Duluth’s Comings and Goings

I cycled through Duluth this past weekend, and while I couldn’t hang around long enough to attend all the inauguration festivities, yesterday marked the transition from one set of elected officials to another. Whether this means the start of a new era is probably an entirely different story, but for now, we can dream (or lament, or shrug indifferently, as we see fit). It’s been some time since I covered many of these people regularly, but I’ve been keeping up from afar, such as I can, and have a few final words. (Initial reactions to the election are here and here.)

The ISD 709 school board, my favorite hobbyhorse, saw some serious turnover, as all three incumbents retired. Nora Sandstad, David Kirby, and Alanna Oswald all enter the board sounding all the right notes about moving past the old divides, and now have a chance to prove it. Given the radio silence in recent debates and even on Harry Welty’s blog, it seems like there’s a cease fire in place for now. Whether this becomes a lasting peace is a different story, but I’m more optimistic than at any point in the past eight years.

As always, I’ll say a few words about the outgoing members. One, Judy Seliga-Punyko, leaves after two terms as the great champion of the Red Plan. She nursed it through countless political wars, left her own mark on it with advocacy for swimming pools, and led the internal effort to bring down Art Johnston. While that part of her legacy may be the most obvious, she also stood up and fought for any number of issues, and would at times demand answers from the administration. Even among those who always voted for her, none of the remaining board members quite have her combative spirit, so we’ll see if the tenor of board meetings changes in her absence.

Bill Westholm always voted with Seliga-Punyko, but was in many ways her polar opposite. He often stayed quiet through board meetings, playing his cards close to his chest and speaking out only when he could make an effective point. Given his gravitas, I’d wish we’d heard more from him. He retires after one term, which is no great surprise; he wasn’t exactly speeding around the board room by the end.

Mike Miernicki also voted in lockstep with the old board majority, but his legacy is also a rather different one. The jolly Miernicki was the activities director at Duluth East during my freshman year, and hovered around the school for the next three; he always seemed an agreeable man who’d do good work for the district. His time on the board, however, tested his limits. In more peaceful times he might have been a model board member, but conflict did not suit him, and he failed to hide his exasperation and general sense of defeat. (I’m still proud of the time I described him as “a man waving his arms wildly at a cloud of gnats,” which drew praise from all sides of the debate.) It was sad to watch.

My opinions are probably leaching through here, but I’ll wrap this up by thanking them all for their service and once again praying that the new board rise above the old wars.

On the city council side of things, there’s no need for caution in the optimism: people seem genuinely excited about the new wave of energy in Duluth politics, which looks to build off the last one. Two of the six people elected last fall are familiar faces; Jay Fosle returns for a third term, while Joel Sipress begins his first full one. Elissa Hansen and Noah Hobbs continue the youth movement among the at-large seats, and bring new but distinct brands of energy. Em Westerlund follows in much the same vein in the Third District, and there’s also something very distinctly Duluth about Gary Anderson, who takes over on the far east side.

Among the four retirees, council veteran Sharla Gardner leaves after a distinguished career of advocacy for the center of the city, though I doubt she’ll disappear from view. Even if we disagreed, I admired her integrity, particularly when she stood down a mob of angry Park Pointers and defended city staff. Jennifer Juslrud, whose decision not to run again still surprises me, was a strong voice for her district, and probably has a political future somewhere if she wants to get back in the game. Linda Krug brought a strong commitment to processes to the council, and also wasn’t afraid to fight or take controversial stands. While that did at times lead to a few dust-ups, one of which effectively cost her the council presidency, she was consistent and stuck to her guns, and had the wisdom to step down when pressured.

The final figure to mention here is Emily Larson, who now accedes to the throne. As the new mayor, she’s riding a tide of goodwill and a council that should be happy to work with her. Don Ness might be a tough act to follow, but he’s also left the house in much better shape than it was. Larson certainly is primed to carry forward that energy, but I doubt she’ll move in lockstep, so we’ll see what unique twists she brings. As long as she surrounds herself with smart people and keeps the fiscal house in order, there’s no reason to expect the positivity to fade.

As for Don Ness: well, damn. You took a city that time had left behind and made me believe in it again. As is always the case, we haven’t agreed on everything, and this more jaded soul couldn’t didn’t always share your persistent idealism. But I suppose that’s exactly what made you so easy to like for so many people, and what it took to turn the ship around. You’ve left quite the legacy, and I hope you continue to build on it in your career outside of formal politics. Also, “will your new non-consulting consulting firm be hiring?” asks the kid who finishes graduate school in May.

