Tag Archives: harry welty

Duluth Primary Prognosis 2017

10 Sep

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

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

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

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

City Council

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

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

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

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

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

School Board

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

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

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

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

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

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How Duluth Defines ‘Divisive’

27 Aug

Harry Welty is upset. This in itself is not really news, but this time around, it’s for a new reason. The candidate he favors in the at-large race for an open seat on the ISD 709 School Board, Alanna Oswald, was the subject of a withering dismissal in the Duluth News-Tribune’s primary election endorsements. Oswald’s involvement with the district “can leave voters concerned about adding another member to the School Board concerned with exploiting problems rather than solving them and with being divisive rather than cooperative.”

I always read Harry with a grain of salt, so I watched the video of Oswald’s interview with the DNT to see if it was an accurate assessment. If this is the editorial board’s idea of divisiveness, I shudder to think of what would happen if its members were ever to actually meet a divisive person. I wouldn’t say we agree on everything, but she seems like an eminently reasonable west side lifer with admirable commitment to achieving results in education. Her take on Art Johnston—guy with an obnoxious tone with whom she sometimes disagrees, yet sometimes has good ideas that the rest of the Board ignores because they come from Art Johnston—couldn’t be more accurate. It’s the least divisive, most balanced view you’ll hear about Johnston from anyone in the world of ISD 709 (in public, anyway).

Otherwise, she paints herself as an advocate for parents. I hang out with hockey parents, so I can understand being leery of empowering parents who might then start hounding teachers unreasonably, claiming they ‘bully’ their children for having standards or holding them accountable for failings that are much closer to home. However, I doubt Oswald has any of my favorite east side helicopter parents in mind when she talks about giving parents a voice. She’s talking about teaching parents who don’t know the landscape or the language of education the skills to become engaged in their children’s school lives. This should be something that everyone in this race agrees is worthwhile. Beyond that, we’re left with some real, but hardly confrontational, demands for accountability from the Board and administration. Reasonable debate has apparently become a sin.

With comments like the ones about Oswald, the DNT board will only perpetuate the ongoing travesty that is the ISD 709 Board: a group that mistakes imposed conformity for consensus, and fails to find nuance in the views of its political rivals. By tossing someone like Oswald under the bus, the editorial board gives Welty and Johnston all the ammunition they need to keep blasting away and rallying the base. That minority isn’t going away, and voters need to elect candidates who neither define themselves with or against that duo. Oswald isn’t necessarily perfectly neutral either—she obviously some ties to Welty—but if that was a concern for the editorial board, it should have probed a bit more to find out. Guilty until proven innocent, apparently. I fear Oswald’s loose ties to Welty, whose recent silly spat with DNT editorial editor Chuck Frederick probably left him in their doghouse, may cost her the election.

None of this is to cast any aspersions on the candidate the DNT did endorse, Renee Van Nett. Like Oswald, she’s a longtime community activist, and she has an extensive resume working with groups that often struggle in ISD 709. She says all of the right things about the Red Plan being in the past and wanting to move on from that mess. But achieving such neutrality in the current Board would be an incredible feat, and I have my doubts that someone with the clear endorsement of many sitting members of the majority will be able to pull it off.

Whether she likes it or not, Van Nett now has all the endorsements; she is now an appendage of the DFL-backed Duluth political machine. Duluth’s machine is a surreptitious one that doesn’t always know it is a machine, but it is one nonetheless, and it can be a vicious gatekeeper. And lest this sound like an anti-establishment screed, I’m not much of a radical; I can see myself playing the game and operating somewhere within some city’s political machinery someday. But at least I won’t have any illusions about it.

For now, however, it’s hard to believe that an insider can do anything to change the tenor of the ISD 709 Board, which is something that has to happen before anyone can implement any of the noble plans for rescuing the district’s enrollment that candidates of all stripes propose. I submitted my absentee ballot application today. In at least one race, I know who I’m voting for.

