: “informed” and “involved” are acceptable ways to describe a candidate, and in her case, very true. Describing oneself as “interested,” however, seems laughably self-evident. Is anyone running for the School Board really not “interested” in the position? (Facebook page here)

This district has two pretty strong candidates, though, and Joe Matthes is the other. He is a newcomer to Duluth politics, a 20-something with a couple of young kids. He is a union rep who has experience on the labor side of things, and to date he is the only candidate to leaflet my house (he lives down the block, though I don’t know him personally), and his literature hits all the right notes. (Facebook page here) I would have no qualms voting for him; it’s unfortunate he is in the same race as Loeffler-Kemp.

Marcia Stromgren is a member of the anti-Red Plan crew, and not even a terribly interesting one at that. She is good at complaining about things but offers little of substance, has no web presence, and her campaign signs appear to put emphasis on the “tax payer.” (Hopefully her efforts to save taxpayers money will not lead her to target English classes that might teach Duluth students that “taxpayer” is, in fact, one word.) On the flip side, her intriguing headgear would brighten up the Board meetings.

District 4

This is perhaps the juiciest race of the election cycle. As in District 1, it’s a three-way race pitting an anti-Red Plan name against two opponents, one a longtime schools activist, one a young newcomer.

This is perhaps the juiciest race of the election cycle. As in District 1, it’s a three-way race pitting an anti-Red Plan name against two opponents, one a longtime schools activist, one a young newcomer.

It’s hard to see many huge distinctions between the two challengers here. Justin Perpich is a recent Duluth arrival with a young child, while David Bolgrien is a longtime volunteer and PTA member. Both have a pretty similar emphasis in their campaigns, as they try to bring positive messaging back to District Four. Bolgrien appears a bit more antagonistic toward the incumbent, and he also endorsed Nancy Nilsen on his Facebook page (ostensibly because she is also a west-sider, though that gives some idea of his loyalties in the Red Plan debate). Because of that, I’d tip my support toward Perpich, who also has a website here that puts a little more substance behind his campaign. Still, I’d support either one against the incumbent.

These two men are, of course, taking on Art Johnston. Here is his website, “Truth in Duluth.”

I’ve probably made my opinion on Member Johnston abundantly clear in my posts on School Board meetings. My critique effectively boils down to the same one I made of Mr. Martell: just because he has a different opinion does not mean he is well-qualified to represent that opinion. His eternal disruption has yet to achieve anything of substance, and only reinforced the bunker mentality among the rest of the Board. It is time to move on.

I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again: it’s time to move on. On Tuesday, we’ll learn just how much Duluth agrees with that sentiment.

Exit Garry Krause; Enter Howie Hanson

Forgive me, followers from afar:  with primary elections this Tuesday, this blog is going to be pretty much nonstop local politics for the next few days. But if you like reading about nutty local wannabe-politicians, this post should amuse you anyway. I’d intended to start this series tomorrow, but a surprise announcement has me rushing to get this post up early.

Garry Krause, a member of the Duluth City Council, has announced that a new job will leave him unable to continue on in his position. He will attend his final Council meeting this coming Monday. The city will have to decide whether it will fill Krause’s Fourth District seat until next January, when the winner of this fall’s race for his seat–which is now a one-man race–will take office.

I didn’t always agree with Councilor Krause, but when it came to professionalism on the City Council, he was second to none. As I wrote a couple of months ago, he manages to blend principled stands with decency and civility. He was a dedicated public servant, and brought a necessary voice of skepticism to the Council without ever being overbearing or self-righteous in his critiques. I would have gladly endorsed him for a second term, and the city will miss him. I wish him well in his new position, and I definitely respect his decision to prioritize his family over his political career.

That said, I can’t pretend I’m not somewhat bitter over his departure from the race at this point, which leaves local blogger Howie Hanson unopposed in his pursuit of the Fourth District seat.

For the most part, Howie’s blog just plugs community events, and I appreciate people who put in that sort of community service. However, facile mentions of local events do not qualify one to wrangle with esoteric ordinances and resolutions. He doesn’t have a campaign website yet (and probably won’t need one, now that he has no opponent), so it’s hard to evaluate what other qualifications he may have other than being interested in things.

Admittedly, I also have a bit of a history with Howie: he tried to be a high school hockey analyst for a little while, and quickly made himself the laughingstock of the local hockey community. That may seem petty and irrelevant to his potential work on the City Council, but the character he displayed was not what I want out of a Councilor: he pretended to be objective when he had obvious loyalties, he took it upon himself to call out the “arrogance” of certain teams without any evidence, hyped up some players to absurd levels, and when people called him out or noted his numerous errors, he quickly deleted things and pretended he’d never written them. He was sloppy, held grudges, and did not take criticism well at all. I’ve disagreed with any number of hockey commentators on any number of issues over the years, but with the vast majority of them, I’m able to get over that and have a friendly relationship; Howie, on the other hand, was quite incapable of participating in a dialogue like that. That doesn’t inspire much trust.

Howie, who can be found wandering the Heritage Center wearing swag that advertises his blog, also once got the School District to pay him $19,000 a few years back so that he could do things that anyone with a basic knowledge of computers could do–allegedly for 30 hours a week! (Why not have kids do it?) Needless to say, his “goduluthschools.com” website was a total flop, and typing that address into your browser now gets you a thrilling series of posts on HGH and penis enlargement. I don’t think he’s a bad or dangerous person; I will just be surprised if he proves a competent city councilor.

I suppose there’s some chance that someone will mount a write-in campaign now that Councilor Krause is out of the picture, but even if that happens, we’re likely stuck with Howie. It’ll be an “interesting” four years on the Duluth City Council.

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Over the next two days I’ll have posts on the primary races for Duluth School Board and City Council. Stay tuned.