Duluth political pioneer Meg Bye enters hospice careMeg Bye was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007, and she said she’s done fighting it.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
Meg Bye was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007, and she said she’s done fighting it.
The 69-year-old former Duluth city councilor and human rights advocate now is receiving hospice care at her home in Pequot Lakes.
“Nobody knows how long it will take,” said Bye matter-of-factly of her impending death.
As she looks ahead to the inevitable, Bye also has had an opportunity to look back. Friends and colleagues have been saying their goodbyes and telling her what she has meant to them.
Bye said the experience has been surprising and humbling.
“If everyone could have an opportunity like this to hear what a difference they’ve made in people’s lives, it would be a wonderful gift,” she said.
Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon calls Bye a mentor who gave her the confidence to enter politics, and said her friend will leave a lasting legacy when she dies.
“I think of Meg as one of those pioneer women who forged the way for other women to consider that they, too, could be leaders in the community,” she said.
Driven to serve
Bye was born in Oceanside, Calif., on Feb. 6, 1943, and graduated from Babbitt High School before attending the College of St. Scholastica, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in math. She became a Benedictine nun and taught at St. Scholastica beginning in 1961. However, she chose another path in 1966, leaving the sisterhood.
“I wanted to try to use that forum for providing some service to humanity, some service to God. I just realized that the way I seem to feel most comfortable providing that type of service didn’t fit in the religious community that well,” she told the News Tribune in 1985. “I felt a need to be involved in a larger community, in the world at large as opposed to the more confined community one is involved in in a type of religious order.”
Bye left St. Scholastica and worked with the Community Action Program in Duluth. She married local attorney and DFL Party activist Don Bye in 1969. They had a daughter, Raa Lyn, who died in childhood, and later a son, Dan.
In 1972, Bye got up the gumption to run for Duluth City Council, raising more than a local few eyebrows.
“Those were very different times,” she said. “Until I ran and won an at-large race, there was a sense that a woman couldn’t do that, because it was too big a job.
Prettner Solon recalls working on Bye’s first campaign and the way people were attracted to the candidate’s upbeat personality. “She was so energetic and cheerful. She always had something positive to say.”
Bye was elected to the Duluth City Council in 1973, becoming only the third woman to hold a seat on the council. She was elected council president in 1977 and that same year also became the first woman ever picked to serve as president of the League of Minnesota Cities.
Bye jumped into her new job enthusiastically and believes she changed the way some people thought of women’s abilities during her 12-year stint on the council.
“I was naive enough to think I could do it, and I did. Once people saw what it was like to have a woman in a position of leadership, it became normal,” she said. “That’s what happens if you do a job reasonably well.”
Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner said Bye inspired others and opened doors for women to enter local politics.
“She was a tremendous influence for me,” said Gardner. “Meg was one of the women in the DFL who I’ve always looked up to.”
Gardner said she considers Bye a role model and often turned to her for advice in tough situations.
Bye said she always strived to listen carefully to opposing points of view and to treat people with civility, even when she disagreed.
“No matter how much we believe we know the truth, someone else always has a piece of it, too,” she said.
Bye also said she rejects the notion of an all-or-nothing approach to politics, saying the best outcomes often come from “trying to find the thing that’s the least worst for everyone.”
John Fedo remembers working with Bye both on the council and as mayor. They didn’t always agree, but Fedo said Bye would try to keep the tone respectful.
“We obviously had our battles. But on issues that were important to the city, we always seemed to be able to find some base of commonality,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there weren’t some hot debates.”
Prettner Solon said Bye was willing to negotiate on many matters, but she has always possessed a strong non-negotiable belief in the importance of fairness.
“Meg is always willing to stand up for what she believes in. That’s what has made her a leader in so many ways,” Prettner Solon said.
During her City Council tenure, Bye championed a city human rights ordinance that sought to prohibit discrimination based on factors including race, religion, age, gender, disability, family status and — most controversially at that time — sexual orientation.
She pushed for the ordinance unsuccessfully in 1976, 1980 and again in 1984. That last time, the council approved the ordinance but also put the issue to voters by referendum — where it was soundly defeated. The human rights ordinance became an issue in the next year’s campaign, too, when Bye lost her bid for a fourth term to two candidates who opposed the rule.
But in 2001, the city finally did pass a human rights ordinance — and the next year Bye rejoined city government when Mayor Gary Doty named her Duluth’s first human rights officer. She was in charge of investigating and mediating human rights complaints in housing and employment, among other areas. She also worked to ensure city departments did all they could to hire minorities.
Bye’s strong advocacy for human rights earned Gardner’s admiration.
“She knew how important it was for Duluth to be in the vanguard and set an example for the rest of the state and country,” said Gardner. “Our human rights department will be part of her legacy.”
But reviews of the department’s success are mixed.
“Meg fought hard for the human rights ordinance, but she didn’t get the support from the council and the mayor that she needed,” said Claudie Washington, president of the Duluth chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The ordinance might have cost Bye her seat on the council, and Washington contends the city never provided adequate resources for the human rights department to effectively investigate and prosecute cases of discrimination.
“There’s still a lot of jobs, housing and racial discrimination,” said Washington, adding: “We need more Meg Byes in city government.”
Bye stepped down as Duluth’s human rights officer in 2007 and entered the race for mayor, only to be defeated by Don Ness.
Following the election, Meg and Don Bye moved to Pequot Lakes, Minn.
But she didn’t slow down. Even after a cancer diagnosis, Bye ran for the Minnesota House in 2008 and 2010, losing both bids.
Although Bye now calls Pequot Lakes home, she said, “I still have Duluth in my heart.”
She continues to follow Duluth in the news and praised the city for remaining at the forefront of pushing for a more open community, noting that she was impressed by the controversial Un-Fair campaign.
Yet she said she was not surprised to see some negative reactions to the campaign.
“People don’t want to hear questions that make them uncomfortable, because they know in their hearts that something’s not right,” she said.
Bye said there’s still room for significant improvement in Duluth, as in most communities.
She has been pleased to see Duluth city government’s continued advocacy for gay rights and its public confrontation of discrimination.
“The bottom line is that whenever you say civil rights stop here for this person and somewhere else for another person, you’re not giving everyone their civil rights,” she said.