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

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.

A Bad Night for E-Cigarettes, Bond Debt Resolutions, and Brevity: Duluth City Council Notes, 9/9/13

First off, it’s primary election day…if you’re a Duluth resident and you haven’t voted yet, you have until 8:00. Get out and vote! I’ll have some comments on the results either later tonight or tomorrow afternoon.

A substantial crowd was on hand on a rather disgusting, drizzly Duluth night on Monday, and the Council tried to put its best side forward, with all its gentlemen donning more formal wear than usual (save Councilor Fosle, who wore his regular black polo shirt uniform). Many of the issues introduced or unresolved at the last meeting were back on the agenda, leading to a very long night (and, thus, a very long blog post summary). Councilor Krause opened the meeting by announcing he would not retire until after the next meeting, a change that caused a lot of confusion later on as the Council tried to figure out a timeline to appoint a replacement.

After hearing from a speaker on the proposed Canal Park revitalization who also had some issues with street lights, the Council cleaned up the confusing road salt issue from the previous meeting, with Ms. Linda Ross Sellner again scrutinizing the funding practices and noting environmental damages caused by salt. Councilor Fosle concurred with her worries and hoped that more sand would be used in the future, and with her concern noted, the resolution passed, 9-0, as did the consent agenda.

President Boyle then moved the issue with the largest public interest to the top of the agenda, and no fewer than thirteen speakers came forward to address three ordinances that amended the City Code to regulate the sale and use of electronic cigarettes. Most of the speakers were in support of the regulations, and the anti-smoking crowd was well-organized and had solid public speakers. Several doctors, healthcare professionals, and members of the American Cancer Society came forward to decry e-cigarettes, expressing their worries about health, secondhand smoke, normalization of smoking around children, and the utility of e-cigs as a smoking cessation device. Three speakers countered them, however; one ranted about bad government regulating things excessively, one asked the Council to put things off until further evidence emerged, and Mr. Brian Annis—a leading advocate who aims to open an e-cig business—returned to cite several studies countering those mentioned by the opposition.

The first of the three amendments would also prove the most contentious, as it sought to eliminate a loophole in the Minnesota Clean Air Act that allows sampling of products in businesses. (The measure would also ban such establishments as hookah bars.) Councilor Krause, in search of a compromise, suggested an amendment with a very strict standard: only businesses with more than 80% of their sales on these products—basically, smoke shops—could allow sampling. This, he argued, would allow people to test the product before purchase, keep businesses in the city, and would not adversely affect children, as they are not allowed in such shops anyway.

However, it quickly became clear Councilor Krause’s amendment would face an uphill battle, as one of his potential supporters, Councilor Fosle, announced his refusal to endorse any attempt to regulate e-cigs at all. He accused the Council of a lack of faith in the state government (which is not as stringent in its restrictions) and made expert use of a red herring by saying the council should be more worried about children trying heroin and ecstasy instead of cigarettes. Councilor Gardner, on the other hand, did break away from the Council’s more liberal voting bloc and announced her support for the Krause amendment. Councilors Krug, Julsrud, and Larson said they would rather hold the line on the Clean Air Act, while President Boyle said he couldn’t support anything that marketed itself in a “cherry bubble gum cotton candy” flavor. The Krause amendment failed, 6-3, with Councilors Krause, Gardner, and Stauber in support of it.

With his amendment gone, Councilor Krause explained why he couldn’t support the ban on sampling. He emphasized property rights, saying private businesses should be able to ban e-cigs as they choose, but nothing more. He also made the point—on which all parties agreed—that existing research was inconclusive on the health effects, and that in the meantime, it made little sense to regulate something that might help people quit. Councilor Gardner agreed, and both pointed out the countless carcinogens and toxic substances we ingest in small quantities every day. Councilor Gardner (a former smoker herself) added that adults are allowed to enjoy silly flavors as well, and that they can make smokers feel less dirty about smoking as they try to quit. Councilors Larson and Julsrud shared a rather different theory of government, and insisted that the Council had an obligation to learn from past manipulations of marketers of tobacco-like products, and that e-cigs should be banned until proven healthy. The Council voted to close the sampling loophole, 6-3, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, and Krause in opposition. Mr. Annis left the Chamber in defeat, and a loud noise could be heard from the hallway.

It was at this time that Councilor Gardner took the floor to deliver the most compelling speech I’ve seen since I began attending Council meetings. She conceded defeat, admitting that all of the e-cig restrictions “will pass, and you’ll all be happy,” but took issue with the tactics used by the anti-smoking lobby. The reliance on shame as a bludgeon, she insisted, did more harm than good to everyone involved. She noted that many smokers are poor and low-income people (often without health insurance) who are “humiliated” by anti-smoking campaigns, and claimed these are “polarizing” and “not a good way to change behavior.” She recalled her own adolescent self, and how she’d been attracted to things that were so stigmatized by the supposed do-gooders in the establishment, and wondered what would happen if the anti-smoking groups dropped their expensive shaming campaigns and instead focused their message on cessation devices. “Top-down changing ordinances are not the answer,” she said, saying they were reminiscent of the failed temperance movement. “If we’re a compassionate community, we need to think about this,” she concluded, adding that she felt better now that she’d finished her lecture. Her speech visibly affected several members of the Council and the audience, and one can only hope her words will not be forgotten.

