Western Duluth county board seat contestedCounty commissioners in Minnesota officially run without party affiliation, in so-called nonpartisan elections. But this is Northeastern Minnesota where just about everything is political, and where much of that is DFL.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
County commissioners in Minnesota officially run without party affiliation, in so-called nonpartisan elections. But this is Northeastern Minnesota where just about everything is political, and where much of that is DFL.
That’s probably why all three candidates vying in Tuesday’s primary for St. Louis County Commissioner District 3 attended the DFL endorsing convention this past spring.
Only one, Debbie Isabell-Nelson, got the party’s nod. She topped current County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg and environmental activist Dennis Szymialis.
Of course, the DFL blessing is far from an automatic anointment for the office even in a district that covers western Duluth, from the Lincoln Park neighborhood to Fond du Lac. All three will be on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary with voters deciding the top two candidates to move on to battle in the general election.
“I’m honored to have the endorsement; I think people understand what that means in our town. But my favorite endorsements are from the people I meet when I’m out door-knocking,” said Isabell-Nelson, a longtime community activist who lives in Morgan Park.
Dahlberg, known as one of the more conservative county commissioners, said he attended mostly to ask the DFL convention not to endorse anyone — to keep the party out of the race.
Szymialis, a former Duluth attorney and now an activist against the potential dangers of proposed copper mining in Minnesota, did not return repeated phone calls and e-mails to participate in this article. Information on his campaign was taken from his website and other records.
Dahlberg has had two separate political careers with a law career and military service sandwiched in between. He served on the Duluth City Council from 1992-95. In 2008 he ran against longtime, popular incumbent Bill Kron for the county board seat. Dahlberg campaigned hard and, in what was considered an upset, defeated Kron. (Kron now backs Isabell-Nelson.)
On the county board Dahlberg, who also lives in Morgan Park, first headed the Health and Human Services Committee and now the Natural Resources Committee. He’s maintained a keen interest in social services issues county-wide but also has focused on the district, especially in flood recovery efforts and the upcoming reconstruction of Haines Road, a county highway.
“As a challenger you go in with all these misconceptions and it really takes a couple years to get up to speed on all the issues the county has to deal with. I have a new appreciation for that now,” Dahlberg said.
Dahlberg said many Duluthians often aren’t aware of some of the county’s biggest issues, such as importance of county roads, bridges and the sheriff’s office to rural residents. And he noted that, over the past year, mining has emerged as a big issue for the county. Not only is much of the state’s proposed mining expansion set to happen in St. Louis County, but the county stands to share some of the millions of dollars in mining royalties for mining done under some state tax-forfeited lands.
“I think some people really are more tuned into city council issues and don’t understand what the county’s role really is,” Dahlberg said.
Isabell-Nelson said she’s been readying herself for a run for public office for decades, even if she didn’t know it at the time, and that the time is right now for her to run. Her husband died last year after a long illness. Then in December she lost her job when her employer, Neighborhood Housing Services, merged with another organization and downsized its staff. Her children are grown. She’s spent years on boards, commissions, task forces and associations.
The logical next step, she said, is a run for public office.
“It’s nothing against Chris, but the timing right now just seems right for me. It seems like this is where I belong,” she said of the county board position. “I believe everyone has a choice. When I’m out door-knocking and I run into someone with a yard sign for Chris, I still introduce myself and I thank them for getting involved in the process … But I tell them that having a choice is what Democracy is all about.”
Isabell-Nelson said she will remain focused on her district, and on Duluth, while serving on the county board. But she also said she would reach out to Iron Range commissioners to solve mutual problems. And she vowed to make the county board position her only job.
“I know some (county commissioners) have other jobs, or a couple others. … But the position is full-time, it’s a living (full-time) wage, and I’m going to give it my full time attention,” she said.
Dahlberg conceded that trying to keep his law office successful, fulfill his Army Reserve duties and keep up the full-time schedule of a county commissioner has been tough. So far, he says his law business has taken the biggest hit. But he said he’s hearing from constituents that they like the job he’s doing for the county.
“The best campaigning I do is when I stop at McDonalds and visit with the breakfast or lunch groups that gather there. That’s where you find out what’s really important to people in the district,” Dahlberg said “They usually aren’t shy about giving you their opinions.”
While Szymialis has appeared at county meetings to speak against mining, and while he sought the DFL endorsement (also stressing the dangers of copper mining) little information is available on the candidate.
In 1997, the Minnesota Supreme Court suspended Dennis Szymialis from practicing law for unprofessional conduct. Szymialis was suspended indefinitely and is not eligible to apply for reinstatement for at least two years. He was fined $750.
The director of the Office of Professional Responsibility presented numerous allegations of professional misconduct against Szymialis, including claims that he charged an unreasonable fee and failed to refund an unearned advance fee, failed to use proper accounting records and procedures and failed to cooperate with the investigation initiated by the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board.
The investigation found that “Szymialis has engaged in numerous acts of professional misconduct which, viewed cumulatively, reflect his inability to properly discharge his duties as an attorney.”