A New Counterweight: Duluth City Council Notes, 10/14/13

First off, I’ve gotten some very good responses from a number of people on my last post on charter schools. There will be a follow-up in the not-so-distant future. I appreciate the comments and welcome them from any perspective: please, make use of the comment boxes, or if you know me personally, get in touch through email or Facebook. I love the dialogue and I’m willing to answer to just about any sort of critique or question.

The Duluth City Council was in a rather festive mood as it kicked off its first meeting in three weeks. There was a warm energy in the council chamber at the start, and for good reason: as several Councilors noted, the city has won two major victories in recent weeks, with perpetual headache Jim Carlson convicted on 51 of 55 counts for his sales of synthetic drugs in federal court, and the city winning a substantial sum in a settlement with the Fon Du Luth Casino; while neither case is totally settled, things look good on both fronts for now.

The goodwill dissipated fairly quickly when Councilor Krug, who was absent at last week’s meeting, took the other Councilors to task for their inability to fill former Councilor Garry Krause’s vacant seat. (Details here, in last meeting’s write-up.) She wondered why, after Mr. Eckenberg announced his disinterest in filling the seat for only two meetings, they did not then appoint the other applicant to the seat, Mr. Radzak, whom they had all deemed qualified. She also opined that Atty. Johnson had erred; while he did correctly interpret the city charter, she said state statutes should have clarified the situation. Councilor Gardner agreed with her, and the two agreed to work to correct any future issues. Councilor Larson, with assist from Councilor Fosle and CAO Montgomery, updated the city on the efforts to re-route logging trucks off of Superior Street.

Councilor Krause’s seat came up again during the public comment session, as two citizens lashed out about the lack of representation for District Four. Former police lieutenant Peggy Johnson plugged the launch of the Duluth Police Foundation this Thursday at 5:00 at Clyde Iron. Mr. Rich Jaworski of the Duluth Children’s Museum and eight kids, most of middle school age, came forward to share the story of their radio conversation with astronauts aboard the International Space Station; the Councilors all melted into their sweetest smiles as the kids talked, and Councilor Julsrud snapped some pictures.

There were also two citizens who seemed rather confused over which political body they were speaking to. One man ranted about the luxurious expenses accrued by President Obama and IRS employees while the national debt grows, while our old friend Mr. Loren Martell shared some “facts” about the school board levies on this fall’s ballot. This is the City Council, not Congress or the School Board, people. But, hey, I guess they got themselves on TV.

After that, it was back to business. The consent agenda sailed through, 8-0, and a few resolutions were pulled back to administration. A resolution to appoint Mr.  James Williams as Director of Public Administration did draw some dissent from Councilor Fosle; while he was quick to say that he had no issues with Mr. Williams himself, he said the position was not necessary. He claimed it had been created a few years prior to give a former CAO a job, had an exorbitant salary, and just created more “top-heavy” bureaucracy. Councilor Gardner said she had been a bit skeptical as well, but had been reassured of the position’s value. Councilor Krug grumbled that the city should have made a stronger effort to retain the former occupant of the position, an African-American woman, and also complained of the lack of women in the Administration; CAO Montgomery countered both charges. The resolution passed with Councilor Fosle as the lone “no” vote.

Next up was a resolution authorizing the dumping of snow at a spot owned by the Economic Development Authority by the harbor, as has been done in recent years. Councilor Stauber announced his opposition, as he thought dumping snow filled with road salt next to a waterway was a bad idea; CAO Montgomery countered by saying the snowmelt at least filtered through the ground when dumped there, whereas it would go straight into the water as runoff if simply left where it was. Councilor Fosle also asked for updates on the search for a new spot to dump snow, and wondered why it all had to be put in one place. The resolution passed, 5-3, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, and Stauber all opposed.

