Think Local, Act Regional

Local election season is starting to heat up, with Election Day now three months away here in Duluth. I won’t tip my cards yet, if I ever do; in many cases I’m not even sure who I’ll vote for at this point. But there are a couple of things that the people I do end up voting for will need to have. One is a sense of regional consciousness, and another is an emphasis on the particulars of local affairs rather than adherence to some outside platform.  At first blush these may seem like contradictory strains of thought, but both are necessary for effective statecraft, whatever one’s political orientation.

I focus on a regional perspective because it is all too rare in politicians. It always has been, and probably always will be. When it comes to questions of scale, many see themselves strictly as representatives of the constituents who elect them, meaning their city or district within a city and the arbitrary boundaries that such divisions normally imply. Sometimes this comes with a genuine effort to give a personal touch to the small group of people one represents, while at other times it can just be territorial. But when local leaders block out their neighbors, either intentionally or through benign neglect, they only hurt the people they claim to represent.

Take Duluth, for example. I see a lot of Duluth-centrism in local political rhetoric today; that is, Duluth politicians who are fixated only on things happening within Duluth boundaries. To an extent, I admire this attempt to hold Duluth to a higher standard. But we also can’t pretend that Duluth is an island, or not deeply interconnected with its neighbors and its state. Nearly 60 percent of the people who work in Duluth do not live in it, while over 30 percent of Duluthians work outside its boundaries.

This applies to both city councilors and school board members. On the council side, it applies to the labor market, which is a complicated thing to define but should pretty clearly include Superior, Hermantown, Proctor, Rice Lake, Esko, and Cloquet—at the very least. Attempts to regulate it, however well-intentioned, should recognize how interconnected all of this is. Leaving aside the merits of something like earned sick and safe leave, has there been any effort at all to recognize this interconnectedness in this debate? If there is, I sure haven’t seen it.

Education “markets,” so to speak, expand beyond single districts, a trend we see all too clearly in families voting with their feet and open enrolling across boundaries or into private or charter schools. My scare quotes there show my leeriness about referring to education as a market—and public schools, by dint of requirements that they educate all comers, including those who come from families with no initiative to seek out alternatives, will always look worse than some of the alternatives and give a very warped view of what actually goes on inside the buildings. But this is the environment in which people make their decisions. East-west equity has become a central concern in this year’s ISD 709 school board races, and there are certainly good reasons to fixate on that. But any sort of solution will not come from pitting one side of the city against the other, or gutting one side to prop up the other. If any candidates want to make this upcoming race about east-west equity alone, they’re missing the forest for the trees.

And while they’re not on the ballot this year, I’d say the same thing about regional legislators. It’s great if the Duluth delegation is aligned in St. Paul, but it includes all of five people, two of whom have much larger constituencies outside the city than in it. Duluth’s unique situation within the state should put its members in a position of influence. On the one hand, Duluth is part of Greater Minnesota, and there are a number of cases where it makes more sense to align with the more rural delegation, including others in northeastern Minnesota who would seem to make obvious allies. There is enough interconnectivity with the North Shore and the Iron Range that support for certain initiatives, from broadband to education to infrastructure, should drive Arrowhead legislators to vote as a bloc. But on the flip side, Duluth’s urbanity at times makes the city look much more like Minneapolis or St. Paul, where equity concerns and redevelopment are central issues—and, indeed, its legislators usually vote along with those in the central cities. (In a year that was fairly good for economic development funding, redevelopment dollars were mysteriously absent from the budgets that came from a legislature controlled by rural and exurban GOPers.) In a tightly divided government, there should be scenarios in which Duluth’s legislators have the power to play kingmaker, and if they’re not exploring opportunities to do so, they’re missing the boat.

Without regional action, the Duluth area won’t ever live up to its potential. I’m not necessarily saying greater Duluth should formalize this through government and move in the direction of a Twin Cities-style Metropolitan Council. But there should be venues for greater regional conversations, where appropriate. There are some such conversations, but they are scattered, and not every organization that has the power to make an impact here is using it to its fullest extent. Too often, we see Duluth boldly pursuing some bold and well-meaning push that ultimately has a limited or even perverse impact because it is constrained by its boundaries and lack of broader context, while the outlying areas lapse into a reflexive rejection of those vaguely urban problems beyond their reach. We can do better than this.

Perhaps a more immediately pressing concern of mine is a rise in candidates who define themselves less by the places they serve and more by the principles or political platform with which they identify. These politicians have their lenses and preferred policies, and look to apply those within the region over which they have control (and beyond, whenever possible). It can come in any stripe, from the limited government Republicans loyally following certain tax pledges to platforms promoted by the left. A recent example: while all other candidates balked at a questionnaire asking them to fall in line with a group’s demands, Ray Dehn, the leading vote-getter in the DFL primary in the Minneapolis mayoral race, caused a stir when he said he couldn’t imagine not voting in line with Our Revolution, the leftist organizing movement that has grown out of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Whatever Dehn’s merits may be relative to the two other frontrunners in that race (a troubled incumbent in Betsy Hodges and a hungry climber in Jacob Frey), this is an immediate red flag for anyone with an appreciation for the ins and outs of local governance. While any number of groups from unions to clean water advocates will make demands from leading candidates, and have every right to do so, any adoption of said platforms should be critically vetted for their particular context, not just aped talking points embraced out of convenience.

