An evening with Duluth’s ‘first family’An intimate look at Duluth Mayor Don Ness during family time.
By: Sarah Packingham, Budgeteer News
It’s safe to say that most people in Duluth and its surrounding communities know who Don Ness is. It’s also fair to say that the average person has an idea of what the 9-to-5 role of the mayor is.
This piece is written to give another perspective of the life of Duluth’s young leader. It is my hope to showcase who Don is in his “off-peak” hours from being mayor.
In order to write this, meetings were scheduled and re-scheduled before spending an extended period of time with the Ness family.
On a recent Thursday evening, Don and Laura Ness were kind enough to welcome me into their free time, which also coincidentally is their family time. They allowed me to join them for a public event, a family dinner out and then back to the Ness home for playtime and storytime with the kids.
Going into the evening, I was nervous and unsure of what kinds of questions
I would ask the mayor and his wife. I didn’t know what the angle of my piece was going to be, but, after just a short amount of time with them, it was perfectly clear.
It is with that I write about the family man that Don is. He has somehow found a way to leave the stress of being the mayor of Duluth at the office and focus his duties on his wife and children while at home.
When family life and mayoral life mix, he is able to handle those roles with the greatest of ease.
I watched him try to teach his son how to cover his mouth when he sneezes while waiting to give a speech at a Minnesota Public Radio event. While enjoying a relaxing dinner at the Clyde restaurant with his wife, children and, this time, a reporter, he takes time to shake hands with well-wishers and passersby.
Don and Laura know that being interrupted at dinner is part of the job. But they are also appreciative of the people who don’t mind when the whole Ness clan shows up to any given event.
Throughout the course of the day, the mayor of any city can wear a number of hats. This is no exception for Don, who was born and raised in the city he now leads. Not one of the hats he wears is as important to him as his role as husband to his wife Laura and father to his two children Eleanor and James (a third child is due in January).
While waiting for pizza at Clyde, Don tries to teach Eleanor and James how to play bocce ball. After eating and returning to the house, he quizzes his daughter on the 50 states and reads books to his son.
“The roles that I play, I’m a husband and a partner first; second I’m a dad; and third I’m a mayor,” Don said. “That’s where my priorities are. I love being mayor and it’s an honor to be in that role.”
Don and Laura met in 2002, while working for Sen. Paul Wellstone’s office. The two then married in 2004.
For Don and Laura, having children was a no-brainer: Don is one of four children and Laura has four siblings.
Although Eleanor and James are both younger than 5, they appear to understand that, in the not-so-distant future, there is going to be a new sibling. When they were asked if they were excited to be a big brother and a big sister, they both said yes.
Currently, Laura is home with the children during the day while Don is at work. She enjoys being able to play with the children and take them exploring.
While out and about, people will often stop Laura to check on Don’s status.
“People always ask me how he’s doing,” she said.
Duluth’s “first lady” also loves being able to explore with the children and with Don, whom she affectionately still calls “Donny.”
“There are some hidden spots, places he’s never been — even though he’s lived here all his life,” she said with a smile on her face.
Evenings in the Ness household consist of lots of fun time with the children, including reading, walks and visits to 8th Street Video to get ice cream. There is also usually a nightly game of cribbage.
Don explained that he tries to attend no more than two after-hours events not related to work per week.
“It’s my priority to be home for dinner,” he said. “I’ll have to say no to a vast number of things I’m invited to.”
Laura describes Don as the silly parent.
“He can get these two so riled up, they’ll be in hysterics,” she said of their kids.
When asked what characteristics he hopes to pass on to his children, Don thought a moment before speaking: “Empathy to see other people’s perspective, to have the ability to see the situation through another person’s eyes and to have empathy for how they’re feeling,” he said. “And generosity — generous not only in the sense of material things but also generous in time.”
Having a parent or spouse as the mayor doesn’t appear to impact the children or Laura too much.
“We just try to keep it all in perspective,” Don said. “I’m just primarily a dad that has a job.”
“My biggest concern about this job is not wanting to see it have a negative impact on my kids,” Don said. “I try to approach the job with respect to all, including people who disagree with me.”
Don and Laura both credit former Duluth mayor Gary Doty and his wife Marcia for teaching them some of the tricks of the trade in balancing their personal and professional lives.
“They’ve been absolutely wonderful,” Laura said. “They’re generous and they’re the real deal. They show great commitment to the people they love and care about.”
Days start early for the Ness family. James will usually wake up both Don and Laura by jumping on their bed in what the mayor calls “part-cuddling and part kicking and squirming.”
Once awake, Don has breakfast and reads the paper and heads to the office around 8 a.m.
“I love that every day is different,” Don said. “One constant is keeping in contact with interesting people who want to tell me about what they know. I’ve learned a lot.”
Once Don gets home for the day, he plays with the children while Laura cooks, she said. Throughout my evening with Duluth’s first family, Don pointed out — a number of times — what a wonderful wife, mother and support system Laura is. He frequently talked about how well she cooks and what a wonderful job she does taking care of the children.
Laura was equally as complimentary.
“One thing that’s always impressed me from Day 1,” she said, “is how natural he is and how he doesn’t bring stress home. He just enjoys his time as a father and a husband.”
Don said there are a few factors that facilitate this.
“The most important thing is to not bring the burdens home,” he said. “There are a number of people in our lives who have done things to support our family. Both our parents live in town and we have our friends and neighbors looking out for us. In those ways, we feel very lucky.”