The State of Duluth Politics, March 2017

Longtime readers will know that this blog grew up on coverage of Duluth politics. While my current job is politically sensitive enough that I’d rather play it coy on many issues in front of the city these days, I will aim to venture a few comments here and there going forward. This past week is as good a chance as any, following the State of the City address; names are starting to pile up for this fall’s elections too, and as usual, I can’t resist the urge to comment on the ISD 709 school board.

Mayor Larson’s Coming-Out Party

Emily Larson delivered an eye-opening State of the City address on Monday. For the most part, Larson hasn’t set out to be a show-stopper, either during her time on the city council or in her rise to the top spot in City Hall. She’s a team player and a listener, and the first part of her address was devoted to recognizing the everyday work done by city employees to improve Duluth. But Monday night also hinted that there may be more to Emily Larson.

Her State of the City was an ambitious, effective speech. She hammered home three key themes: combating the opioid epidemic, creating affordable housing, and reducing energy emissions. It was a clear, broad vision, and while I’m sure many of us could lobby for certain other things getting higher billing, she does understand how these all interconnect. Her remarks on housing were particularly strong, both for the ambition of her plans and in the acknowledged nuance of housing policy and the market forces that drive it. Her comments on climate change drew the largest cheers from a staunchly liberal crowd, but this wasn’t some diatribe about the direction of national politics; while she acknowledged all of that, she repeatedly made it clear that the way forward required a focus on local action, on controlling what we can control, and shutting out the broader noise. “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach,” she said, quoting from a constituent letter. (Whether or not she reads a certain local blog that rather likes this topic, it’s refreshing to see that sort of consistency of vision.)

On Monday night, Larson showed she has the acumen necessary to keep together the broad governing coalition built by her predecessor, Don Ness. This is harder than people think, especially when it’s such a wide-ranging coalition that includes both the Chamber of Commerce crowd and an increasingly vocal activist left. Even though I’m fairly certain I know Larson’s opinion on the issues that have divided these two groups over the past year–oil pipelines, non-ferrous mining, earned sick and safe leave—she’s a smart enough operator to know not to waste her political capital on those debates. She puts herself in positions where she doesn’t need to fight tooth and nail to get her agenda done; she just provides the energy to spur it along, and builds complete movements. Unlike too many politicians who preach unity while ignoring half of their constituents, she actually does want to keep everyone on board. (Whether they will all be willing to stay there may be a different story.)

In contrast to Ness, Larson has never been deeply involved in the Democratic Party apparatus; perhaps for that reason, I had yet to give much thought about her as a candidate for higher office. But in this speech, I saw someone who has the charisma and the political skill that could allow her to make that run. With the climate change push, she’s even taking on an initiative that could be scaled up to another level, although she would certainly need to be even more nimble to succeed in a political environment such as the Minnesota 8th Congressional District. If she has the desire and can continue to balance the competing interests in her coalition, I think she has the skill to pull it off. Duluth has itself a powerful mayor, and while the form of power may not match a traditional definition of power, it is power nonetheless.

The Moribund Right

There will be little resistance to Larson’s agenda. To the extent that there are any cracks in the Ness-Larson coalition, they’ve come from people on the leftward flank of that coalition who aren’t fans of the business class, not from a challenge to the right. One doesn’t have to go too far back in Duluth political history to find a long tradition of fiscal conservatism, with recent proponents such as Jim Stauber, Garry Krause, Todd Fedora, and Chris Dahlberg. They were never a majority, but they had a consistent voice, and exercised some influence. Nowadays, with the partial exception of Jay Fosle—a somewhat more complicated figure—that species is all but extinct in Duluth politics.

To some extent, this reflects broader shifts in the American right. Older, civic-minded moderate patricians have much less of a place in the Republican Party now than they did a few years back. In some ways, Chuck Horton’s run for mayor presaged the Trump candidacy; while I wouldn’t draw too tight a parallel, they both tap into a stream of testosterone and had a white working class following. That sort of politics has a fairly low ceiling of support within Duluth proper, though, and (again, with the semi-exception of Fosle) doesn’t seem like much of a winner.  At the same time, the Ness Administration was pretty disciplined fiscally, so there wasn’t much ground to attack it on that front. There’s a lot less ground to occupy here. The only recent attempt to run a distinctive campaign on a nuanced, Duluth-specific conservative platform front came from state senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, and she was running in a race she couldn’t win.

