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.
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.
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 an amiable 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 similarly 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.
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.