Debate then went forward on the ban on e-cigs in public places, and Councilor Hartman was careful to note that this is not a ban on the product altogether, but merely an effort to regulate them like cigarettes, lest they become a “gateway;” Councilor Krug made similar point about the “slippery slope” of making exceptions to smoking restrictions. Councilor Krause called the measure ineffective, calling it a “band-aid” that could never rectify the “group, family, and cultural dynamics” that push people to take up smoking. Councilor Gardner largely agreed, but figured something was better than nothing, and voted for this measure; it passed, 7-2, with Councilors Krause and Fosle in opposition. The final resolution, a measure that treated the sale of e-cigs like regular cigarettes, passed 8-1, with Councilor Fosle being the lonely “no” vote. Councilor Stauber thanked Councilor Gardner for her comments and admitted that this was a “government intrusion,” and while he does not normally support them, he thought that this one was the right thing to do.

After nearly two hours on e-cigarettes, the Council then settled its tax measures for the coming year in the matter of minutes. The right-leaning bloc of Councilors Krause, Fosle, and Stauber raised a few objections, but Councilor Hartman was quick to point out the slight tax decrease, and most of the measures passed along the predictable 6-3 line. (Councilor Fosle also opposed park and bus funding measures that passed 8-1).

Next, the Council revisited the debate over servicing bond debt on street improvement (see last meeting’s notes for details).  Councilor Hartman had fine-tuned the language of the previous measure, this time making it clear that any funds from the casino settlement would be used to replenish the Community Investment Trust (CIT) fund, but the three conservatives once again refused to draw down the CIT any further. This time around Councilor Krause had his own counter-proposal, though his attempt at a compromise on the issue found even less traction than his stance on e-cigarette sampling, as it failed to attract any liberal votes or impress his two conservative colleagues. Sensing an impasse, Councilor Gardner tried to table the measures, but was voted down 5-4; forced to take a side, she continued her tour de force, demanding to know from CAO Montgomery just how much street repair interest on the CIT could fund. The answer was “less than a mile,” and Councilor Gardner rested her case, saying a gamble on the city’s credit rating was not worth less than a mile of road.

Councilor Julsrud was even more direct in her attacks on those defending the CIT, and lashed out at Councilor Krause for “playing politics” with the issue, a reference to things that must have been going on behind closed doors. Councilor Krause defended himself, again complained about the “betrayal” of the Administration that had said it would hold the line, and said he didn’t know how much CIT money the Council might need for streets in the future. Councilor Fosle griped that CAO Montgomery had claimed to be “open to proposals” but had shot them all down, and repeated his line of the night, which accused the city of excessive spending on “fancy, frilly stuff.” Twice during the meeting, Councilor Hartman effectively called his bluff: while Councilor Fosle claims to have a host of money-saving measures in mind to cut out the fancy frills, why haven’t they come before the Council? Still, both measures failed, leaving the debt service issue unresolved.

After the tedious debate over how to go about replacing Councilor Krause (in which Councilor Gardner again had an excellent line by agreeing that Krause’s replacement “shouldn’t be a flaming liberal like myself,” and instead agree with Krause on most issues, and Councilor Stauber did a lot of worrying over subverting the interests of the voters of District Four), Councilor Stauber tried to get the Council to veto an increase in natural gas rates. In a lengthy discourse, he complained that an outside firm had called for a lower rate than the Public Utilities Commission had supported, and that a newfound utilities surplus made the rate increase pointless. Councilor Julsrud commended Councilor Stauber for being “masterful at spinning things,” while Councilor Gardner called him “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” saying the increase amounted to roughly $1.05. Councilor Fosle had his usual complaints, Councilor Hartman had a rejoinder, and Councilor Julsrud said the rate increase would help build a reserve that would help to deal with “ever-changing capital needs.” Councilor Krug said the Council should listen to its commissions unless there is an “egregious” error in their work, while Councilor Krause countered that these taxing authorities often operate in vacuums and didn’t have a good sense of the big picture of city tax rates. The veto attempt failed, 6-3, with Councilors Stauber, Krause, and Fosle in support.

Exhausted, the Council did its best to hurry through most of its remaining business, though Councilor Fosle held up a few issues for comment, and was the lone ‘no’ vote against some legal fees (which Councilor Stauber said had been a “bad decision” but supported anyway). The longest debate was over a reconstruction design for Superior Street; Councilors Fosle and Krause worried about the lack of a funding mechanism, but Councilor Stauber said he was satisfied that the money was there, and Councilor Gardner expressed incredulity that anyone would hold up this project. The measure passed, 7-2. The rest of the agenda passed unanimously, Councilor Larson wished CAO Montgomery a happy birthday, and the Councilors and the four remaining audience members (including myself and two current Council candidates) were relieved to finally exit the chamber, three hours and fifty minutes after the start of the meeting.