Duluth Area Election Preview, 2016

The tragicomedy also known as the 2016 presidential race is about to come to a merciful close (well…maybe, depending how rigged the loser thinks the election is), and I’ve said all I have to say on that mess. To the local races we go. In the Duluth area, there is perhaps a little more intrigue than usual in an even election year: we’ve become used to a competitive race for the region’s U.S. House seat by now, and there are a handful of local races that could shake things up some.

The Eighth District congressional race should be a barnburner. Incumbent Rick Nolan isn’t an Iron Ranger, but he is an old guard candidate who typifies the DFL coalition that has held sway over its politics for so long. He is a liberal Democrat who is generally pro-mining; that’s a bit of a dying breed in the DFL, which is increasingly dominated by conservationist urbanites instead of the rural farmers and laborers acknowledged in its name. It’s a sign of his crossover appeal that both the unions and Lourenco Goncalves—the colorful CEO of Cliffs, the mining company that has come out of this latest ore price crisis looking the strongest, and is plotting a takeover of the stillborn Essar project in Nashwauk—have both come out in his favor. But Nolan’s patient folksiness my not jive with the political climate of the moment, and he’s faced a relentless stream of attacks in a true swing district. Stewart Mills has polished up his operation this time around in more ways than one.

The most relevant factor in the Duluth region for the national and congressional races is turnout in the city of Duluth itself. Duluth is a bigtime DFL town, and much of that DFL leans pretty far left; Bernie Sanders carried the day here in the primaries. Hillary Clinton probably doesn’t need a big Duluth turnout to win Minnesota, and wouldn’t be affected if any disaffected leftists stay home or vote third party. In the Minnesota Eighth Congressional District, however, it could make or break the race. In a year when turnout is likely to be down for a presidential year, Rick Nolan needs Duluthians to go to the polls.

At the same time, I’m curious to see Donald Trump’s margins in the Minnesota Eighth Congressional District, particularly on the Range. We all know the Range is a traditional DFL bastion, and that probably won’t switch overnight. But the region’s demographics—largely white, relatively few people with bachelor’s degrees, mining-dependent, economically wobbly—are the poster child for an area where the Trump Era Republicans are supposed to make gains. Does that hold true, or do Rangers buck the trend? While I haven’t followed most Range races closely enough to say too much, I was amused to see a local candidate with a bunch of “Make the Range Great Again!” signs on the East Range on a recent road trip. Aaron Brown will be my source of information on that region.

Much like the Range, the west side of Duluth bears watching, too, and not only for how it breaks in national races. The Third District St. Louis County Commissioner’s race appears heated, and could be one of the more exciting local races in recent memory. This is a competition for the seat currently held by Chris Dahlberg, who very nearly became the Republicans’ gubernatorial candidate in 2014. Jay Fosle, a three-term veteran of the city council, squares off against children’s advocate Beth Olson. At the city level Fosle largely serves as a protest vote, at times frustrated but also at times insightful. A Fosle win would solidify the west side’s reputation as having a more conservative streak than East Duluth, at least in a relative, local sense. On the more politically diverse county board, he’d also have a serious chance to enact policy. An Olson win, on the other hand, would show the limits of Fosle’s appeal and move the board somewhat leftward.

A Fosle win would also force the city council to appoint a replacement, which could lead to all sorts of drama.  As we’ve seen in recent years, appointing replacement councilors is not among the strong suits of an otherwise functional, responsive body of government. Replacing Fosle would bring with it an ideological dimension not present the last time we went through this, as a council with seven Democrats and one Howie Hanson would have to find someone to fill the shoes of a man who, while idiosyncratic, has basically become the voice of the right in Duluth-area government.

Sticking with St. Louis County board races, the other two should be easy re-elections for incumbents. In the towns and townships surrounding Duluth, Pete Stauber will beat some guy whose campaign is built around a personal gripe with the board. On the east side of Duluth, Patrick Boyle should cruise; his opponent is Linda Ross Sellner, a familiar face from my days watching city council meetings. The longtime local activist has said she’s basically just running to bring attention to climate change issues.