And, lest we thought we were done with local political intrigue for a little while, the Duluth congressional delegation is due for a shake-up. Roger Reinert, who sounds quite busy with a number of ventures in his personal life, will step down from the Minnesota Senate after six years this coming fall. Erik Simonson, the current state representative for District 7B, immediately announced his candidacy for the seat. Simonson is a strong DFL figure with working class cred, so he has the political clout to run away with this race; presuming he does, the real question becomes one of who will emerge in the now open west side house district. That one, on the other hand, could be a lot more interesting.

Good luck to all the newbies. I’ll try not to be too mean when I breeze in to offer my comments.

Duluth Citizens in Action Forum

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of spending the day at the Citizens in Action 2014 forum in Duluth, an event put on by the League of Women Voters and a host of supporting organizations. I went on a whim, having received a flyer earlier this week; these sorts of events can be hit-or-miss, depending on the quality of the organizing effort, invited guests, and degree of political neutrality. In the end, it was a day well-spent: the planning committee did a thorough job and reeled in many local politicians, and while a majority of the attendees were certainly on the left side of the political spectrum (no surprise in Duluth), there was some variety, and a pleasant lack of harping on causes. The food was good, too.

The keynote speaker was Minnesota State Representative Rena Moran, who in her second term serving a St. Paul district in the State House. Rep. Moran’s story was a compelling one: in July of 2000, the single mother of seven decided she needed to leave Chicago and move to a state with good schools and a strong community for her children. So she told them to leave most of their possessions behind, piled them all into a van, and drove to Minneapolis. Her family spent a few months in a shelter, but before long she was on her feet, and eventually found a home in St. Paul’s historically black Rondo neighborhood. It all snowballed from there, as Moran became involved in local affairs. As a representative, she highlighted her legislative successes during her first term, when the Republicans held the majority in the House and she needed to build relationships across the aisle to get anything done, and told of bringing her colleagues with her to show them reality inside inner-city neighborhoods. Rep. Moran stayed for the entire conference, joining panels and sharing her experiences.

After that we broke into groups, and I attended a panel discussion entitled “Young Adults in Action.” The panel included Rep. Moran, two Duluth Denfeld students involved in the Native Youth Alliance of Minnesota; two 20-something members of the board of the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial, which aims to remember and continue dialogue about the 1920 Duluth lynching of three black men; and two Duluth East students and members of the group Students for the Future, which organized to give students a voice in Duluth schools during Red Plan restructuring talks some five years ago and lives on today. (Full disclosure: I was out of high school when the group was founded, but know a number of its original members, and played a minor consulting role in its formation.) A couple of moderators guided them through a series of questions, and while the forum could have benefitted from a somewhat looser format, it delivered the goods.

Two candidates for the soon-to-be-vacant Minnesota House 7A seat on the east side of Duluth were in the room, and one of them asked the panel perhaps the most pressing question: just how do we get people involved? With young people, getting them through the door often seems to be half the battle. It’s an especially big problem nowadays, when college and high school students are bombarded with daily information on countless groups they can join; it can be easy to miss the best options, and many are reluctant to take a leap and join something unless they have a group of friends with them. A single cause or candidate might inspire some excitement, but it can be hard to inculcate a sense of civic responsibility in those who weren’t raised in that sort of environment to begin with. And, as one of the Denfeld students explained, sometimes they quite simply don’t have enough time to take on anything else.

What is undeniable, however, are the potential benefits for those involved. The two East students, when asked what they’d gained from their experience, succinctly said two things that, while not unknown, took me four years of college to fully internalize. (I paraphrase. Student One: “I wanted to study international relations, but now I’ve realized how easy it is to have an immediate and lasting impact just by working in my community.” Student Two: “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but I know I can do other things in life but still be very involved in politics.”)

After lunch, we were sent to rooms in small groups to meet with local politicians, who rotated through to meet us in groups of two or three. There were sixteen on hand, including two state representatives, two county commissioners, the St. Louis County Attorney, and a whole bunch of the city council and school board members whose names often grace this blog. We got brief but productive opportunities to share our stories and most pressing concerns, and the officials took diligent notes and replied as time allowed. There was a pleasant diversity of topics brought forward by the other citizens in attendance. Being a big picture person, I settled for telling my own story and some shameless blog plugging, and was pleasantly surprised by the response. (Thanks, readers!)

I’m afraid I did run off when we got to the singing at the end, but for the most part, it was a quality event. In the grand scheme of things, it probably didn’t change much—the people who came are mostly the sorts who would have made their voices heard in some way anyway—but face-to-face contact never hurts, and getting people together to talk about political engagement can be rejuvenating. And while I make a big deal out of the stories of people who are not usually vocal in politics being overlooked, not everyone can be constantly engaged, and it’s up to those who can to be aware of them and pick up the slack. A healthy community needs its activists and campaigners, but it also needs its caretakers and critics; those who can step out of the hectic world of politics from time to time. Reality tells us there are plenty who simply don’t have the interest, whatever their reason. As long as they aren’t forgotten, it all works out in the end.