Implicit throughout this post has been a mild critique of the Duluth DFL, which is often the only real player in local politics. I don’t mean to trash it; it’s a heterodox bunch, and I know, respect, and am friends with various members of it. But one of the things I’ve always appreciated about Duluth politics, especially in comparison to other cities I’ve lived in such as Minneapolis or D.C., is that it has an independent streak to it that can usually recognize some of the excesses of its dominant party and avoid jumping on the train. Instead of the vicious division in some other places, we see general community consensus on such topics as community policing practices (granting that our demographics limit the centrality of certain racial questions to the Duluth experience) and, at least until the Red Plan, in education. We’ve rejected some vogue ideas with questionable actual evidence in their favor like ranked choice voting, and our campuses have not become hopelessly politicized in a manner that shuts out half the country and drives it to question the very value of higher education. The continued presence of labor in the DFL coalition is also notable, and while I have my critiques of labor, the ability to retain that political base has kept the Duluth DFL from becoming an institution totally out of touch with the working class, as the national party has gone. I groan when I hear some of the petty things that divide members of the local political class, but at the very least these conflicts tend to stay under the table.

Willingness to buck trends and not blindly follow a party line is one of the most admirable traits possible in a politician, and until recently, most city councilors, even if elected behind the full weight of the DFL and labor endorsements, get that to some level. And while I recognize that the Democratic base is fired up in the age of Trump, I hope they’re not losing track of the nuts and bolts and a basic ability to manage neighborhood relationships that drive local politics, which are far more relevant than one’s stance on the source of outrage du jour in D.C.

If I have a goal here, it is to give new life to that old claim that all politics is local. I wouldn’t go that far; some things obviously require state or national action. But I would like to return to a phrase that may seem tautological at first, but that few stop to ponder properly: policy should be made on the level most appropriate for such policy. Some things are genuinely local; some are completely outside the purview of a city council. This sense has eroded in an era in which people get their politics from their favorite network of choice or whatever dark recesses of the internet one’s social media acquaintances happen to inhabit. It is easy to try to simplify the world by imposing national narratives, but the realities zoning disputes and school funding decisions and search for pathways to the American Dream rarely conform to those national platforms. The world is a complicated place, and deserves our respect as such.


The City of Duluth vs. Urban Blights: City Council Meeting Notes, 6/10/13

At various times on this blog, I’ve emphasized the importance of only worrying about the things one can control; that is, focusing on the most immediate issues around our lives rather than obsessing over what’s going on at the national or international level. Seeking to practice what I preach, I went to the Duluth City Council meeting last night. (I hasten to note here that care for the local need not necessarily involve formal political structures; it is simply one of many options, and a somewhat entertaining one in a city such as Duluth, which is large enough to have some “big city problems,” but small enough that there are few degrees of separation between anyone in town.) What follows is an account of the June 11, 2013 Duluth City Council Meeting.

The meeting took place in the council chamber on the third floor of city hall, a rectangular room with a spectacular view of the Duluth harbor that allows bored Councilors and writers to gaze out at the huge ships when they so choose. Attendance was limited primarily to citizens with immediate business before the council, though a local blogger who is running for the Council this fall was bouncing around the room and snapping pictures as if he already owned the place, and there were a handful of residents there to cheer the council on in its ongoing battle with a man named Jim Carlson. (I will refrain from making further comments about the blogger so as to keep my own blog from sinking to his level.)

The first item on the agenda revolved around Duluth’s biggest ongoing controversy, the sale of synthetic marijuana at a downtown head shop called the Last Place on Earth (LPOE). The city has been at war with Mr. Carlson, the shop’s owner, for years now, and the litany of complaints against LPOE grows ever longer. A representative from a local hospital described the situation as a “public health crisis,” and one councilor described the effects of the bath salts and other marijuana substitutes as “worse than cocaine.” Customers come from far and wide to purchase LPOE’s product, leading to loitering and vagrancy on the block in front of LPOE, an area of downtown that has otherwise been somewhat gentrified in recent years. The Chamber of Commerce has rallied behind the effort to thwart LPOE, citing serious losses for local businesses. Councilor Larson and Council President Boyle (who have experience in these matters) noted the added difficulties of getting marijuana substitute users back on their feet, and the widespread social consequences of drug use.

On Monday night, the Council took up a resolution that would regulate the sale of synthetic marijuana in the city of Duluth. Mr. Carlson came to share his thoughts, and took the stand rocking a green ensemble and a ragged grey beard one might expect to find on a Cuban revolutionary after several months fighting in the jungles. The image befits Mr. Carlson, a man who has pretensions of rebellion—he was on the ballot in several states in last year’s presidential election as the candidate of the Grassroots Party—but in the end seems to be in it only for himself, a man who believes that legality determines morality. Alas, Mr. Carlson lacked the charisma of a Castro or a Guevara, and limited his remarks to a few familiar points: he insisted this new measure constituted an endorsement of his business, and that the city would have to stop charging him for the extra police officers assigned to his block and return various seized assets.

