Halfhearted Election Reflection 2021

Duluth had some municipal elections this week, and while I mostly lurked in the shadows this cycle, I feel compelled to offer up my usual closing thoughts. When compared to the national-level barometers in some sates and weighty ballot measures down south in Minneapolis, Duluth seemed decidedly sleepy this cycle. The two school board races for three open seats were predictable from the moment the filing deadline passed, with the only opposition to the labor/DFL bloc coming from two very familiar faces. Against that backdrop Loren Martell actually had a passable performance, pulling in over 4,000 votes, but the race was never really in doubt.

The District Two council race was a bloodbath. Mike Mayou, who fell short in the at-large race two years ago, had little trouble cleaning up against a fairly invisible campaign from Dave Zbaracki. Mayou won big everywhere, and now assumes the mantel of the retiring Joel Sipress, who has been the voice of the council’s leftward wing for the better part of a decade.

In District Four, on the other hand, things got a bit more interesting, as incumbent Renee Van Nett scraped out a win against Howie Hanson, whom she had herself unseated four years ago. Hanson’s campaign was consistent in its messaging, if nothing else, seeking to paint Van Nett as a tax-raising rubber-stamper of mayor Emily Larson’s agenda. This is an odd characterization of Van Nett, who is one of the more heterodox and interesting people in local politics, but Howie is, well, Howie, and his message had some resonance in the city’s most conservative district. (Remember when the guy first ran some years ago as a lockstep ally of Don Ness?) As was the case four years ago, Hanson carried the day in the Piedmont and Duluth Heights precincts, while Van Nett ran away with the three in Lincoln Park, which gave her enough of a margin.

The most interesting race (and the only one worthy of mapping) was the competition for the two open at-large seats, which became a three-way race when one of the people who advanced from the primary, Tim Meyer, withdrew from the race. (He still got over 1,000 votes. Not a bad showing, really.) Here, things broke as one might expect in a three-way race: the center-left figure nearest the center of Duluth politics, Terese Tomanek, coasted to victory. Like many winning coalitions in citywide politics, the east side was her base of support. Azrin Awal, meanwhile, was fueled by a strong personal story and DFL institutional power in a DFL city. She ran comfortably into the second seat despite winning only a handful of precincts around UMD and on the lower East Hillside, in neighborhoods often dominated by younger voters. Further to the right, Joe Macor seemed to try to run with the Derek Medved playbook, but he is not the singular figure Medved was two years ago when he ran up unprecedented margins in west side precincts. He still won much of the west side, but finished in a firm third place, and is now 0-for-2 in local elections. We’ll see if the Duluth right finds a new standard-bearer after this inability to break through.

2021 at-large race. Blue: Terese Tomanek; Red: Joe Macor; Green: Azrin Awal

This map is, somehow, nearly a carbon copy of the one from two years ago. Tomanek won pretty much every precinct that Arik Forsman won in 2019, plus the two that Noah Hobbs carried. All of the seats that Awal won were won by Mayou in his losing campaign two years ago. And Macor’s map pretty much maps on to Medved’s. The exceptions: Tomanek won two additional precincts, including 29 in the Denfeld area (won by Medved in 2019) and 15 on the upper hillside (won by Mayou), while Macor won one (23 in the upper Heights) that Forsman won in 2021. But yet, despite basically the same map, the actual results are very different, with the rightward-leaning figure dropping from first to a somewhat distant third, the center-left figure rising from second to first, and the leftward figure going from fourth to second. It goes to show what a unicorn Medved was, and also how a race with only two left-ish candidates (instead of the three in 2019) is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Functionally, I’m not sure this changes things dramatically. Replacing the retiring Zack Filopovich with Awal does move things leftward; her successful and money-flush campaign showed how the DFL has gravitated that way, which is a statewide and national trend, and will certainly be a factor in coming elections. On the flip side, the firmly progressive bloc of the council no longer has Sipress as its commanding presence, and it will be interesting to see how the newcomers, Mayou and Awal, position themselves vis-a-vis figures like Mayor Larson or even councilor Janet Kennedy, who are no one’s real idea of moderates but also not exactly in lockstep with progressive movement politics, either. The center of the council is blurrier than it has been in recent years, which opens up some interesting potential arrangements and makes being able to whip the votes a valuable skill. The mayor herself also has a looming decision on a run at a potential third term, and we also await the results of a redistricting process, which is unlikely to bring major change but could alter some things at the margins. There will be no shortage of intrigue in the coming years.


Duluth Election Dissection 2017

Another year at the polls has come and gone. Now, as is my wont, I’ll play Monday morning (Wednesday evening?) quarterback for the campaigns. Sadly, I no longer have easy GIS access (unless I have any volunteer GIS slaves out there?), so I won’t have pretty maps like I did two years ago, and will spare my readers the Microsoft Paint maps I made four years ago. You’ll just have to make do with some descriptions of the precinct-by-precinct results.

It was a fairly predictable night in city council politics, as is generally the case. The school board, meanwhile, saw a more dramatic change in direction. Voter turnout was low, even for a non-mayoral off year election. Rates ranged from about 40 percent on the east side to less than 20 percent in a handful of downtown and west side precincts, for a city-wide total of 27.9 percent.