After Councilor Stauber shared a nice story about the Police Department’s bomb-sniffing dog, which had some grant money approved unanimously, the Council had another debate about the cross-city Duluth Traverse bike trail. Mr. Adam Sundberg of the biking group COGGS spoke in support of the measure, which accepted $2.4 million in grant money for the project. Councilors Larson and Julsrud affirmed their support and said this grant money offered a unique opportunity, while Councilor Stauber pressed CAO Montgomery on the $575,000 the city might have to pay in order to supplement grant money. CAO Montgomery explained that the city might not need to pay all of that money, and said it could be bonded or pulled from parks capital funds. Councilor Fosle echoed Councilor Stauber’s worries, saying “this whole trail thing is getting out of hand,” and wondered about future maintenance costs. He said the city already had bike trails, that the cross-city trail was not a practical commuting route, and wondered why bicycle trails were supported while things his constituents had told him they wanted, like ATV and snowmobile trails, were neglected. Rising to the occasion, he explained that he was simply trying to be the voice of people whom the other Councilors might not be hearing from. Councilor Hartman again tried to insist this was not a “trails versus streets” issue, while Councilors Krug and Gardner said the trail debate shouldn’t be seen as a zero-sum game between bikes and motorized recreation vehicles. The resolution passed, 6-2, with Councilors Fosle and Stauber in opposition.

Everything else on the agenda was either tabled or passed unanimously. In the closing comments, Councilor Julsrud brought forward a representative from the airport who will be lobbying for a new parking ramp in the coming meetings, and Councilor Stauber gave an update on school speed zones along city streets. A number of the Councilors said they were willing to work with Councilor Fosle on some sort of effort to satisfy snowmobilers and ATV riders.

This was an interesting meeting to watch, as the Council now lacks Garry Krause, who had been among its more active members. I’ve often described the Council as having a liberal-conservative split, but to the Council’s credit, the debates here often go beyond a simple left-versus-right war. While Councilor Krause was a well-spoken leader for the fiscally conservative minority who also was willing to compromise, I often sang his praises because he brought a different sort of opinion forward. I especially liked his characterization of himself as the defender of the “mundane and boring,” and his ability to raise some unique questions about the Administration’s new projects and march of “progress” helped make sure that the Council never fell victim to groupthink or narrow ideological divides.

With Krause now out of the picture, I wondered if anyone would fill that void; Councilor Gardner often does a good job of this from the liberal side, but I wondered if the more conservative members would be able to find their own counterweight. Councilor Stauber has a fairly similar temperament but is more soft-spoken and will retire in January, and I’ve had my doubts over Councilor Fosle. Councilor Fosle has never seemed very keen on compromise, and as I’ve noted numerous times, his criticisms can seem to come out of left field. More than once, I’ve had the impression that his sparring partners think he is just blathering so as to distract people from the issue at hand.

This time, however, there were real signs of maturation, and Councilor Fosle may yet emerge as a conscientious critic. Yes, his speeches still wander occasionally, and yes, some things he says come off as hyperbole. A few weeks ago, I called Councilor Fosle’s claim that the city should be worrying about heroin and ecstasy instead of e-cigarettes a “red herring.” After this past meeting, I’ll give him real credit: this wasn’t just some attempt to distract the debate. The last few minutes of the comments section were spent making plans to discuss the issues these drugs create in Duluth. Councilor Fosle is arranging for a number of community speakers at the next Council meeting, and described rises in the consumption of both drugs, often paid for by desperate people with food stamp EBT cards. He also suggested the Council educate itself on krokodil, a new drug which, if you haven’t heard of it, is absolutely frightening: as Councilor Fosle described in vivid terms, it is a cheap version of heroin that causes flesh to fall off, is often fatal, and is now on the rise. Councilor Fosle may frustrate at times, but he has a knack for picking up on things that other people don’t necessarily see, and talking to people who may not otherwise get a spot at the table. His concerns are genuine, and I’m curious to see how he evolves in future meetings. After a messy meeting last time around, the Council was back to looking like an effective, consensus-building body that also includes some diversity of opinion, and a quick glance at the other political bodies out there “operating” right now is a good reminder that we shouldn’t take this sort of thing for granted.


A Long and Awkward Good-Bye for Councilor Krause: Duluth City Council Notes, 9/23/13

It was an odd night at City Hall. The crowd was modest in size, there were no citizen speakers, and there were no grave disputes between the Councilors beyond the usual, civil back-and-forth. Yet somehow, it also wound up being the ugliest meeting I’ve seen since I started attending them. It was also the end of an era, so to speak, as Councilor Krause’s resignation was set to take effect after the meeting; indeed, his departure was at the root of the evening’s troubles. The Council’s bloc of fiscal conservatives has now shrunk from three to two, but the frustrations had nothing to do with Councilor Krause’s principled stands, nor the ideology of his successor. In fact, thanks to a heap of Council confusion, he has no successor.