Art Johnston Under Siege: Duluth School Board Notes, 6/17/14

18 Jun

With a meeting that fell five minutes short of four hours, the ISD 709 School Board endured a grueling, painful marathon on Tuesday night. I’m only going to comment briefly on the meeting at the end of this post. Part of me is very frustrated that I have to do this, and that the circus surrounding one man overpowers the interest in the far more pressing affairs looming over the District. But it’s impossible to understand everything else that happened on Tuesday night without the overall context.

That looming bit of context, of course, was last week’s headline news: Member Art Johnston is under review for alleged improper conduct. I was unable to attend the special meeting due to the frustratingly short notice given to the public, and I have some reservations about saying too much, given that my only sources of information are hearsay and a paper of which I have a rather ambivalent opinion. Still, my initial reaction was much in line with the Duluth News Tribune’s editorial over the weekend: is this really necessary?

There were eight public speakers in Member Johnston’s defense, and in addition to a lot of other noise, they put forward one key criticism, best articulated by Ms. Denette Lynch: it seemed like a very poor use of the District’s resources to investigate something that seemed like a personal dispute between Member Johnston, Chair Miernicki, and Supt. Gronseth. The majority of the group came from the familiar crowd of Johnston supporters, that curious coalition of the sincere anti-Red Plan crowd and people who are affronted by any spending on education whatsoever. Member Welty had to talk one out of displaying his large “Fire Gronseth” sign, and the crowd of Johnston supporters, numbering perhaps twenty, whooped and laughed and cheered throughout the speeches. (Chair Miernicki made no effort to stop them, which would normally bother me no matter the topic, but given the delicacy of the power dynamic at play here, it was probably the right decision. Indeed, after five months of being rather unimpressed with Chair Miernicki’s leadership, I thought he started to come into his own on Tuesday night.)

Two speakers did stand out from the crowd. One, DFL activist Brad Clifford, put forth a broader defense of minority rights and the benefits of debate and dissention, quoting several prominent liberal politicians and saying the votes of the citizens of District Four (in favor of Johnston) ought to be respected. The other was Ms. Jane Bushey, Member Johnston’s partner, whose emotional speech jived with the general outline of the Reader account. She said “lies, accusations, and assumptions” from a Duluth East administrator had led to a request that she be moved elsewhere in the district, which HR had unquestioningly accepted. “I just want to do my job,” she said, condemning the “bullies” who were out to get her. Member Johnston’s conflict of interest in the affair and “abuse related to a staff member” constituted two of the charges against him, and are apparently the reason he sought out Chair Miernicki and Supt. Gronseth for a scolding at the Duluth East graduation.

Another charge that got plenty of mention was the alleged assault, as people indignantly wondered where the police report was. The problem here, I gather, is the awful legalese used in the accusations. In my reading of the charges, no one is technically accusing Member Johnston assault. He’s being accused of something that falls under the umbrella of “alleged assault or otherwise improper conduct.” Ditto for the “racist” accusation: the complete claim is “alleged racist or otherwise improper comments.” These are horrifically worded categories that—I presume—make the accusations sound far worse than they actually are. Knowing what I do of the incident, Member Johnston is accused of the “otherwise improper” actions. Any other claim couldn’t stand on two legs, and I doubt Supt. Gronseth and Chair Miernicki are dumb enough to push that far. Instead, they thought highly charged comments and apparent conflict of interest were enough to cross the line and launch the inquest.

The “otherwise improper” categories are obviously a legal grey area. Without knowing more, I still stand by my initial assessment: this seems like a needless distraction, and one that only empowers Member Johnston’s narrative of victimhood at the hands of the rest of the Board. What’s laughable about all of this, really, is Member Johnston’s powerlessness; sure, he can cause a stink and badger people with his questions, but when it comes to actual policy influence, his achievements are minimal. The investigation gives him a soapbox to gain more attention, drags out old fights in the negative PR, and works against the general trend of the past few months, in which Member Johnston had been more agreeable than in the past.