Council Stability Continues

In the at-large city council races, the two incumbents, Zack Filipovich and Barb Russ, carried the day. The end results mirrored the primary. Filipovich’s ground game and ability to lock up labor support separated him from the pack, and he ran comfortably ahead of the field. Russ was the candidate among the four least likely to inspire strong emotions; while the other three all had their ardent supporters and vocal critics, everyone seemed more or less fine with Barb Russ, and that was enough to edge her past the two challengers, Janet Kennedy and Rich Updegrove. The end result was a vote for continuity, and for two incumbents who may not inspire the activist base of the Duluth left, but are certainly acceptable to most of them and know the ins and outs of local politics.

Kennedy had a core committed supporters, and while there were some strong symbolic acts associated with it, as in her trek from one end of the city to the other, that attention was largely limited to a core of high information voters, and I never got the sense that she generated attention beyond that outside of a couple of core neighborhoods. (For example, I received multiple leaflets from every other candidate on my ballot, but never saw a thing from the Kennedy campaign.) Updegrove generated some strong early momentum, but in the end his campaign didn’t seem to move past generic talking points associated with the leftward wing of the Democratic Party, and while that platform will do reasonably well in Duluth, it isn’t at a point where it will win, either. For me, at least, this was a noticeable juxtaposition with the likes of Russ, who was deep in the weeds on housing policy specific to Duluth. Following the lead of her ally Filipovich, she did the necessary retail politics to pull out the election.

In the Second District, Joel Sipress cruised to re-election over political newcomer Ryan Sistad. It’s possible for a 23-year-old to run a successful campaign—see Filipovich’s effort four years ago—but Sistad didn’t have anywhere near that level of polish. While Sipress’s politics may not be all that different from those of an Updegrove, he has a keen knowledge of how to play the political game, focusing on neighborhood issues and emphasizing his service to a district in a way that other staunch members of the left do not. They have something to learn from him, though the caliber of one’s opponents also makes a difference.

Finally, in the Fourth District, Renee Van Nett eked out a win over incumbent Howie Hanson. As the most suburban district in the city, the Fourth is fertile ground for the fiscally conservative platform Hanson ran on; frankly, I think anyone else running on Hanson’s issues in this district probably would have won. But Hanson is a recent adopter of many of these issues, and anyone who has watched him in action knew that he (to put it politely) wasn’t always the smoothest ambassador for his positions. Van Nett brings some newfound diversity to the Council (two out of its nine members are now at least part Native American), and with her emphasis on building consensus and cooperation instead of hard policy stands, she’s one of the more blank slates to enter the council in recent years.

The geography of the votes was also fairly predictable. Filipovich won most of the precincts, while Kennedy collected a handful downtown and on the hillsides, plus Irving out west. Upedgrove led on the UMD campus, which is often an outlier, while Russ didn’t win one. Filipovich and Russ, whose vote totals tended to move in concert, did their best on the east and west ends of the city, and also cleaned up in Piedmont and Duluth Heights, where they likely benefited from not having anyone to their right and were likely considered the least bad options by Duluth’s more conservative neighborhoods. Kennedy’s strength of support was in the center of the city, though she also did passably well on the west side. Updegrove, in contrast, was at his best on the east side but ran poorly on the west side, which was probably his undoing.

In the Second District, Sipress cleaned up pretty much everywhere, with Kenwood being the only precinct in which he was (slightly) under 60 percent. Predictably, Howie Hanson did his best work in Duluth Heights and Piedmont in the Fourth District, while Van Nett owned Lincoln Park. She rolled up her margins in those lower-income precincts down the hill, and stayed competitive enough in Piedmont and the Heights to take down Hanson.

In the end, the results here are pretty clear. While this election removed one of the two semi-conservative councilors in Howie Hanson (if one could even call him that), it also rejected a move further left in the at-large races, in effect staying the course. There was perhaps a slight leftward drift given Van Nett’s breakthrough and the failure of the conservatives to get a candidate to the final four in the at-large race, but there are enough asterisks with Hanson that I don’t think the end result signals any sort of sea change in Duluth politics.

The Great School Board Slaughter of 2017

There’s no real way to spin this one: the 2017 school board elections were a decisive mandate for the DFL-backed candidates, the current district administration, and the present direction of the Board.

The slaughter was most extreme in the two district races. In the First District, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the incumbent perhaps most strongly aligned with the district administration, had no trouble dispatching of Kurt Kuehn. But even more eye-opening was Jill Lofald’s demolition of two-term incumbent Art Johnston in the Fourth District. Johnston has withstood intense opposition before, but this time he suffered a 15-point loss. Things were somewhat tighter in the at-large race, but Sally Trnka and Josh Gorham still comfortably outpaced incumbent Harry Welty and newcomer Dana Krivogorsky.

Heading into Election Day, I wasn’t sure if running as a unified ticket with Welty and Johnston, who have their supporters but also their share of baggage, would help or hurt Krivogorsky and Kuehn. In 20/20 hindsight, it’s hard not to see it as a mistake, as Krivogorsky’s careful attention to finance charts seemed to get lost in her association with the other campaigns. Ten years after the Red Plan became reality, beating that same old drum has exhausted Duluth voters. Longtime readers will know I think Johnston and Welty have raised important points over the years, but the rhetoric here has become so repetitive and so personal that I can see how even many who are not thrilled with the nonstop positivity of the DFL candidates would sour on the same old act. Johnston seemed tired, Welty’s blog posts degenerated into a lot more snipping at opponents, and Loren Martell’s columns in the Reader lately might have come out of a Loren Martell Column Generator. Casting protest votes that never achieve anything concrete gets old after a while, and I’ve long maintained that when the focus is more on the candidates themselves than the causes they represent, it’s probably a sign that their time has come and gone. This district needs newer, more constructive critics of the board’s recent direction.