The Councilors then took turns railing against Mr. Carlson and his business. Councilor Krug made it quite clear the measure was no endorsement of synthetic marijuana, but simply a stopgap bureaucratic measure to be used until state or federal law bans it. The intensity of the rhetoric varied; Councilor Fosle said his problem was with the product, not the business itself, and that he had only decided to support the measure after a National Geographic special he’d watched the night before said regulation was an effective tactic, while Councilor Julsrud said she would not rest until the business no longer exists. The lone vote against the measure came from Councilor Stauber, the longest-tenured Councilor and, as one of its more conservative members, a frequent voice in the wilderness. Councilor Stauber’s objection was, it seemed, a pertinent one: he worried that past efforts to control LPOE had simply increased Mr. Carlson’s celebrity, and that the measure might lead to even more litigation. A number of the councilors spoke past his objections as they piled on to Mr. Carlson, though Councilors Krause and Hartman argued the stakes of the problem were great enough to justify any ensuing legal battles, and Councilor Hartman said he doubted Mr. Carlson’s celebrity could grow any bigger than it already is. The measure passed, 8-1, and the Council moved on to other matters.

The second big issue on the agenda involved a pair of projects that seek to turn unused buildings into low-income housing that required Council support to qualify for grant funding. One, a repurposed Lincoln Park Middle School, was a shoo-in; the more controversial agenda item asked to council to elevate a second project at the site of the former Kozy Bar to equal status with the Lincoln Park project. The Kozy was a notorious Duluth establishment that perhaps once rivaled LPOE (just a block away) as the site most often visited by police in the city. It burned in a fire several years ago—a fire that was “quite honestly a relief,” according to Councilor Julsrud—and the shell of the Pastoret Terrace building it occupied, which was designed by a famed local architect, has been empty ever since.

Councilor Gardner, another longtime member and one of its most vigorous (and long-winded), read a letter from local historian Tony Dierckins that explained the need to save the Pastoret Terrace building, particularly since it might not be able to withstand another winter without some construction. Several Councilors noted the serious need for low income housing in Duluth, though Councilor Fosle had a rather murky counterargument to this claim involving U-Haul usage patterns.

However, as the debate unfolded, it became clear the Council had its doubts about the Pastoret Terrace project. Councilor Krause summed them up well, pointing to the very high density of the apartments coupled with poor ratio of resources (ie. food and support services) to institutions of vice in the area (LPOE, the Fon Du Luth Casino, a bar on the block) that might just lead to more of the same problems that led the Kozy to be Ground Zero for Duluth’s urban blight. Councilor Gardner countered that this is how downtown living is, and that there would be adequate support for residents who required it. The developer, a Mr. Conlan, reminded the council that these grants were not public money, asked where else “these people” were going to live if not downtown. Councilor Larson strongly objected to this language, while a representative of Mayor Don Ness’s administration offered similar sentiments, and suggested mixed-use housing would be more appropriate.

Several councilors also had serious issues with the owner of the property, Eric Ringsred, who, as Councilor Fosle reminded the chamber seven or eight times, once claimed the City Council (along with several other prominent Duluth institutions) was culpable for the suicide of Jim Grandishar, a business partner of Mr. Ringsred’s who once sought to convert a historic Duluth theater into a strip club. Councilor Fosle made it fairly clear he would not associate himself with anything involving Mr. Ringsred, despite Mr. Conlan’s best efforts to point out that his ownership stake and lack of any other involvement in the project did not render him much of an obstacle. (If Councilor Stauber is the Council’s voice in the wilderness, then Councilor Fosle is its loose cannon. A well-built man with a contemplative goatee, he displayed an incredible talent for oscillating between sharp insights and tone-deaf head-scratchers throughout the evening.)

In the end, the Council voted 6-3 against elevating the priority of the Pastoret Terrace project, with Councilors Gardner, Hartman, and Stauber providing the dissent. They then discussed the ultimate fate of the Pastoret Terrace project before ultimately deciding to table it. This vote also came down to a 6-3 margin, though Councilor Julsrud made her inner conflict quite clear; the ‘no’ votes came from Councilors Krause, Krug, and Fosle.

The only other item that inspired much debate was an amendment to a disbursement of some $80,000 in parks and rec grant funds proposed by Councilors Gardner and Krause, who suggested that money for informational kiosks along the lakefront Lakewalk path should come out of the tourism budget instead of park money. While the Councilors seemed to agree this was a sensible idea, Chief Administrative Officer Montgomery argued was more important to respect the existing vetting process, and Councilor Fosle, in one of his insightful moments, noted the danger of setting a precedent for the selective addition and subtraction of projects from omnibus funding measures. The amendment failed, 7-2.

The meeting concluded with a celebration of a new set of picnic tables in front of the library, a call to help set a new playground in Lester Park on Saturday, and plans for a City Council-School Board social at which the Councilors were told that their attendance had better be superior to that of the School Board members. And while the fate of a couple of blighted blocks in Downtown Duluth wasn’t all that much clearer, there were, at least, some signs of movement.