I doubt, however, that the Duluth electorate has changed that much in the past five years. Especially now that a few city councilors are taking a much harder leftward tack, I think there’s a clear opening for some center or center-right candidates to do well in elections here. The fourth district (Duluth Heights, Piedmont, Lincoln Park), which elected Garry Krause not that long ago, has an election for what will be an open seat this fall, and would be an obvious target. And while the at-large field is crowded with two incumbents (Zack Filipovich, Barb Russ) plus a few other left-leaning figures, it’s not hard to imagine a more distinctive voice running through a crowded field to at least make it past the primary. After that, a strong candidate would at least have a fighting chance, especially if there’s any division among the DFL ranks over whether to support the comparatively moderate incumbents or not.

For now, however, there are zero candidates stepping in to take that chance. I’d like to see someone try, even if I may not agree with said person on everything. One-party rule of any variety is cause for concern, and elected bodies should approximate the full range of views within a city. We’ll see if any viable takers emerge.

Meanwhile, Back at the School Board

Speaking of moribund…

When I started covering school board meetings on here nearly four years ago, I was very critical of the anti-Red Plan crowd, which at the time consisted of Art Johnston and a few hangers-on. They sounded devoid of ideas, and more interested in reliving a war that had already happened.

How the tables turn. Johnston, who benefits from having allies to keep him on point, has added Harry Welty and now the dynamic Alanna Oswald to his effort to needle the administration; over at the Reader, Loren Martell’s columns have become increasingly lucid. Agree or disagree with them, the school board minority is now putting creative ideas forward for dealing with the district’s issues, and has a new wave of energy. As for the majority and the administration? Well, current district teachers are now writing letters to the DNT editor filleting Superintendent Bill Gronseth’s job searches in other communities. At this point, I’m honestly not sure what the ISD 709 establishment stands for other than opposition to whatever it is that the minority supports. That’s a curious way to govern.

Four of the seven school board seats are up for grabs this fall. Since he was re-elected over a strong opponent with a favorable political climate four years ago, I suspect Johnston can have a third term in his far western district if he wants it. On the far east side, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the most steadfast opponent of the minority, is up for re-election. Two of the three at-large seats are also up; Welty will run for re-election, and I’d expect that Annie Harala will be back for another cycle, too. They’re both fairly strong incumbents, as Welty enjoys name recognition and the general tide of public sentiment, while Harala won very comfortably four years ago. At the time, she ran as a post-Red Plan unity candidate, and while she made some efforts to bridge gaps near the start of her term, she’s become a full-on member of the majority over time. That race will say a lot about the ISD 709 school board electorate, though the ability of the minority to recruit a capable candidate is paramount to making it competitive.

If the current minority can hold Johnston and Welty’s seats and pick up just one of Harala and Loeffler-Kemp’s, they’ll no longer be a minority. That would change the tenor of the board room debate in unpredictable ways; it could make things far more contentious between the board and staff, but it could also open up what has long been a stultifying debate. Are Duluth voters willing to take that chance?

Even more so than at the city council level, I think this has the potential to be a huge election year for the school board. There hasn’t been any noise about candidates here yet, but depending on how people play their cards, we could be in for a dramatic shake-up. I’ll be watching things here very closely.


Don Ness Goes West

I took a break from packing for the State Tourney to watch Duluth Mayor Don Ness’s State of the City address tonight. It was vintage Mayor Ness: upbeat, ambitious, and optimistic about Duluth’s future. Indeed, Ness has good reason to be optimistic; he began by listing off some of the city’s big wins over the past year, from record-low unemployment to the demise of the Last Place on Earth, and said the city is “showing signs of population growth that Duluth has not seen in sixty years.” It would be good to know more about that, but it’s an encouraging sign.

Next, it was on to a few broad challenges facing the city. One is the housing stock, which is already old and strained, and will need to grow if the city does indeed grow. Ness established a few goals and celebrated last month’s housing summit among community leaders, which was a decent start toward addressing a real issue. He also spent some time talking about income inequality, to which possible solutions included “engaging labor,” primarily in the building trades; granting equal access to communities of color; and making sure schools and colleges are teaching the skills students need. There isn’t really anything concrete in among these buzzwords, though there is only so much a local government can do on these fronts.