This victory may prove short-lived for the new, completely post-Red Plan school board. Budgetary issues loom large, and unsold buildings still sit vacant. ISD 709 can’t afford many more cuts. The pessimistic case would say that these new, ever-so-positive board members are naively barreling into a future they are ill-equipped to handle. The optimistic case holds that removing the old Red Plan warriors may be a healthy thing: instead of assuming the same old battle lines, perhaps we can now have more open and honest debates on the issues in front of the board. It’s possible to be critical without being abrasive, as Alanna Oswald has shown us, and some clearer air could do everyone some good. Perchance to dream.

The precinct results still reveal some measure of the old east-west divide in Duluth school politics: the combined total for Trnka and Gorham cleared 60 percent in nearly every east side precinct, while the totals were much closer on the west. Still, Welty and Krivogorsky only combined for the majority in three precincts in the city: the two in Duluth Heights and in Irving, which is traditionally the most anti-Red Plan in the city proper. Normanna and North Star Townships, which they also carried, are similarly on the far fringe of that issue. Factoring in Johnston’s defeat, the east-west divide was actually less pronounced in 2017 than it has been in recent years: Lofald’s win was so thorough that Johnston was only within ten percentage points of her in Irving. Meanwhile, in the First District, Loeffler-Kemp swept the deck in the Duluth precincts in the First District, and Kuehn was fairly competitive only in the low-vote townships and Rice Lake.

Street Tax Success

Duluth voters voiced their support for a sales tax dedicated to street repairs by a margin of over three to one. This was the clear message I expected them to send, but by an even more decisive margin than I might have guessed. No one much likes it, but we have to take our pills, and frustration with potholes seems to unite Duluthians regardless of their political leanings. Another tax increase isn’t the easiest thing to swallow, particularly for voters on fixed incomes—I can only hope that the other shoe doesn’t drop when it comes to a future school board levy—but with a clear need and overwhelming popular support, mayor Emily Larson has the vote of endorsement she needs to move this through the state legislature.

Side Notes

I’ll end with a special shoutout to Jono Cowgill, the new District Four representative on the Minneapolis Parks Board. The MURP Class of 2016 is doing big things. Who’s next?

Primaries, Facebook Fights, and Park Planning: A Duluth September Political Roundup

When I can sit out on my front porch in mid-September and write, rest my sore knees beneath trees frosted in hints of red and orange, bask in sun and Lake Superior breeze, that’s Duluth at its finest. Writing about politics seems vaguely dirty for a day like this, but I am nothing if not duty-bound, and have a document with some fiction in it open right now too. Here, then, is a roundup of recent political happenings in Duluth, which is an example of Duluth at its finest, not at its finest, and various places in between, depending on where one sits.

A Few Primary Election Comments

Busy life events kept me from making an immediate response to last week’s primaries, so I’ll toss out a few comments on the results here. The major takeaway was the dominance of the Duluth DFL, despite my rumblings about possible cracks last week. Zack Filipovich, the only at-large city council candidate to receive a party endorsement, was well clear of the field; in the Fourth District, Renee Van Nett, who was not DFL-endorsed but was two years ago as a school board candidate and certainly was the closest to the center of the party of the three candidates, ran comfortably ahead of incumbent Howie Hanson and Tom Furman, and as she’s certainly better positioned to collect the votes of the eliminated Furman, Hanson is probably toast. At-large incumbent Barb Russ, who was not DFL-endorsed this time but was four years ago and is certainly more of an established DFL figure than any of the others in the field, surprised me by running second. And while her margin over Janet Kennedy and Rich Updegrove was slim, and promises a tight fight in November, it’s certainly a strong showing.

The only other point I’ll make is a repeat of an old mantra that lawn signs do not win elections. Signage for Updegrove would make one think he was going to compete with Filipovich for the top spot instead of finishing fourth; Jan Swanson, who had some strong concentrations of signs in certain neighborhoods, did not build on that support elsewhere. On my reconnaissance run through a bunch of west side neighborhoods, it was hard not to think Loren Martell would make it out of the primaries in the school board at-large race, while Dana Krivogorsky was doomed. Instead, she eked past him.

I’m not sure how much good it will do her: while Martell’s voters will almost certainly flip to Krivogorsky and Harry Welty, those two ran far behind the two DFL-endorsed candidates. As noted in my preview, I find it more than a little paradoxical that people in DFL circles think this district has serious equity issues and is suffering for its six-period days, and then proceed to summarily ignore, if not straight-up denigrate, the only candidates who are actually proposing concrete solutions to these problems. I’m not saying I agree with their solutions across the board, but the rigidity with which people inhabit their camps based on old Red Plan fault lines—whether they supported or opposed it—is sad.

This Is Why We Don’t Waste Our Time on Internet Rants, Kids

The other bit of Duluth political news last week, if it can really be called that, was a flap between city council president Joel Sipress and DFL district chairman Justin Perpich. Sipress and Perpich exemplify one of the fault lines in the DFL that I thought could fracture this coalition, as they are on opposite sides of the debates over the merits of mining projects on the Iron Range. I’m sure there is some backstory as to how things got to this point, and I don’t really care to know all the details; in short, Perpich criticized the failure of the anti-mining group Duluth for Clean Water to disclose its campaign spending on a Facebook post by Sipress’s wife, and the council president, who found the characterization of Duluth for Clean Water as some sort of dark money organization misleading, told Perpich to “go fuck himself,” among other things. Perpich promptly shared this private Facebook message with the press.