President Boyle began the night by convening a special meeting to appoint Councilor Krause’s replacement, in which Councilor Krause was not allowed to participate. (Councilor Krug was also absent, leaving the Council with seven voting members for the special meeting.) President Boyle announced that the Council had interviewed two candidates, Mr. Zachary Radzak and Mr. Gary Eckenberg, found them both impressive, and invited the Councilors to share their opinions on each.

Councilor Stauber went first, but instead of endorsing one of the two candidates, he shared his serious concerns about the selection process. He was upset there had been no public hearing, that the process was being conducted via resolution (and hence technically open to a veto by Mayor Ness), and thought it was pointless to appoint someone only until the November 5 election. Councilor Gardner defended the process, saying it had worked for past vacancies (including two for Councilor Krause’s 4th District seat in the past four years), and while she agreed there was room for improvement, she said it would have to do for this particular situation. She then endorsed Mr. Eckenberg for the position, as he is a past member of the Council and would be able to hit the ground running.

Next, Councilor Fosle demanded an answer as to when the appointed Councilor’s term would end. City Attorney Gunnar Johnson replied that the Council would sit the person elected in November at the next Council meeting; it was his interpretation that past Councils had violated the City Charter in not doing so. Satisfied, Councilors Hartman, Julsrud, and Larson all told Mr. Radzak he was an impressive candidate, but expressed their support for Mr. Eckenberg.

At that point, Mr. Eckenberg came forward, held a whispered conversation with Atty. Johnson, and then took the stand before the Council. He said he had been under the impression that the person appointed to fill Councilor Krause’s seat would stay on the Council until January, when the Councilor elected to the seat in November would normally take office. A one-month appointment, he said, made zero sense, and would not allow him to do anything of substance. The 4th District could survive for a month without representation. He thus withdrew his name from consideration.

This rather understandably threw off the entire meeting, and Councilor Boyle brought forward yet another confusing point: Councilor Krause’s name will appear on the ballot in November, and if he were to win, the seat would then be his. If that were to happen, the Council would need to go through the re-appointment process yet again. Councilor Fosle asked if the resolution could be amended to allow Mr. Eckenberg to serve until January, but Atty. Johnson said it could not, as that would be a violation of the Charter.

For his part, Councilor Stauber was rather pleased with this development. He agreed that a one-month appointment did no good, and that the Council could simply appoint someone to fill the seat if Councilor Krause were to win. This irked Councilor Gardner, who said there was nothing “simple” about the whole process. She accused Councilor Stauber of selective interpretation of the Charter, which insists that vacancies on the Council must be filled in a timely manner. She implored Mr. Eckenberg to reconsider his position, but Mr. Eckenberg politely declined, saying he had been misled about what he was applying for.

An exasperated Councilor Julsrud apologized to Mr. Eckenberg, and suggested the Council pull the measure and follow Councilor Stauber’s suggestion. Councilor Hartman disagreed, admitting a one-month appointment made “no sense,” but that, due to the Charter, “sometimes we have to do things that make no sense.” The Council, however, chose to make sense. It pulled the resolution, 4-3, with Councilors Fosle, Julsrud, Stauber, and Boyle in support. Councilor Krause’s seat will thus remain open until after the November election.

With this sloppy affair mercifully over, the Council kicked off its actual meeting, in which CAO Montgomery began by presenting Councilor Krause with a plaque thanking him for his service. Councilor Krause in turn thanked him, the Council, the City Hall staff, and the city employees who are on the front lines of resolving city problems. The consent agenda then passed, 8-0. A resolution creating a pedestrian underpass under Haines Road passed, 6-2, with Councilors Fosle and Krause complaining about unnecessary expenditures.

The major topic of debate for the meeting proper was a plan to finance a phase of construction of the cross-city trail. This particular section, extending from Canal Park to 30th Avenue West, would cost $1.3 million, though a chunk of that sum would be paid by federal and DNR grants. Once again, there was some exhausting bureaucratic wrangling, as the ordinance authorizing the bonds to pay for the project and the resolution awarding the contract were in an illogical order on the meeting agenda. Once Atty. Johnson resolved the confusion, debate ensued.