Democrats will likely coast in most Northland state legislature elections. In several of the Duluth-area races, however, the Republicans have gone with candidates who buck the typical party mold in search of a win, which is worth noting. Dylan Raddant, 20-something transgender person, doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of a stereotypical Republican, but is right there on the ballot, and his policy stances are indeed largely in line with the GOP. A near-nonexistent campaign infrastructure, however, will lead to the predictable lopsided loss to incumbent Jennifer Schultz, a UMD economist.

Republican state senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, meanwhile, has a much more visible campaign. She too is idiosyncratic, as a part Native American who is running a positive, centrist campaign based around public service, education reform, and cleaning up bureaucratic red tape.  She also sounds the more typical (if rather vague) notes about fiscal conservatism, and I don’t know if she has a realistic chance in a low-information local race where so many people vote the party ticket. Her opponent, Erik Simonson, is a powerful old-school DFL figure, with two terms of experience in the state House and heavy union support. But if any Republican has a chance in a Duluth-wide election, it’s probably someone like Bergstrom.

Fiscal conservatism appears to be the defining issue for the folksy Tim Brandon in the race for house district 3A, which covers bits of Duluth Heights and the communities and townships surrounding the city. If campaign signs mean anything (and it’s hard to say if they do) he’ll probably do better than Republicans usually have in this district, but he takes on 40-year incumbent Mary Murphy, who’s reliably brought home the bacon to the region and who has signs that politely ask voters for their support. A committed listener, Murphy feels like a figure from a different era of politics, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. The West Duluth 7B House seat being vacated by Erik Simonson will likely go to DFLer Liz Olson; her opponent, Cody Barringer, offers standard conservatism in his limited campaign presence.

Among those nonpartisan down-ballot races where most voters’ eyes tend to glaze over, there’s only one that has more than one candidate: the race for a Minnesota Supreme Court seat. Here, Natalie Hudson, whose campaign centers around integrity instead of issues, faces off against Michelle MacDonald, who takes more explicitly conservative stands.

Across the bridge in Superior, where different state laws leave local officials with far fewer tools for local economic development than they do in Minnesota, the city is trying to push through an initiative that would raise funds for downtown development. The only other race of any great interest is Wisconsin’s Senate race, where the conscientious liberal Russ Feingold seems likely to reclaim his old seat from Ron Johnson. The Seventh District congressional race is likely safe for Republican Sean Duffy, and there isn’t much else of note on the ballot.

Predictions, because why not: Clinton wins Minnesota and Wisconsin by five or six percent and the election by a margin somewhat smaller than Obama’s in 2012; Nolan ekes out another narrow re-election; DFLers sweep the Duluth area, but there’s at least one Republican surprise somewhere on the Iron Range. For all the talk about everyone’s frustration with American politics, it will be a good night for the status quo. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the country, but I’m less sure the alternatives are any better.

The more interesting questions revolve around what comes next. Does Trump press his “rigged” election case, and what ensues from that, or does he get bored and go home? Do Republicans allow Hillary Clinton to govern? Do the Democrats, who also regain the U.S. Senate and pick up seats in the House, try to push their advantage with a leftward agenda, or does Clinton still have some room to tack to the center, where she’d probably rather be? How does the Republican Party evolve: is there a case for a less crude version of a protectionist, immigration-reducing, religiously conservative platform that comes along and carries it to victory in two or four years, or does it pretend Trump never happened?

Right or wrong, I’ll be along with some analysis after Tuesday.


Chicago, Triumphant

On a handful of occasions in my life, sports have caused me to shed a few tears. Twice they were the result of jarring defeats for a kid, as the 2001 World Series and the 2008 section 7AA hockey semifinals left me crushed. Twice they came when childhood heroes rode off into retirement. Twice, there have been tears of pride and joy: in the waning moments of a AA state semifinal in 2015, and, now, after the final out of the 2016 World Series.