No one really looks good here. Perpich’s posts seem awfully petty, and the ultimate financial disclosure does appear to debunk any claim that Duluth for Clean Water is getting lots of money poured into it by non-Duluthians. (Unsolicited advice to pro-mining camp: trying to sound like you’re the resource-poor is side in this debate is…not going to get you much sympathy with the general public.) On the other hand, this was also a city council that recently generated enough pressure to get Linda Krug to step down from the council presidency when she used her bully pulpit to harangue a colleague on the council. Difficult as this may be to remember in the Trump Era, we traditionally have had higher standards for politician conduct in public, though of course this runs into the question of whether or not a form of messaging that Facebook calls “private” is actually private. Hence the lesson that was beaten into me from a young age, which Sipress has just learned the hard way: never, ever, ever assume that anything you share with anyone on the internet will remain private.

Speaking for myself, I’m not terribly offended to learn that a politician uses the occasional vulgarity, but other people have different standards, and anyone in the public eye should probably be aware of that. (And, since I’m on a roll, some unsolicited advice for the anti-mining camp: gallivanting up to the Range to tell people you do not know that their lives aren’t *that bad*  or treating anyone who supports mining as an idiotic simpleton seems like a pretty safe formula for turning onetime union Democrats into Trump voters. How each side in this debate frames its case can make all the difference in the world.)

At the risk of sounding like the grumpy young millennial scolding the old people around him on how to use the internet, this sort of thing is exactly why I go to great lengths to avoid political junk on Facebook. This isn’t to say I never engage, and the line between politics and the rest of life isn’t always clear. We all need some cathartic moments, too. But these days I find myself increasingly frustrated with the number of people I observe spending large parts of their day devoted to internet political drivel, no matter the flavor.

In an effort to generate something resembling positive discourse out of this rant-fest, I recommend the following litmus test for anyone who wants to post anything political on Facebook:

  1. Is my post a call to immediate action, or is it more of a general lament detached from any ability to influence anything?
  2. How many times have I made this same exact point in recent memory?
  3. Does this post contribute anything new or insightful, or am I merely regurgitating someone else’s work, or an opinion that anyone who actually knows me knows I already hold?
  4. Will this post inspire hard feelings (particularly of the personal variety) from people who will see it, and if so, is this cause so important to me that I am willing to risk that relationship?
  5. Are the people I am engaging colleagues or good friends/family who I know will take my opinion seriously and respond in kind, or is this Fred who I haven’t seen since high school graduation?
  6. Is the voice I am using in this discourse the same I would be willing to use to the face of someone who is the subject of my rant?
  7. Have I ever been guilty of whatever it is I’m currently charging my political opponents with?

Or you could, you know, just close Facebook and go outside or read a book or something. Or, if you really must stare at political things on screens, just explore the archives of a much more interesting and nuanced blog.

On the Flip Side: Democracy in Action

Last Thursday, I attended a public meeting at the Lower Chester warming house to discuss the future of that small park tucked in between 15th Ave. East and Chester Creek. In winters, it is currently home to several rinks run by the Congdon hockey association, which needed a new home when the Red Plan paved paradise and put up a parking lot next to Congdon Elementary. In summer, the main rink becomes a skate park, while the rest of it sits rather forlorn and patchy; a few neighbors spared no details in describing the lurid activity that takes place there some nights. There was a hint of everyone crammed into this grossly inadequate space: neighbors with kids who wanted the playground, some with said kids in tow; hockey parents, with a few hockey player kids also in tow and wandering the park; older neighbors who’d lived next to the park since the Wilson Administration or something like that; plus some kid for whom this sort of meeting is a perfect confluence of interests. Someone took it upon themselves to engage the skateboarders rolling around the rink, too. (The neighbors, incidentally, said the park’s upkeep had improved immensely since they moved in a few years back.)

The plan presented by the Parks Department went a long way toward accommodating all parties. The details aren’t all settled yet: the pleasure rink is not in the current plan, the playground location was the subject of some debate, and anything that emerges here is going to take money, none of which is currently budgeted. But when one attendee suggested closing down 15th Ave. in front of the park to create more space that could accommodate everyone, there seemed genuine consensus from all parties. (Except, perhaps, the city’s Public Works Department, but we can work on them.) It was a heartening moment, and a reminder that democracy really does work best in cramped little town halls, not in the far more cramped world of the things pecked out by internet warriors on a cell phone keyboard at odd hours of the night. Once again, Duluth provides a renewal of faith.

Correction: A previous version of this blog post stated that Renee Van Nett received the DFL endorsement in the 4th District race. She did not, and the text has been updated to reflect this.

Duluth General Election Results and Comments, 2015

Another election season has come and gone. Your results, with percentages followed by actual vote totals:

Duluth Mayor

Emily Larson 71.9 (15,352)

Chuck Horton 27.5 (5,862)

It’s a long-anticipated coronation, as Larson rolls into office. She’s basically been inevitable since most of the realistic challengers stood down early in the election cycle, and now she finally gets to move toward governance. Her policies will likely be a continuation of those of her predecessor, Don Ness; under Larson, Duluth should continue its re-invention as a creative, energetic city. Still, she’ll certainly have an opportunity to carve out her own legacy outside of Ness’s long shadow, and we’ll see what innovative ideas she brings forward, and how she looks to manage those who aren’t all on board with the Ness agenda. She is Duluth’s first female mayor.

City Council District One

Gary Anderson 61.9 (3,902)

Karl Spring 37.9 (2,389)

No great surprise here, as the far east side elects the more liberal candidate to replace Jennifer Julsrud.