To no one’s great surprise, the Council’s three fiscal conservatives shared their doubts about the plan. Councilor Krause called Duluth a “large city with many cities in it,” whatever other people might try to say, and that the residents of his district appeared not to value the trail as much as the still-shuttered community centers. (This phase of the project is primarily in Councilor Krause’s district.) He and Councilor Stauber questioned the wisdom of incurring more bonding debt when the city had already taken on more debt over the previous year; CAO Montgomery countered by saying the city had reduced its debt since 2007. Councilor Fosle went so far as to challenge the Council’s power to use bonding to fund trails, but both CAO Montgomery and Atty. Johnson refuted his point.

Councilor Hartman pushed CAO Montgomery for more details on the other funding sources, and he replied by saying that roughly 70% of the project would be paid for in grants. The project, he argued, was a good way to leverage the city’s money, as it turned $450,000 worth of money into $1.8 million in trails, whereas using that same $450,000 on streets would only result in $450,000 worth of street improvements. He also noted the value of trails as a tourist attraction, and Councilor Hartman added that commuters using the trail reduced wear and tear on the streets.

Councilor Krause said all of this leveraging was well and good, but in the end it still added to city long-term operating costs, and he therefore could not support it. Councilor Stauber repeated his dissatisfaction, and Councilors Fosle and Gardner both complained about the inadequate map they’d been given of the plans. Mapping issue aside, both measures related to the cross-city trail passed, 5-3; predictably, Councilors Krause, Stauber, and Fosle were the dissenters.

The Council wrapped up its business with the unanimous approval of a zoning reclassification, and a brief but contentious meeting came to an end. In the closing comments, Councilor Hartman pleaded that Atty. Johnson inform the Councilors of changes in interpretation of the City Charter before the meeting if at all possible, as the evening’s developments had left them in a “very awkward position,” and “didn’t look good.” Once again, his closing comments accurately summed up the mood of the meeting, in which dysfunction over Councilor Krause’s seat overwhelmed any substantive achievements later on. It was also an unfortunate end to Councilor Krause’s tenure on the Council; while I have to respect him greatly for his reasoned critiques and attempts to compromise, this entire process was not pretty, and the timing of his departure was poor, to say the least. The eight-member Council will now have to press on without him, and must clearly find a way to streamline its process for appointing replacement Councilors. Duluth deserves something far cleaner than what it got in this meeting.

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.


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

What Is Duluth’s Future?

This is going to be a sprawling post, and I envision it as the start of a series on Duluth, Minnesota, my hometown, that builds on the fairly narrow focus of my posts on city council and school board meetings.  For those of you who have never been there, it is a city of 85,000 on the tip of Lake Superior, and the world’s largest freshwater port; and no, it is not a suburb of Minneapolis. (When I was in the college on the East Coast and told my classmates I was from Duluth, Minnesota, the inevitable next question was, “is that near Minneapolis?” They didn’t know how to respond when the answer was “no.” There were also the girls who once asked me if Minnesota was near Maine. And the one who didn’t believe that ice fishing was a real thing. But I digress.)

At any rate, a few days ago, the New York Times ran a piece by Robert Putnam, a Harvard scholar famous for his book Bowling Alone, which explores the decline of communal bonds in the United States. His work is some of the most fascinating stuff on modern American culture, though as with all scholarly work, there are intelligent critiques and rebuttals and endless back-and-forth nitpicking. While nuance is always necessary, I do worry about fraying social fabric and the increasing isolation in modern America, and perhaps more importantly, the pathologies that afflict an increasingly stratified society, from broken families to drug abuse to cycles of poverty. Without going straight into causes, solutions, and ultimate implications, it is clear there is a problem here. The ability of a city to cope with or adapt to these issues will likely determine its fate.

This particular article was more focused, however; it told the story of Port Clinton, Putnam’s Ohio hometown along the shores of Lake Erie. Like much of Middle America, Port Clinton has not fared particularly well economically in recent decades; its manufacturing base has collapsed, and though its lakeside location has kept some money in the town, it is now very divided, and not the foundation for the American Dream Putnam claims it was when he grew up there in the 1950s.

