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Don Ness remains popular as he nears the end of his second mayoral term, even after wading into sticky policy issues.
In about four months Don Ness won’t be the mayor of Duluth anymore.
When his current term expires early next January, it will mark the end of a roughly 16-year stretch for Ness as an elected official in the Minnesota city of about 86,000 residents, which is located at the far western end of Lake Superior, roughly 150 miles north of Minneapolis.
Ness began his career as a politician in Duluth a few years after college, when he was elected to the City Council in 1999 at the age of 25. In 2007, at 33, he beat out 12 other candidates to win his first term as mayor. Four years later, he became the first mayoral candidate in Duluth to run unopposed since the city was incorporated in 1887.
Now 41, he’s ready for something new.
“I am looking forward to moving into the private sector,” he said during a phone interview in late July. Referring to his time in office he added: “There’ve been many elements I’ve loved about it, but my patience for the political side is growing thin.”
Married, with three young children, family is also an important consideration for Ness.
"My oldest daughter is 10 years-old, and I have two younger sons as well and, you know, I’d like to spend more time with them," he said.
A quirky mayor, who was born and raised in Duluth, which is a somewhat quirky town, Ness tweets about stuff like Wilco albums, local sports, and the “city hall bear," which was spotted hanging out in a tree earlier this year. At a music festival in April, he joined local rock band The Farsights on stage and, in a gravely voice, belted out a song about how potholed streets had him down. He also tried stage diving at a bluegrass show a few years ago. And a book he has written, which is set to become available this fall, includes an essay where he considers the metaphor of “cities as beer styles.”
Though the mayor has been called a hipster, he rejects that label.
“I am definitely not a hipster. I really dislike PBR and I think I’m too old to be a hipster. But I do enjoy live music,” Ness said, referring to the initials for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, long seen as staple adult beverage for those with hipster sensibilities.
He added: “I think people use that description because I don’t take myself too seriously in this role, and I like to support people who are doing fun and interesting things in this town.”
Trusting the Public to Understand
Despite his claim that he does not take himself too seriously, Ness has used his time in office to tackle a number of big challenges that had long-bedeviled Duluth.
For instance, he successfully advocated for sewer rate surcharges during his first term to help pay for infrastructure upgrades.
Before those improvements were completed, millions of gallons of untreated sewage had flowed from the city into the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. In 2009, Duluth entered into a consent decree with the federal government, which mandated certain terms the city had to meet in order to address the overflows. About $160 million of work was completed in the following years. A federal judge lifted the consent decree in June.
Ness also backed a controversial plan to rein in retiree health care costs for city employees. The city began providing retirees with health care in 1983. But as costs climbed over the years, the benefits came to be seen as a grave threat to Duluth’s long-term financial stability. At one point, projections showed unfunded retiree health care liabilities rising to $417 million by 2015. But with the reforms in effect that amount is now down to $129 million, according to actuarial figures the city cited earlier this year.
“That’s the difference between bankruptcy and solvency,” Ness said, comparing the two unfunded liability numbers.
When the mayor ends his term, he’ll no doubt leave behind unsolved problems. He’s quick to note, for example, that “we haven’t made enough progress in fixing our streets.”
Meanwhile, there are advocates for the poor who say Duluth lacks an adequate amount of affordable housing.
Joel Kilgour is a member of Loaves and Fishes, a group inspired by the Catholic Worker movement that provides family-style housing for the homeless and other volunteer services in the city.
“There are more people than ever on the streets,” he said.
Kilgour worries that, as the city tries to attract young professionals, Duluth’s more vulnerable residents might get overlooked.
“If we don't stop and consider the people who are experiencing poverty, we’re just going to see greater stratification of wealth, and a community that doesn't feel like a community anymore,” he said. But Kilgour acknowledged that the mayor was not positioned to address these issues on his own. “I don't want to put too much responsibility on his shoulders," he said of Ness. “We haven't done enough as a community."
There is at least one group of Duluthians that takes an outright icy view of the Ness administration: the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees. Jennifer Munt, a spokeswoman for the union, said that representatives from Duluth’s Local 66 were not interested in discussing the mayor’s time in office.
“AFSCME has no comment because we have nothing positive to say,” Munt said.
It would be difficult to argue though that Ness does not enjoy broad public support.