City Council District Two

Joel Sipress (I) 97.5 (2,891)

After an unopposed run, Sipress returns to a council where he is suddenly among the more senior members. First appointed in 2014 after Patrick Boyle was elected to the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners, he now gets a full four-year term.

City Council District Three

Em Westerlund 82.4 (2,278)

Barri Love (withdrew from race) 16.8 (465)

Love’s withdrawal left Westerlund with no competition in this race to replace Sharla Gardner in the center of the city.

City Council District Five

Jay Fosle (I) 56.4 (2,215)

Janet Kennedy 43.4 (1,705)

The far west side of the city retains its contrarian streak and returns Fosle, a frequent skeptic of the Ness governing consensus, for a third term. Kennedy made up some ground on her primary gap, but ultimately failed to break through. Fosle is usually left playing the grumbling protest vote, though I definitely give him credit for occasional independent streak that produces some insights and occasionally highlights some perspectives that wouldn’t otherwise get a seat at the table. He is now the most senior member of the council.

City Council At-Large (Two open seats)

Elissa Hansen 37.8 (12,192)

Noah Hobbs 28.8 (9,271)

Jim Booth 21.5 (6,922)

Kris Osbakken 11.5 (3,699)

This script looks just like the one two years ago, as the two DFL candidates move through, leaving a conservative in third and a local Green Party figure in fourth. Hansen, a dynamic candidate with a background in economic development, was a shoo-in from the start. Hobbs, a younger guy with a lot of passion for the west side, should provide an interesting voice in coming debates over the future of that side of the city. The other two were always long shots.

City Council Big Picture: The Council’s ideological composition didn’t shift at all, as the lone conservative incumbent retained his seat and moderate liberals cleaned up everywhere else. There is on notable shift, though: there’s a youth movement afoot. Three of the nine councilors are now under thirty, and a fourth is in her thirties. In Don Ness’s wake there has been a generational shift in this city, and there’s a lot of young energy making its move into city politics. Do my generation proud, kids.

School Board District Two

David Kirby 59.7 (2,776)

Charles Obije 40.0 (1,857)

Kirby’s big lead from the primary carried through to the general election, and it’s little surprise to see him cruise through in a wealthy district that values its public education. He succeeds the polarizing Judy Seliga-Punyko, and he now gets to negotiate the school board minefield: is his positive talk a genuine desire to move forward from all this past junk, or will he follow his predecessor in staking out the battle lines? I thought Obije appeared a strong candidate, and hope he remains involved in some capacity.

School Board District Three

Nora Sandstad 64.2 (3,111)

Loren Martell 35.2 (1,705)

This makes three elections and three decisive losses for Martell; I thought he had a chance this time around, given his exposure through Reader columns and a more forgiving district. Instead, Sandstad carried the day. Like Kirby, she’s largely kept mum on big issues and said all the right things about staying positive and moving past recent ugliness; the big question now is how her apparent independence will play out in practice.

School Board At-Large

Alanna Oswald 51.5 (9,621)

Renee Van Nett 47.6 (8,910)

The tightest race of the evening also involved its biggest shift from the primary, as Oswald came back from an early deficit to ease past Van Nett. She was probably the most dynamic campaigner of the bunch, and if she can bring this energy to the board, it will be a very different place. If she can retain her independence, she’ll be a force. I also hope Van Nett continues her advocacy in key areas even though she’s not on the board.

School Board Big Picture: It’s a potential changing of the guard in ISD 709, as three consistent votes in the monolithically pro-administration bloc retire and three fairly new faces in Duluth school debates make their way in. Unlike some of the current and outgoing members, they don’t have long records siding with one side of the dead horse Red Plan debates. With two solid pro-administration votes and two staunch critics among the remaining members, these three now have the power to play kingmaker. Whatever they decide, one hopes they will stay above past squabbles, ask tough questions, and dig into the district’s most pressing debates. Color me cautiously optimistic that some new blood will leave the old debates behind and provide a much-needed jolt of energy for the real issues at stake.

Ranked Choice Voting Ballot Question

No 74.7 (15,564)

Yes 25.3 (5,271)

Mission accomplished.

My own opinions aside, this was quite the decisive vote. It shows how a campaign with considerable outside financial backing can fall to a largely grassroots local campaign (though Walter Mondale did weigh in on the ‘no’ side in the final week). It’s also distinctly Duluth, as the city chose not to follow in lockstep with the trend in the Twin Cities. Duluth elections will be a bit simpler for it, and perhaps we’ve finally heard the last of this well-intentioned but poorly supported and ultimately misguided attempt to “improve” democracy. Back to the real issues.

Non-Binding Lakeside Liquor Ban Repeal

Yes 59.3 (11,528)

No 40.7 (7,912)

This was, weirdly, a city-wide question, and the rest of the city had stronger opinions than the Lakeside residents did. Even so, opinion in Lakeside has shifted some since the 2008 referendum on this topic; at that point, it fell one vote short, while the DNT is now reporting the repeal got about 53 percent of the vote. Before I die, I will be able to buy a damn beer in my childhood neighborhood. (No, the 3.2 Coors at Super One does not count.)

Method of Setting City Council Pay Ballot Question

Yes 67.0 (14,031)

No 33.0 (6,917)

This procedural move lets the Charter Commission set council pay, which seems a bit wiser than letting them just vote on it themselves. Any new pay grade will still require Council approval. We’ll see if anything actually comes of this and revisit it if and when that debate starts up.