Still, two things struck me over the course of this meeting: the number of times that I agreed with the thrust of Member Johnston’s questions and comments (which was fairly often) and the fact that, in spite of that, he still had me cringing in exasperation every time he turned on his light. Before the meeting, I had some pre-written language ready that would have mounted a much more vigorous defense of his rights. But, after Tuesday’s display, I had to throw it out. I cannot use it in good conscience.

Part of this is a style problem. Brevity is not one of Member Johnston’s strong suits. He trails on and on, repeats himself unnecessarily, and when he doesn’t get answers he wants, he will continue to ask questions, knowing full well he won’t get the desired response. He seemed to relish every such opportunity on Tuesday, thus leading to the meeting’s absurd length. It’s his way of proving a point. It isn’t uncivil, per se, but it comes across as domineering and tiresome. It lacks all perspective, and it wears people down and makes them feel like they’re being scolded. Sure, he makes occasional overtures to finding common ground, but his comments are suffused with such a lack of trust of anyone else that it’s hard to find them wholly sincere. Again, this is not all his fault, but one wonders at what point the well becomes too poisoned to be of any use.

Moreover, he has an ally on the Board in Member Welty who, despite similar voting patterns, comes off entirely differently. He’s eloquent, and manages to maintain a sharp focus on the issues that most concern him (namely, the threat of standard operating debt) without belaboring the point. A well-honed opposition message has considerable potential, and based on Member Welty’s success, might even stand to do well in elections in places other than the most anti-establishment district in the city. It just isn’t correct for Member Johnston to act as if he is not part of his own problem.

Member Johnston’s failures don’t absolve the rest of the Board of its shortcomings. On Tuesday night, it came to light that he and Member Welty were having trouble getting things on the agenda, while majority Board members were not. While the Administration deserves some leeway in agenda creation if the items in question have already been beaten to death, the “minority rights” argument does pull significant weight. I voted for Harry Welty; I like good debate and serious questions. I do find it frustrating that the Administration can’t answer all of his questions, particularly the ones pertaining to the District’s long-term finances. He needs some people to work with him.

Sadly, the only one he has right now is someone whose personality has grown so large that it overwhelms everything else that happens. Despite the loss of an agreeable vote, I suspect Member Welty might actually be able to make more headway without the specter of Member Johnston’s outbursts looming over the Board. Member Johnston may think he’s shedding light in dark places, but in the end, his relentless questioning only serves to obscure the most pressing issues. He has got to learn how to choose his battles. His reaction is a microcosm of the whole anti-Red Plan movement that got him elected in the first place: it’s an eclectic group unified only by its opposition to something, and when it finds itself stonewalled by an imperious majority, we’re left with a lot of cathartic primal screaming that drowns out substance, leading to inevitable fracturing as everyone beats their own drums. The movement stays in the headlines, yet it achieves not a single one of its objectives. They’d rather go down kicking and screaming than be so audacious as to imagine a different paradigm. The few who hazard steps in that direction, like Member Welty, find themselves rather lonely.

In a rather fitting paradox, a discussion over The Civility Project’s nine tools of civility introduced for re-affirmation by the Board illustrated this problem best. Member Welty made a few reasonable critiques of the “subjectivity” of the whole thing, but concluded by saying he hoped it would help the District “find its better angels.” Member Johnston, after hitting a few similar notes, piled on from there, condemning left and right before attempting to haul Ms. Anita Stech, an advocate for the Civility Project, up to the podium for questioning, asking this poor woman to play judge and jury on past incidents in which he thought members of the Board had been uncivil to him. I agree that the project could be fairly empty in content if people are too locked into their views to take its points in good faith. But to expect a couple of community volunteers to wade into this mess is self-serving, and misses the point completely. (The parties in question would also be accused of partisanship the second they weighed in. Do we seriously want some self-appointed Civility Police roaming the city? Do people honestly think that would end well?) The whole special resolution was a reminder of a guideline, not a binding legal contract. (On the other end of the spectrum, Members Westholm and Seliga-Punyko raised some silly objections to Member Johnston’s ultimate attempt to include “honesty and care for other Board members” on the list, worrying about hijacking the civility people’s message. Thankfully, the majority of the Board saw that this was not worth fighting over, and passed the amendment 5-2 before the whole thing was approved unanimously.)

