Duluth Area Election Preview, 2016

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.

Duluth’s Comings and Goings

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.