Time-permitting, I’ll be back with some comments on precinct-by-precinct results in the near future. Stay tuned.

Sipress Retains Seat

The Duluth City Council held a special meeting Thursday night to review the confused appointment of Joel Sipress to the 2nd District City Council seat. (See my notes on the meeting here, and my questions after the meeting here.) President Krug opened the meeting with a lengthy monologue, saying she had “never seen something quite as unseemly as this past week,” both in her time on the Council and during her work with University of Minnesota-Duluth faculty union.

After this opening, President Krug was at pains to insist she did not have any conflicts of interest in the vote, as some rumors had suggested since the initial meeting. (Kathy Heltzer is married to Krug’s spouse’s aunt.) She said that sort of tie was no different from the professional relationships several of the Councilors enjoyed with other candidates for the open seat, and said that, since the marriages were relatively recent—both couples in question are gay, and thus were not legally recognized as married until this past year—she hadn’t even thought of things in that way.

This explanation complete, President Krug then said that she called the meeting because the Council “did not follow established rules” and “filled the vacancy on a tie; integrity demanded a revisit. She went on to explain that the city charter does not allow for a special election, and that while Councilor Gardner will push a change to the charter at the next meeting, it “cannot be done in time.” She finished by suggesting that keeping the result would “silence” the voices of four members of the Council, and moved to reconsider the resolution appointing Sipress.

A tense pause followed before Councilor Julsrud moved the motion, and after a longer pause, Councilor Larson seconded it “for the sake of conversation.”

Councilor Fosle began the conversation by disagreeing with President Krug’s premises. He said that the Council should respect the initial ruling of Clerk Cox and Attorney Johnson, and that there were alternative ways to count votes via ranked choice voting. Echoing a point I made in my last post, he noted that Sipress had taken the oath, and asked Atty. Johnson if they could really unseat a Councilor in this manner. Atty. Johnson replied that they indeed could.

Councilor Julsrud then repeated many of President Krug’s points. She took care to explain her vote had nothing to do with Sipress, but was instead a “matter of justice” and wondered if half of the council was “comfortable with silencing the other half.” She also decried how political the whole process was behind the scenes, and said she had received “arm-twisting phone calls” by people trying to influence her vote.

Councilor Larson offered somewhat more tentative support for re-opening the vote, while Councilor Filipovich, after detailing his lengthy consultations with local politicians and citizens, came out against revisiting the resolution. “Why overturn a unanimous vote?” he asked, referring to the resolution to approve Sipress once he had been declared the winner via RCV, and listed several other challenges he would rather move on to face.

With no more comments, President Krug moved the reconsideration to a roll-call vote. The four Councilors who had supported Sipress (Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson) voted against reconsideration, while the four who had supported Heltzer (Julsrud, Krug, Larson, Russ) voted for it; Councilor Sipress, for obvious reasons, abstained. The move to reconsider thus failed to achieve the necessary five-vote majority, and Councilor Sipress will retain his seat.


The even margin confirms my concern heading into this meeting: nobody had budged, and it is very easy to construe the motives on both sides as being political. I don’t fault President Krug for at least raising the question; this was an instance in which the Council was damned if it did and damned if it didn’t. Still, the result was predictable, and we can only hope that grudges don’t linger.

If I may repeat an earlier criticism, I’m still bothered by the complete lack of comment by the Councilors over their initial votes. Some said the candidates were all lovely, but never went any further. On a certain level, this is true; both Sipress and Heltzer are well-qualified, and there are few, if any, ideological differences between them (or between them and the rest of the Councilors, save Councilor Fosle). But reading between the lines, it was pretty clear there were large gaps between the Sipress camp and the Heltzer camp, and that each group was hardened into their voting bloc. No one ever explained why, which leaves the rest of us guessing or relying on rumors. This makes everything seem rather catty; a case of Minnesota Nice at its worst. There’s a fine balance to be found here, of course; we don’t want open warfare on the Council either. But there is plenty of room for tactful comments that might help lessen the claims of politics somewhat. If there were deeper divisions here than were obvious, the public deserves at least some knowledge of them.

With some reservations, I can accept the results of the meeting. This conclusion is more a practical one than anything; I don’t see how any effort to open it back up again would bring about any sort of resolution. Four Councilors were not going to budge from their support for Sipress even if the Council had re-opened debate, and dragging this out any longer only would have opened up further opportunities for ugliness. It’s a crude tiebreaking method, and I agree that some of the arguments for moving on are a bit thin, but I do worry about the precedent of removing a Councilor appointed via resolution by reconsideration of said resolution. For good or ill, the Council sealed its fate when no one objected to the initial interpretation of RCV, and once they’d seated Sipress, going back to remove him would have only compounded the issue. It was important to acknowledge the error, but sometimes one has to cut one’s losses rather than carry on with an obviously flawed process in the desperate hope that things might somehow work out.

At any rate, Councilor Sipress is now safely ensconced in the Council, and can go about his work. It’s time for Duluth to get to know him; ultimately, it will be up to his constituents to judge him. It is time to move forward, beginning with the much-needed push to amend the city charter to allow for a special election in future circumstances such as this one.

Questions on the Duluth’s 2nd District City Council Appointment

The Duluth City Council’s 2nd District vacancy drama took another twist on Wednesday night. It turns out that, according to FairVote Minnesota, the Council erred when it declared Joel Sipress the winner of the vote to fill the seat. The News-Tribune has the details here. I have a bunch of questions.

Joel Sipress took an oath of office. Isn’t that a binding action?