Perhaps this critique singles out Member Johnston when someone such as Member Seliga-Punyko is just as partisan, if not more so. She, however, has the luxury of being in the majority; she can bask in her victories without undue stress. To be an effective legislator, Member Johnston can’t just throw bombs; he needs to be able to work with his fellow Board members. To his credit, he’s tried at times. But he can’t revert to old form—not even when he gets accused of things on potentially trumped-up charges. That’s the burden of being the principled member of the minority: no matter how tempting it is to lash back, one must rise above the fray. If he can, excellent; let’s put this tiff behind us and build a better District. If not, I can’t say I’ll shed any tears if he gets the boot from the Board. He may not be the man who pulls the trigger, but he most definitely will have supplied the ammunition.

One last point: Member Johnston also seems to labor under the pretension that the incivility directed toward him is among the causes for the District’s enrollment struggles. Sure, the negative headlines don’t help, but on the list of reasons why people don’t enroll their kids in ISD 709, the plight of one cantankerous Board member is very, very far down the list. Another useful point to minority members who want to advance their cause: never over-inflate your own role in the drama. Your critics may want to make you (and not your platform) the story. Don’t let them. In doing so, you hand them the win. It’s not about you.

***

So, what did the Board do on Tuesday besides play out a drama over the representative of the Fourth District? It passed a budget, for one thing. Member Welty voted against it because of his lack of information on the long-term picture, and there was some aimless talk over whether it is better to use increased assets to rebuild the reserve fund (as Member Welty suggested) or simply injected straight back into the schools (Member Johnston). There was the aforementioned flap over how to get things on the agenda, with the majority voting down Johnston and Welty 5-2 in their effort to change things.

There was a constructive discussion in the Education Committee report on the evolving policies for students who have been bullied or sexually harassed, and Member Westholm was pleased to announce that staffing levels were the most stable he’d seen in all his years. (That’s a long time.) Member Johnston, upset with how an Administration re-shuffle had opened up the curriculum director position, voted against that particular item, which otherwise passed 6-1, and he got in his usual shtick about enrollment numbers. There was a repeat of the debate over the number of people needed to call a special meeting, with the same result as at the May meeting. Member Johnston also asked why a large number of Piedmont teachers had apparently applied to transfer schools, and Supt. Gronseth replied with a long list of reasons, from changes in leadership to opportunities in administration that had opened up. That wrapped up the meeting, a few minutes shy of 10:30. Why I do this to myself, I’m not entirely sure.

Meet Your 2014-2015 Duluth School Board

8 Jan

Last week I previewed the new City Council; here now is a rundown on the new ISD 709 School Board.

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp

1st District; Woodland, Hunters Park, eastern Lakeside, North Shore, Townships

1st term (elected 2013)

-A lifelong local education activist, Loeffler-Kemp cruised to the 1st district seat to replace retiring ten-year Board veteran Ann Wasson, a Red Plan champion. Loeffler-Kemp ran a very positive campaign, focusing on issues like class sizes and bullying instead of the Red Plan, which she believes the community must move past. She has been named Treasurer of the Board for the coming year.

Judy Seliga-Punyko

2nd District; Kenwood, UMD, Congdon, western Lakeside

2nd term (elected 2007)

-Seliga-Punyko is the last of the Board’s pro-Red Plan warriors, and has no qualms about lashing out at Art Johnston or other Board critics. Very committed to existing processes and the Board’s mission to students, regardless of community sentiment; she was the only Member to support a Board-imposed tax increase as opposed to sending the levies to the voters. Has also championed several pet causes, such as swimming pools in the new high schools. Was frequently absent from meetings toward the end of last year. Won re-election by a large margin two years ago. Has been chosen as Board Clerk for 2014.

