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.


Save Youth Hockey at the Lower Chester Rinks

Every now and then, my work life and my hockey life collide. This is one of those times, as I learned this afternoon that there is at least some threat that the Congdon youth hockey program will lose the use of the Lower Chester rinks. This is a call to arms to defend Congdon youth hockey at Lower Chester.

The well-written petition makes a solid case, so I won’t re-hash the whole history or re-open my gripes about how the Red Plan blew up a neighborhood institution and one of the best-used public outdoor rinks in the city. (Oops, I just did.) But, out of that wreckage, some good came: the Lower Chester rinks, which had stopped fielding youth teams some time ago, found new life as the home for Congdon hockey. Lower Chester is perhaps the most storied youth rink in a town littered with hockey history. The Williams family, pioneers of American hockey, have their roots here; Mike Randolph and many in his great generation came from Lower Chester, too. Congdon hockey has seen its numbers grow, not shrink, since it moved to Lower Chester, so this isn’t an issue of declining numbers or lack of demand.

I won’t pretend to know much about the Neighbors of Lower Chester Park, the volunteer group that oversees the park that hosts the rinks. However, some of its members seem to think the rinks inhibit the park’s year-round usefulness. (In summer, it currently hosts a skate park that seems to do decent business, though  there seem to be grander plans of a playground or something in what little I can glean from the group’s meeting minutes.) Joel Sipress, the city councilor who represents the area, also alludes to some past tension between the hockey and the Neighbors in his response to the petition. If so, that’s unfortunate, and there are some bridges to mend. But it would be far more unfortunate if the Neighbors took out some spat with hockey association members on the dozens of kids who need a place to play.

Removing the rinks from Lower Chester would toss aside piece of history, and damage the truly unique outdoor neighborhood youth hockey model draws praise from non-Duluthian hockey people in all corners of the state. It would force out an association that has already gotten a raw deal from decision-makers, and force it to choose among such unsavory options as sharing an already busy rink like Glen Avon or Portman, raising the capital and finding the land to build new rinks somewhere, or disbanding altogether. As the city learned on a greater scale with the Red Plan, schemes that disrupt neighborhood hubs and ship kids off to wherever seems convenient wind up being disruptive, and are at odds  with any plan to build cohesive communities with kids at the center of their vision for the future. Tossing out a successful youth organization would make people like me who are looking to settle in this general area question whether the neighborhood actually wants young people who expect to have kids here. And while the Congdon youth program certainly draws from Duluth’s wealthiest pockets, its boundaries extend all the way into downtown; Lower Chester is basically the only rink remaining anywhere near the center of the city. If city leaders value any sense of equity in access to a key piece of Duluth’s cultural legacy, this rink is important.

There has to be a way to find common ground here. And if you need someone to bridge the planning and hockey worlds, I’m happy to help…

Of Pets, Bike Trails, and Rentals: Duluth City Council Notes, 6/24/13

Two weeks after wrestling with synthetic marijuana and various urban blights, the Duluth City Council settled in for a more mundane session on Monday night. Spring overstayed its welcome in Duluth this year, and with summer finally on hand and no terribly weighty issues in front of them, the Councilors were in a sunny mood. They joked freely with one another, and sported their summery wardrobes; Councilor Hartman looked dapper in a light-colored suit, while Councilor Gardner broke out a turquoise top. Councilor Larson was the sharpest of the bunch in a bold vermilion sun dress, while Councilor Krause, loathe to be outshone by anyone, went with a pink polo shirt. Councilor Fosle wore black.

There was a decent crowd on hand in the council chamber, though I appeared to be the only attendee not speaking on any issue, or there in solidarity with a speaker. The opening remarks were fairly straightforward; Councilor Gardner gave an update on the Park Point Small Area Plan, which no longer includes a 9-story hotel along the spit of land sticking out into Lake Superior. Councilor Krug reminded the Council of an upcoming social with the School Board, and Councilor Julsrud asked the mayor’s office to look into possible city input in Minnesota Power’s 15-year plan. A resident of Central Hillside, “at the risk of sounding like the neighborhood grumpy curmudgeon,” urged the Council to enforce existing ordinances on firecrackers on the Hillside, as he would like to get some sleep during the month of July.