A 2015 National Citizen Survey of Duluth found that 60 percent of respondents strongly approved of the mayor, and another 31 percent somewhat approved. That means that overall 91 percent of those surveyed approved of the job Ness was doing to some degree.
So how does a young mayor come into office, take on longstanding, contentious problems and also remain popular among voters?
Ness says there are two main tenets that have guided the way he has approached the job.
The first is to endure short-term political discomfort in order to achieve long term goals. The second is to trust that the public will understand complicated issues. He believes politicians who lack this trust are the “foundation of what’s wrong in American politics.” Why? Because “it results in simplistic talking points, and it results in the avoidance of making tough decisions.”
“There’s this wide gap between political soundbites and the complexity of policy issues,” Ness said. “What we’ve tried to do in Duluth is to be really honest and upfront with our residents.”
‘The City Has Transformed Itself’
Beyond his efforts to be up front, people in the city point to another reason why they like Ness.
“I think he’s provided for a renewed sense of optimism for the community,” said Roger Wedin, director of policy and education for the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce. “He doesn’t sugarcoat our problems, but he reminds us of what good things we have.”
Optimism is something that began to bleed out of Duluth around the 1980s, as the city began to look more and more like another casualty of the Rust Belt.
“We were famous, like many towns back in the ’80s, when everything went to hell, for that phrase: ‘would the last one to leave turn out the lights,’” said Larry Sillanpa, who is editor of the Labor World Newspaper and an officer of the Duluth AFL-CIO Central Labor Body.
Duluth’s fortunes were historically tied to heavy industry. To the north and west of the city, ore has been extracted from Minnesota's ground since the 1800s in a region known as the Iron Range. And, even today, the Port of Duluth-Superior remains an important hub for bulk cargoes like iron ore, coal and grain. Traveling through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway System, ships can make it between the port and the Atlantic Ocean in less than a week’s time.
For decades, beginning in 1916, one company alone, U.S. Steel, employed thousands of local workers at a production facility in the city, where goods such as barbed wire and nails were manufactured. But by the end of the 1980s, the plant was shuttered and mostly demolished, and the site where it once stood was contaminated with pollutants. While U.S. Steel was just one employer, the demise of the company’s Duluth operation mirrored broader trends in a region that was upended by factors like foreign competition and new technology.
Although Duluth took some hard economic blows, the city did not stay knocked down.
These days, the health care, social service and education sectors provide about a one-third of the roughly 43,000 jobs in town, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
The number of young residents also seems to be rising. Census figures for 2010 show there were 23,567 people between ages 20 and 34 in Duluth, up from 20,003 in 2000.
“Duluth is playing the same role that places like Asheville, North Carolina, and Bend, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado, are,” Ness said. “What we’re trying to do is have Duluth be known as that kind of city for the upper Midwest,” he added. “Outdoor recreation, natural beauty and craft beer is part of that overall package.”
Underscoring the traction the city is getting on this front, in 2014 Outside Magazine named Duluth the best place to live in the U.S., noting the city’s opportunities for mountain biking, kayaking and cross-country skiing.
“Duluth had the access to nature we wanted,” Greg Benson, CEO of Loll Designs told the magazine at that time. Headquartered in town, Loll makes outdoor furniture out of recycled plastic material.
Sillanpa, the Labor World editor, is a native Duluthian who worked over the years in the building trades and for U.S. Steel. He believes that “the city has transformed itself.”
Asked if Ness played a role in that transformation he replied: “He had a lot to do with the last eight years. I don’t think the town would be as attractive without the leadership that he’s shown.”
Even out of office, Ness sees a role for himself in politics.
“More as a mentor, or working with a new generation of political leaders sharing my experience,” he explained. “I had some really important mentors when I was getting started.”
After college, Ness began working as a campaign manager for Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar. A Democrat, who served in Congress from 1975 to 2011, Oberstar represented a district that includes Duluth. He died last year at the age of 79.
What kind of wisdom would Ness try to impart on aspiring young politicians?
“They don’t have to follow the well-worn path,” he said.
When it comes to finding a unique approach to public life, Ness added, “not only is it possible, but it can be the very basis for political success. I’d love to engage with young people and say ‘find a different way of practicing your politics,’ because that is so important for the health of our country.”
BIll Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.