There is a shoutout to Duluth near the end of the piece, and the parallels are not hard to see. (The results of the Duluth surveys taken for Putnam’s project, while they do not mention many of the things discussed in the NYT piece, are here.) Duluth is much larger than Port Clinton, but for a while, it looked like it was going down the tubes when it lost its U.S. Steel mill and shed perhaps 30,000 residents toward the end of the 20th century. Like Port Clinton, Duluth has weathered the storm somewhat thanks to tourism dollars, and it has been fairly stable for two decades now. For all its troubles, Duluth really hasn’t fallen off the cliff in the way Putnam seems to think Port Clinton has.

If Duluth doesn’t fit so smoothly into the narrative of Midwestern industrial decline, we have to ask what sort of story we can tell about Duluth. In addition to the tourism dollars, I’d attribute Duluth’s resilience to two factors:

1. Due to its size, it remains a regional hub in a way that most small towns in America aren’t. Duluth may not have grown since it stopped shedding people in the early 90s, but it also isn’t shrinking, while most of the rest of the region is; its quasi-suburban areas, Hermantown and several unincorporated townships, have actually seen some growth. While Duluth may not have the opportunities Minneapolis does, it does have some allure when compared to small northern Minnesota towns. It has two 4-year universities, remains a busy transportation hub, and many regional services that cannot be outsourced to a metropolis or Malaysia (health care, certain government agencies, etc.) are based here.

2. Old money. At the start of the twentieth century, Duluth was a millionaires’ playground, and though not all of the grand old houses on the east side are in the best of shape these days, a chunk of the money is still here, doled out from trusts, foundations, and donations from heirs. For example, the revitalization along the waterfront likely would not have been possible without the efforts of the late pizza roll magnate Jeno Paulucci, whose restaurants anchor the Canal Park area. Putnam’s piece mentions the scholarships set up for many local students; Duluth has a bevy of such awards, and I received one that kept me debt-free through college.

(In a rebuttal to the Putnam piece, Front Porch Republic’s Jeffrey Polet points out that such scholarships may simply funnel graduates out of town, never to return. He may have a point; I am sure some of the recipients I graduated with, happily farmed out to elite colleges, will never be back. In my case, however, the strength of the Community Foundation and my sense of obligation to that history were among the many things that kept me grounded here.)

Duluth does very well in the indicators of social cohesion, which bodes well for the city, though some of Putnam’s later work shows that more homogenous communities tend to have much stronger social fabrics (a fact that so deeply troubled Putnam that he took years to release his data). Duluth, being 92% white and with strong northern European ties, obviously fits the bill. Moreover, it is a fairly segregated city (and not just in terms of race, though most minorities are concentrated in the city center). When explaining Duluth to outsiders, I’ve often described it as two separate cities: a combination college town/comfortable suburb on the east side, and a struggling rust belt city in the west. This is overly broad, of course, and perhaps an uncharitable portrait from a dyed-in-the-wool east-sider. The west side’s civic pride remains strong, and lower-income housing has been creeping eastward somewhat. But a simple look at the public high schools tells the story: three central and west Duluth high schools have folded into one since 1980, and East High remains much larger than that single western high school, Denfeld. (The East attendance area grew somewhat with the closure of Duluth Central a few years ago, but not drastically, and the school-aged population—a good indicator of how desirable an area is for families moving in—is much more dense on the east side.) Duluth East is the home of the “cake-eaters” of the north—it is the wealthy school that has long overshadowed Denfeld in academic and athletic prowess, even though Denfeld retains a very loyal following; perhaps even greater than East, since west-siders are far more likely to stay put while the East kids head off to supposedly greener pastures.

The divide is also made fairly clear by the quality of life and perceived political influence statistics in the Putnam study (see p. 49-54), though the west side does have some real strengths in those numbers. (This write-up also doesn’t mention where the dividing line is, which would be interesting to know.) This invites several questions:

-Duluth sprawls along 27 miles of lakeshore and riverfront, and there is a ridge along the length of the city that makes construction impractical in many places. How much does geography make Duluth’s divisions inevitable? The flip side of these divisions are some very strong local neighborhood identities, and I think these can be very good things. Are the divisions bad in and of themselves? Putnam certainly thinks so, and though I certainly understand that hyper-localism has its downsides, and can lead to discrimination, I’m not entirely convinced—in part for the reasons Polet touches on, though he doesn’t do a very thorough job in that post.