The bulk of the speech, though, focused on a vision for Duluth’s western end, and the St. Louis River corridor in particular. As Duluthians have learned over the past few days, the St. Louis River is the “world’s largest freshwater estuary,” and the string of neighborhoods dotting the riverbank—many of them separate enough from their neighbors to feel like their own small towns—do indeed have potential if the city “taps into its authentic strengths.” Ness noted the ongoing environmental restoration efforts along the river, and said they went hand-in-hand with economic development. He wrapped up the pitch with four legislative goals: the Spirit Mountain water project, further flood relief for the zoo and Irving Park, the re-implementation of a recently expired tourism tax, and housing incentives. He concluded by saying 2014 was the start of a “virtuous cycle” for the city, and said that “all we have to do is accelerate.”

The most striking thing about the Ness plan is its comprehensiveness. There are any number of ways a city like Duluth might try to improve its economy. It could try to follow the “creative class” theory and attract interesting people who will develop a rich cultural scene. It could focus on Duluth’s historic strengths, manufacturing and transportation, and try to create blue-collar jobs. Or it could embrace the post-industrial service economy and train most of its efforts on tourism, perhaps with some health care thrown in as well. In Ness’s Duluth, the choice is “all the above.” That’s an impressive commitment, and ultimately probably the right one, though the city does need to make sure it doesn’t spread itself too thin and wind up with a lot of some things but no critical mass in anything.

It’s also an incredibly ambitious plan on many levels. First off, Ness does deserve credit for going out there and pitching such a big plan; as I’ve observed before, the west side is not his political base. He doesn’t need to do this. Aside from flood reconstruction and city-wide projects like the expansion of trails, it’s hard to think of any development large development projects on the west side in recent years; most of the attention has been focused downtown, up in the Duluth Heights area, and in a few pockets on the east side such as the BlueStone Lofts. This is a leap into new territory; one he truly believes is the next step in bringing this city toward whatever destiny it has in mind.

It also makes complete sense intuitively. As someone who’s spent some time wandering the western neighborhoods, I agree there is clear untapped potential: natural beauty, empty space left over by dying industry, tight-knit neighborhoods, and a somewhat tired feel that could use some updating. Further neglect will only deepen divides between east and west, and it’s important to act while the west side’s civic pride remains strong.

With great opportunity, however, comes the great possibility of screwing things up. There will be competing visions going forward, and the people who don’t get what they want will have to be placated somehow. Economic and environmental incentives may align for now, but there’s no guarantee that will last. The end result isn’t going to look like the west side of forty years ago, even if there is a decent manufacturing base out there. Community input is essential; this can’t just be something the (mostly east side-based) city administration imposes on the west side. Ness’s nod toward “authentic strengths” is a step in this direction, but people have different perceptions of authenticity, and for many, it involves keeping things the way they are. This is going to cost money—probably a lot of money—and if people don’t jump on the incentives the Administration thinks they will jump on, it will be a financial sinkhole.

On that front, the biggest battle is probably going to be one of perception. For many who don’t live out that way, there’s no real animus the west side; people just don’t feel the need to go there. It used to be big manufacturing area, but not anymore, except for that smelly paper mill; it seems long and spread out and no one can remember the neighborhoods; the schools’ test scores and such are lower than the east side or Hermantown. It’s just there, without any real draws aside from a few trails and a small-city zoo. It has to fight the perception that it’s a part of the city that history has left behind.

That’s a very unfair generalization, of course; there are plenty of bright spots out west, and plenty of people who are fighting for it. (The late Charlie Bell immediately jumps to mind.) There are also plenty of residents who don’t care at all about grandiose things like arcs of history, and simply want to get on with their lives; that could be good or bad for the redevelopment plans, depending on how they’re presented. The point here is that perception moves slowly. It isn’t going to shift with more trails or a co-op or a niche manufacturer. It’s a long process, one that will long outlive the Ness Administration. It can work (witness Canal Park), but it’s no guarantee.

I could blather on for a spell with more questions (for example, why does the credits music sound like it’s from India?), but I’ll stop myself. I don’t have a definitive take on Ness’s vision for the west side, perhaps because I can swim in both seas. My inner developer loves it all, and wants to start drawing up plans on a map while dreaming of the future. Another part of my brain orders me not to be so presumptuous as to say I know what should be done with the side of the city I don’t know well, that history should take its course. Duluth needed a Ness at this point in its history to get it to think past the post-industrial mire it’s been in for my entire life; it will also need its critics acting in good faith, though, or else it will end up with another half-baked, expensive mess that creates more problems than it solves. The vision must remain comprehensive at all steps, and not just pay lip service to certain areas.

I hope Ness is right; I hope this is the start of a new virtuous cycle for Duluth. I also hope it is a patient one. There’s a lot of work to done before we go barreling ahead, but if we do it right, it might just work out in the end.