This is a procedural question, but it’s worth asking. Sipress said the right thing in the News Tribune article, and said he’d let the other eight Councilors decide his fate. But now that he’s actually part of the Council, can they legally do that? Without consulting the Charter, I would think that he’d need to resign his post for that to move forward. If this isn’t the case, that is a weird loophole: conceivably, the Council could revisit the appointment of a Councilor at any time, and on a whim. This isn’t like a decision to revisit some random resolution; it’s about a man who is, rightly or wrongly, a member of their Council now, and that leads into my next question.

Might not “revisiting the matter” only politicize it?

The two Councilors quoted in the DNT, it is worth noting, did not support Sipress. I trust their motives, and I would think most people would agree there was something deeply flawed with what happened on Monday. Still, if some of the Sipress supporters don’t think the matter should be revisited, it would be very easy for both sides to claim the other side is playing politics, rightly or wrongly. While it only takes a simple majority to revisit the issue, I would argue the Council needs at least 7 votes in favor of revisiting the appointment to legitimize the process. If there is concerted opposition to revisiting the matter, it will only make an ugly process look uglier.

If the Council revisits the appointment, how does it avoid ending up with the exact same deadlock?

In the DNT piece, Councilor Julsrud said the Council should vote anew on its three finalists. Does anyone actually think that anyone will change their mind? Won’t we just end up in the exact same place we were on Monday night? Unless they all know that one of their number has had a change of heart, I don’t see this ending well at all.

The alternative that might—possibly—break the deadlock would be to start the process anew and take applications and conduct interviews again. Even that would carry the threat of a similar outcome, though.

How quickly can the Council change the City Charter to allow for a special election?

If we’ve learned anything from the past few months, it’s this: the Council’s attempts to appoint replacement Councilors have been unqualified disasters. An otherwise thoroughly competent and professional Council has been made to look silly twice. No amount of fine-tuning the process will fix this. The problem isn’t with the process. It’s with the very premise. Eight people should not be deciding who represents a district of over 15,000. The people of District 2 need to elect their own Councilors.

The obvious long-term solution here—as several Councilors readily acknowledged on Monday night—is a change to the City Charter to allow for a special election. They need to make it happen, and as quickly as possible. If they are worried about making a post hoc change, Councilor Sipress could conceivably remain on the Council (while ideally abstaining from everything) before resigning once the changes have been made. That would require his cooperation, but I think it’s the most sensible way forward.

What is FairVote Minnesota’s role here, and where’s the accountability?

This is a bit of an aside, but it should be mentioned: the statement from Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota in the News Tribune claims that “the Duluth City Council deviated from the prescribed process” for ranked choice (IRV) elections. The Council arrived at its process, however, after consultation with people at FairVote Minnesota. This would seem to suggest that someone at FairVote Minnesota erred, and the organization should probably own that mistake.

FairVote Minnesota also claims it is “not attached to the outcome” of the vote. If this is the case, why were the City Clerk and the City Attorney calling them? The city needs to figure out what its relationship with this organization is, and should obviously not be relying on them for legal opinions if the organization does not purport to offer them.

That’s enough for now. I welcome comments, replies, and further questions…we need to sort out this mess as quickly as possible.

The Delights of Instant Runoff Voting, Plus Minimum Wage Debate: Duluth City Council Notes, 2/10/14

The Duluth City Council kicked off its business two hours early on Monday night, as it sought to fill the 2nd District seat vacated by Patrick Boyle, now of the St. Louis County Board. The Council had narrowed a field of ten applicants down to three, and brought those three before them for a second interview. Councilor Gardner, the chair of the Personnel Committee, oversaw the proceedings.

The three finalists were Ms. Kathy Heltzer, Ms. Angie Miller, and Mr. Joel Sipress. The results from the first round suggested it would be a tight race, with three first-place votes for Ms. Heltzer and Mr. Sipress, plus one for Ms. Miller, who is probably the best-known of the group; she recently completed a four-month interim term on the County Board in the stead of her late husband, Steve O’Neil. All three appeared reliably liberal, which—worries about Council uniformity aside—seemed in keeping with the intentions of the voters of District 2, who had re-elected the unopposed liberal Councilor Boyle last November.

The process was messy from the start, as the Councilors invited the three candidates up to the table to take a few questions. Four Councilors asked questions relating to the role of councilors, dealing with land use disputes, availability to constituents, and the most pressing issue facing the city (along with a solution). Instead of asking the candidates the same questions at once and rotating the person to first take the questions, they asked each individual all four questions in succession. Predictably, the first candidate to answer, Ms. Miller, was somewhat vague and stumbled through the questions, while Mr. Sipress, who went last, had plenty of time to think up precise answers and build off of what the first two had said. He was exacting and meticulous, citing the city charter in his responses on Councilor roles, and did not dither with multiple issues facing the city as the other two did. Still, it wasn’t hard to see the appeal in Ms. Heltzer, who also had very clear and sensible answers, and all three appeared thoroughly competent and had fairly similar answers. It appeared the vote would come down to the two who hadn’t supported Sipress or Heltzer in the first round, Councilors Fosle and Julsrud.

Without bothering to explain their choices, the Councilors went into the voting. The City Clerk, Mr. Cox claimed the form was “a little zealous” with its many columns for votes, but in the end, the form was rather sensible. The first vote failed to achieve a 5-vote majority, with 4 votes for Sipress (Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson), 3 for Heltzer (Krug, Larson, Russ), and 1 for Miller (Julsrud). And so there was a second round, in which Councilor Julsrud switched her vote to Heltzer, leaving the Council deadlocked.