-What role do suburbs (ie. Hermantown) and new construction in Duluth Heights (away from the lakeshore and “over the hill”) play in Duluth’s development?

-Whither Superior? The Wisconsin city across the bridge is sometimes derided as Duluth’s armpit, but it still has a substantial a population and is an important part of the metro area. (And where else would we Duluthians go to buy our liquor on Sundays?) In the parts included in the Putnam study, it scores noticeably worse than Duluth in some respects. How does its fate affect Duluth’s?

-One effort to revitalize Duluth seems to evoke a hipster vibe. The attempt to attract “creative people” to revive the economy is mocked at times, but there is a certain logic here: in many cities (Manhattan, parts of Washington DC, San Francisco, and on and on), urban renewal (or gentrification, depending on how one looks at it) starts with artsy people moving into cheap housing, making the neighborhoods “interesting,” and in turn attracting wealthier wannabe urbanites who gradually displace the poorer people. Given Duluth’s universities, natural beauty, and decent arts scene for a city of its size, it seems to have potential for the hipster crowd. (Witness the dramatic rise in microbreweries and the expanding bike paths.) Mayor Don Ness, who is in many ways emblematic of this movement, certainly seems to be pushing it, as do several city councilors.

But this brings up some necessary questions: is this desirable development, and does the fact that it often just ignores or pushes poor and working-class people elsewhere trouble anyone? This model seems to work in major urban areas, but how well does it apply to a much smaller city? At first glance, a lot of this appeals to me—while I am probably a bit too clean-cut, conservative in temperament, and boring in my musical tastes to be a proper hipster, I enjoy culinary variety and good beer and a vibrant arts scene, and I’d much rather have more localized development than further urban sprawl. But I can still hear City Councilor Garry Krause’s words echoing in my mind: is our obsession with the new and interesting coming at the expense of the mundane, and the people who have called this city home for generations?

While Mayor Ness is a very popular and personable man who won re-election unopposed in 2011, in his initial election in 2007, he won the east side and lost the west side of the city. At the time of that election, I remember a high school teacher noting the unusual fact that Ness, by far the more liberal candidate, did better with the wealthier Duluthians, which seems to counter our normal political narratives. Looking at it from this perspective, it makes a lot more sense now.

-Duluth also includes many newcomers, and if certain critics are to be believed, it attracts a number of poorer people who look to take advantage of its relatively strong social safety nets. Councilor Jay Fosle had a complaint (not well-explained to the broader public) a few meetings ago about U-Haul rental patterns in Duluth; back in that 2007 mayoral election, Ness’s opponent, Charlie Bell, made some sort of remark about people from places like Chicago showing up and causing problems. Can someone give this critique some coherence or empirical backing, or is it just shoddy identity politics? And if it is true, what do we make of it?

This post is getting out of control, so I’ll cut myself off here. I’m throwing this open for discussion, in large part because I don’t know the answers. Urban planning interests me as a field, but I’ve never really pursued it because, eternal critic that I am, I have yet to latch on to any sort of coherent vision for how to revitalize a city. Duluth has considerable potential with its location, strong civic engagement, and unique culture; this city has a soul, and a lot of people probably don’t realize how unique that is. But where do we go from here?

Case Studies in Conservatism

Much like “liberalism,” the word “conservatism” has come to mean any number of things, and most of the time is used as code for “things I agree with” or “things I disagree with,” depending on one’s political ideology. Here, I’m going to use an old definition of “conservatism” that is not always followed closely by self-described conservatives: essentially, a conservative believes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and is skeptical of (but not always opposed to) government action. While I don’t always agree with their critiques, I do think they are important voices in government, which otherwise tends to attract devoted public servants who are excited to do good for their constituents, often to the point that they start throwing money about so freely that they run out of it, or regulate things to such an extent that law becomes unintelligible to most people (if not contradictory or unenforceable). Every political body needs at least one sober, perhaps cynical voice to, in the words of Bill Buckley, “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop.’” This is especially true in a city like Duluth, which does not have a shortage of well-intentioned people in government.

The problem with this conservatism is that people usually say a lot more than just “stop,” and their attempts to rationalize their opinions can make all the difference. Take the case of two local politicians who show the best and the worst sides of the conservative mindset.