Karl and Mom in the Duluth Rose Garden, now sitting on my desk at work.

I come from a family of Cubs fans, but, contrarian child that I was, I instead adopted the Yankees as a kid. The Cubs, however, still settled in at number two. The wins were sporadic in those early days, but the North Siders always managed to entertain. Whenever I joined my uncles at Wrigley Field, we were treated to absurd games: a 100-degree, four-hour war with the Mets in the Sammy Sosa years, a Roger Clemens loss in pursuit of his 300th win, a laughable marathon against Atlanta in which the Cubs rallied from four down in the 9th only to lose when a ball bounced off of Aramis Ramirez’s head in the 13th inning. Win or lose, those days at Wrigley always showed how baseball should be: long, lazy afternoons basking in the sun, the Bleacher Bums cursing up a storm throughout. It was always a delight.

In a year in which baseball often took back seat to other things, I only casually followed the Cubs’ 103-win regular season and the first round of the playoffs. But by the end of the NLCS I was fully on board the bandwagon, keeping score like I was a kid watching the Yankees’ 90s dynasty again. My mom showed more emotion over sports than I’d ever seen when they finally clinched the pennant against the Dodgers, and lately I’ve been glued, growing gradually more and more sleep-deprived and invested.

What a World Series it was: intense drama, back-and-forth games, and a weird aversion to giving starting pitchers any slack anytime beyond the third inning. Sure, there were too many pitching changes and long games, but there were also plenty of brilliant moves by the managers, and it felt only natural that it came down to a thriller of a seventh game. When a bear wandered down into the middle of downtown Duluth today and climbed a tree, it was hard not to think of it as an omen. The extra inning rain delay in Game Seven only added another dose of mystique, as the heavens made it clear they’d leave their mark on this one. All it takes is a silly sport to turn all us skeptics into true believers.

This batch of Lovable Losers proved to be thoroughly lovable winners. Even if he had me muttering things with his pitching choices in Games Six and Seven, Joe Maddon set the tone here, and made sure he had a group that could handle the moment. There was David Ross, riding off into retirement with a home run; Dexter Fowler, who just sounds like he was born to be a leadoff man. The double play combination of Addison Russell and Javier Baez, overflowing with promise and flair. I forgive Jon Lester and John Lackey for being Red Sox, admire the ace Jake Arrieta, and feel for Kyle Hendricks, pulled too soon, the quiet hero of the Cubs’ postseason. There was even some cosmic justice in the Game Seven implosion, as Aroldis Chapman, the most questionable of Cubs, blew the save and gave an entire city ulcers. But Kyle Schwarber lumbered back from injury to start the tenth inning rally, and Ben Zobrist was on hand to play the consummate hero. A few more pitching changes, and we were finally ready to end 108 years of pain. The final out, Kris Bryant to Anthony Rizzo, the powerful combination at the heart of the lineup combining to take a franchise where so many before them could not. Eight different players scored in the clincher, while seven drove in runs, a total team effort. They all earned it, scraping past an opponent that gave it their all.

As Wrigleyville parties into the night and “Go Cubs Go” echoes around the world, my mind drifts to all of that Field of Dreams mush about how baseball reminds us of all that once was good, and could be again. It’s timeless, and much as I love my Yankees’ history and lore, the 2016 Series has far more powerful generational ties. As I settle in to bed in world in which the Cubs are World Series champions, my thoughts are with my grandparents, in their late 80s and lifelong Cubs fans, who get to experience this for the first time in their lives. Congratulations to all the Cubs fans in the Maloney clan, and thanks for teaching me to enjoy this beautiful game. In 2016, you leave all of the rest of us musing “maybe next year,” and get to enjoy a trophy more deserved than any other in professional sports. Hey Chicago, what do you say? The Cubs, at long last, won it all today.