The Council then proceeded through two more rounds of voting, but no one blinked. It was a tedious process, with the Councilors finding humorous ways to fill the time as Mr. Cox tabulated the votes. Councilor Hanson told a bad joke, while President Krug plugged a few press conferences she’d attended; the Olympics got a mention, as did the anniversary of the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan show, which had Councilor Russ reminiscing on the time she went to see them in Milwaukee in 1964, when she was 14. (She couldn’t hear a thing.) Councilor Garnder had everyone running for cover when she threatened to give a history of the councilor appointment process.

With no decision in four rounds of simple majority vote, the Council moved to an instant runoff vote (IRV; also known as ranked-choice voting, or RCV). This is a process in which voters rank candidates in accordance to their preference; the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and people who voted for that person have their votes transferred to their second choice, and so on until the process produces a winner with the majority. The immediate question is why the Council didn’t just use IRV to begin with; the first round would have produced the same result as a majority vote, and would have spared us several rounds of electoral games of chicken. Moreover, now that the Councilors had been through four rounds of voting and knew where everyone else stood, they predictably voted strategically, as everyone who ranked all three put their top choice at #1, Ms. Miller at #2, and the other contender tied for first at #3. Once again, Sipress and Heltzer each had 4 votes. Of course, this could have happened had they done IRV at the start of the process (as I think would have been more logical–why use it only as a backup?), but there’s at least a chance that the second-place votes might have been a bit less strategic and more reflective of the actual order in each person’s mind. (Forgive my cynicism, but I doubt that every single one of them thought Miller should have been #2.)

But wait! There was more confusion. Despite Mr. Cox’s insistence that everyone should rank all three, not everyone did: Councilors Fosle, Hanson, and Julsrud only ranked their top choice, and left the rest of their ballots blank. This meant that Sipress had three third-place votes, while Heltzer only had two. There was some confusion over whether this apparent technicality really could swing the vote, so Mr. Cox and Attorney Johnson retreated to a back office and called an IRV expert at Fair Vote Minnesota for a ruling. (This is where I slip in my obnoxiously pompous comment to say that there was someone in the room who learned the details of IRV as a political science undergrad and knew what the correct interpretation was, but I suppose I’m not exactly qualified to issue a ruling on this sort of thing.)

At this point, President Krug suspended the special meeting so that the poor men from the steam plant, patiently waiting in back, could come forward for their Committee of the Whole report. The Council plowed straight on into the regular meeting, and was halfway through the citizen speakers when Mr. Cox finally emerged with a verdict: Mr. Sipress’s extra third-place vote was enough to get him the last spot on the Council. (Under standard IRV this is not correct…see the follow-up posts for more.) He took his oath and assumed Councilor Boyle’s empty seat.

Despite the bizarre tiebreaker, no one protested much; everyone just seemed relieved to arrive at a resolution. Councilor Hanson was all for violating the charter and having a special election to fill the seat; Councilor Gardner told him they couldn’t do that, and worried it might come to a coin toss at one point. This idea repulsed President Krug, though there was consensus that, after two straight messy Council appointments, a change to the city charter appears necessary. In a case such as this one, with nearly two full years until the next Council election, a special election seems by far the most sensible choice; as frustrating as it may be to constituents, in short-term cases such as the one this past fall, it may make more sense just to leave seats vacant. This is one case in which the stakes are high enough that no process at all may be better than a bad process. At any rate, this process did—stumblingly, haltingly—deliver the candidate I considered most qualified, based on the brief interview I saw.


The meeting itself breezed by. Among the citizen speakers, Ms. Alison Clark was back to again demand the construction of the Lakewalk around Beacon Pointe, while a man told a long story of bureaucratic red tape surrounding his fire-damaged home, which Councilor Gardner and CAO Montgomery offered to look into, if only to find some resolution. Former Councilor Boyle came forward to reflect a bit on his four-plus years on the Council, talked about how far the city had come since 2009, and offered continued support from his new position across the way in the St. Louis County Building.

The only issue on the agenda to generate any debate at all was a resolution supporting a statewide push to raise the minimum wage. There were single speakers for and against the resolution, and Councilor Gardner mustered a reply to the critic of the measure. She cited polls suggesting 70 percent support for an increase and explained that giving poor people money was a sure way to get the money back into the economy, as they’d spend it on fairly basic needs. She noted that wages have been stagnant despite increased productivity over the past thirty years, and said the measure was important despite its symbolic nature, as it started a conversation and showed the Council’s priorities. Most of the rest of the Council, flexing its liberal muscles, repeated her points, with a few additions: Councilor Larson explained that the proposal would index the minimum wage to inflation so as to prevent drastic shifts, and Councilor Sipress suggested that higher a minimum wage would help taxpayers, as it would lessen stress on government safety nets.

As expected, Councilor Fosle was the lone dissenter; he proudly claimed the conservative mantel and worried that the measure would backfire, and have an especially heavy effect on people on fixed income who might not be getting more money relative to inflation. Councilor Gardner countered this claim, saying people on fixed income have seen more adjustments for inflation over the past 30 years than people working minimum wage jobs. After President Krug’s endorsement of the resolution as a judicious use of symbolic resolutions, it passed, 8-1. The Council wrapped up its business with a few minor ordinances that passed unanimously, and everyone welcomed Councilor Sipress to the fold. He will, hopefully, be the last Duluth City Councilor appointed by his peers, and not chosen by voters.