At the Duluth City Council meeting this past Monday, I witnessed a clinic in compelling local government conservatism. Councilor Garry Krause voted against the grain on every contentious issue before the Council, and in several cases took the time to explain exactly why he voted the way he did not support added regulation or new development. Councilor Krause was concise, stated his principles, listed examples of negative ramifications of Council meddling, and had a knack for pithy lines that summed up his arguments. Though he disagreed with his colleagues, he remained congenial (in public, at least), and the other councilors often made an effort to respond to his critiques. They seemed to respect one another, and Krause showed a willingness to work with the other Councilors when they do find some common ground. His perspective seems to understand the world is a very complicated place, but he knows where he stands within it, and looks to carve out a niche that leaves his conscience comfortable at the end of the day. While his frequent partner in dissent, Councilor Jay Fosle, comes off as a loose cannon who picks his battles (and his words) haphazardly, Krause manages to be a man of conviction without putting on any airs of self-righteousness.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find people like the Member Art Johnston of the Duluth School Board. Like Krause, Johnston is a reasonably effective public speaker who can put together a solid sound bite. He is also not a dumb man, as evidenced by his encyclopedic knowledge of District bylaws and procedures, and by his careful consideration of issues on which his anti-Long Range Facilities Plan ideological framework does not have much to say. Even his greatest critics would never deny that he is true to his principles.

Yet Johnston is no Krause. He evinces self-righteousness and resentment par excellence. He is disruptive, holding up such routine processes as the approval of meeting minutes. He votes against practically everything before the Board even when those votes serve zero practical purpose, largely to keep up his ideological consistency. His relentless attacks have so alienated the rest of the Board that they only rarely acknowledge his presence, and simply work past him instead of working with him. Whatever his broader political views may be (and I have no idea what they are), his style is reminiscent of some Tea Party politicians: it is virulent, hard-line, and takes no prisoners. As I left the building after the meeting, I overheard him telling a companion, “I don’t know what’s wrong with those people. Actually, I do.” Whatever it was that he understood or did not understand about “those people” (a phrase that immediately sets off alarm bells in my head), his world is clearly one of rigid, Manichean distinctions.

The easy conclusion to this piece would be “Krause good, Johnston bad,” and to say the world needs more conservatives like the former, and fewer like the latter. Reality, unfortunately, is not that simple. Taking the time to develop a complex view of the world while also balancing that with a few core principles is not easy, and is not a trait found in many politicians, who are usually rewarded at the ballot box for taking firm stances. Voters don’t always appreciate nuance.

Furthermore, telling history to stop is a very difficult thing. Both Krause and Johnston hardly ever win. And when one never wins, it is easy to understand the allure of a Johnston, who at least makes the world well-aware of his presence. For all his faults, Johnston has a committed following, and a few of his supporters still come forward to thank him at the end of every meeting. Krause, on the other hand, has no fan club. As he himself noted at last week’s meeting, he is, effectively, the defender of the “mundane and boring.” And when one is not viciously screaming at the opposition, it is not hard for other committed conservatives to see one as too compliant, too much of a loyal opposition, leaving the principled conservative with very few allies. Thus the Garry Krauses of the world face a dilemma: do they sell their souls and join the Art Johnstons, going down screaming? Or do they stay true to basic standards of decorum and fight only the necessary battles, praying the voters will recognize their efforts? It is not too hard to see some immediate parallels between this debate and one of the key rifts in today’s Republican Party.

I’ve set up two ideal types here, and it’s worth noting that they didn’t emerge out of vacuums. At present, the Duluth City Council seems to be a fairly agreeable body, and while it makes its mistakes and may have a certain groupthink to it, it usually manages a constructive conversation. Within the confines of its mission and realistic standards, it is an effective body. The School Board, on the other hand, is still in the shadow of an extremely divisive school restructuring plan, and its culture remains poisoned by a near-existential war. It is easy to dismiss Johnston’s motives as sheer resentment, but his views had to be honed and hardened by something. It is the responsibility of the non-conservatives to understand his mindset, and not in a simplistic way that is just as black-and-white as Johnston’s worldview. The same is true at the national level: it is unfortunate that Washington can barely manage civil discourse anymore, but there are underlying cultural reasons for the breakdown in civility, and there is plenty of blame to be spread around on that front. No one is innocent.