Bill Westholm

3rd District; Endion, Downtown, Hillsides, Park Point, Chester Park, Duluth Heights, Piedmont

1st term (elected 2011)

-Westholm, a retired former Denfeld principal and district administration employee, won an unopposed race in 2011. He largely chose to avoid any mention of the Red Plan fracas during his first two years, and usually isn’t one to talk much, though he will ask questions on new proposals and is clearly well-versed in education policy debates. Will serve as the Board’s Vice Chair in 2014.

Art Johnston

4th District; western Observation Hill, and everything below the hill to the west (minus Bayview Heights, which is in the Proctor district)

2nd term (elected 2009)

-Johnston is the Board’s resident crank, and has taken it upon himself to serve as the voice of Duluthians who oppose any expansion of education funding. Takes no prisoners in vicious attacks on anyone who does not give him the answers he wants to hear. Lodged countless protest votes against the Red Plan over his first term, though his tactics tended to alienate the few potential allies he had, and his protests did not amount to a single legislative victory. It is hard to know how his role will evolve now that the Red Plan is largely in the past, though his re-election does prove he still has a strong base of support.

Harry Welty

At-Large

3rd term (first served 1996-2004; re-elected in 2013)

-Though it’s been ten years since he last served, Welty comes in as the most senior member of the Board. He’s been all over the intricacies Duluth education in his lifetime, though he is best known for his leading role in the anti-Red Plan crusade. Unlike Johnston, however, he ran a more conciliatory post-Red Plan campaign, and ambitiously seeks to work with the majority while still hearing the objections of the critics. Welty is very much his own man, and while his independence gives him a unique perspective, it also leads him to make some tone-deaf remarks. Time will tell if he can hold that center and help heal the Red Plan scars.

Mike Miernicki

At-Large

1st term (elected 2011)

-Miernicki, the jolly former Duluth East activities director, usually tries to keep the mood light at meetings, though his exasperation with Johnston shows through at times. Still, he tends to be a very agreeable and welcoming person without strong ideological tendencies, and has been named Board Chair for 2014.

Annie Harala

At-Large

1st term (elected 2013)

-Harala, a young Teach for America alumna, brings a fresh face to the Board. A Duluth native, she won her seat handily and stayed above the Red Plan fray with a push for more community involvement in schools. It remains to be seen how that plan will become reality.

Also of note:

Bill Gronseth

Superintendent

-Gronseth served for some time as an administrator in the District before taking the reins, and has been tasked with seeing the Red Plan through to fruition. He is relentlessly positive, doing all he can to stay respectful of Member Art Johnston. He took a gamble by putting the levies on the ballot, and was rewarded for his faith in Duluth voters; now, he has the less glamorous but no less difficult job of making sure that faith was well-placed.

Student Representatives

-Both high schools have a non-voting member on the Board; I don’t have the names of the new Members yet. The two 2013 representatives generally kept their quiet during meetings, though they did add their thoughts when high school student-specific topics came up, and one did have a memorable moment in which he scolded both sides of the Red Plan debate for their pettiness and incivility. (Naturally, the partisans in the room thought his words applied only to their opponents, and not to them.) We’ll see what the new ones can muster.

It’s a transitional period for the School Board. The past eight years or so have been consumed by Red Plan debate, but since that is all but over now, it will be interesting to see if those faults endure in any way, or if any new rifts will spring up. Big questions abound over the potential sale of the old Duluth Central, the restoration of the general fund and the allocation of new revenue achieved via the new levy imposed by voters this past fall. The new Board members will be expected to deliver on promises of smaller class sizes and new anti-bullying measures as well. We’ll see what this Board can muster.

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

6 Nov

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

5 Nov

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

27 Oct

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.