After again tabling the Pastoret Terrace plan they’d tabled two weeks ago, the Council moved on to its first issue of any contention, which was a proposal by Councilor Stauber to license pets owned in the city of Duluth, and fine owners who failed to spay or neuter their animals. Councilor Gardner applauded Councilor Stauber’s efforts, and was pleased to report that money from the fines would go straight to a local animal shelter. Councilors Julsrud, Krause, and Fosle all spoke in opposition to the measure. Councilor Julsrud wanted an exception for impounded animals, while Councilor Krause listed several cases in which the mandatory spaying or neutering of pets would be “imposing a value” on the citizens of Duluth. He also doubted that money from fines would be enough to improve the animal shelter. Councilor Fosle concurred, and said he would prefer a simple licensing system without the spaying or neutering stipulations.

The eternally peppy Councilor Hartman disagreed, saying that more licensing was necessary, and that any legislation that moved in that direction was a good thing. Councilor Krug, after lauding the value of community and the responsibilities and expectations that come with it, explained that the measure was not an imposition of values. Council President Boyle wrapped up the discussion by praising the licensing system, and the resolution passed, 6-3.

After unanimously approving a street repair project and a resolution supporting an effort to curb the spread of Asian water carp into the Great Lakes, the Council took up a contract for the construction of two mountain bike trails in Duluth. Mr. Eric Viken of Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores (COGGS) plugged the measure, claiming it would help create the “largest urban mountain bike trail system in the country,” and pointed to the economic and public health benefits enjoyed by other communities that had made similar investments. Councilors Larson and Julsrud celebrated the measure, pointing to other sources of funding that would help with the project; Councilor Juslrud told a story of a friend who had broken an arm biking on an existing  trail recently, and said, laughing, that it was “a great way to break your arm!”

Councilors Fosle and Krause led the opposition to the resolutions, and claimed it was a poor use of Parks and Rec money that would be better directed to community centers and youth programs. Councilor Fosle, who represents the western end of the city, said there are six community centers in his district that remain closed despite the passage of a Parks and Rec referendum in 2011, and Councilor Krause also spoke of the “promise of the referendum” going unfulfilled. One community center in his district was “leaking like a sieve,” while another “looks like it’s from 1922.” Of the public meetings that produced the trail plan, he said that “those who show up, win,” suggesting they are not truly reflective of public opinion. He went on to make a more philosophical plea, pointing to a mindset of “new things good, old things bad,” and said the “mundane and boring” things get neglected as the Council “keep[s] adding stuff and [doesn’t] take care of it.” Hence, he argued, the need to take a stand on the bike trails and vote ‘no’, lest the community centers lapse into further disrepair, doomed to be self-funded by parents or closed.

David Montgomery, the Chief Administrative Officer of the city, defended the trail plan with a vision of parks as spaces, with trails as connections between them; he explained it as an evolution from past models that focused on the community centers. Councilor Hartman peppily added survey numbers backing up this claim. Councilor Gardner said that, while the Councilors Fosle and Krause were right to some degree, lots of people showed up at the meetings on parks, and Councilor Julsrud said she was working on a plan for youth program funding. The resolution passed, 7-2.

A group of plumbers from a local union waited out these discussions to support their president, who spoke against a newly-introduced resolution that would, it seemed, make it easier for non-plumbers to do plumbing work. The union boss claimed such work by non-plumbers was potentially dangerous given the lack of credentials required, especially on projects involving businesses that might have hazardous gases on hand. The resolution will be taken up in future meetings.

The last measure to generate debate was a proposal by Councilor Fosle to amend the city’s rental licensing process. Three citizens, at least two of whom were landlords, spoke against the ordinance, claiming it only further complicated an already messy system. The measure aimed to make it easier for family members or otherwise romantically involved people to rent to one another, but the landlords found it unenforceable, and also thought it would be difficult to effectively deal with complaints about such properties with no landlord on hand. One landlord said it opened the door for distant parents to buy houses for their college-aged students to rent, which in the past had created many problem houses in neighborhoods. Another landlord took an unexplained shot at the “party initiating the amendment,” which left Councilor Fosle indignant. Council President Boyle said the new licensing measures adopted several years prior had led to a drastic reduction in complaints, and did not find it wise to mess with them at the present. The measure failed, 7-2, with Councilors Fosle and Krause again joining forces in a losing cause. The Council then concluded its meeting with further excitement by Councilor Krug for their upcoming social with the School Board.