Don Ness: The 2010 Budgeteer interview, Pt. 2More from the Budgeteer’s annual sit-down chat with Duluth Mayor Don Ness.
By: Sarah Packingham, Budgeteer News
More from the Budgeteer’s annual sit-down chat with Duluth Mayor Don Ness:
Budgeteer: What do you think can be done to make Duluth a more welcoming environment for recent college graduates?
Ness: First and foremost, it’s about creating good job opportunities. We’re not going to keep young folks in town unless we have good jobs for them. We’ve made some progress, but we have to do better.
The best way to create jobs is to support the growth of existing businesses. I would much rather have 50 local businesses each hire one additional person than to give a subsidy to a company to move 50 jobs to our area. Of course, we continue to look for businesses to move to Duluth, but incremental growth of local businesses is the better way to grow our local economy.
How can you influence the younger population in Duluth and make them realize that their opinions and voices do matter?
You can’t force a kid to be interested in government — that just backfires.
They have ideas, and they have opinions, but they think that government is corrupt and inaccessible.
So, I see my role is just to listen and let them know that their perspective matters, that it’s important.
When hearing positive feedback, is it hard not to become complacent?
It’s always nice when folks are complimentary, but I tend to be dismissive of it. A lot of times folks are just trying to be nice. They want to be supportive. I’m much more interested in the constructive criticism and folks who are unhappy with my work. That’s the best way for me to improve in this role: I need to hear about the ways that I’m not meeting expectations, so I can work on those things.
It’s definitely not about pleasing people — I gave that up a long time ago — it’s about using feedback to get better. This job humbles you every day, whether from criticism, tough decisions or when things don’t break your way.
I try not to take anything personally and I try to find lessons and insight in any sort of feedback I get.
Pretty often I’ll get an e-mail from someone who is completely irate and often has their core facts wrong, and they are going after me. Now, I can get defensive, or I can find the lesson there. Sometimes it is as simple as, I haven’t done a good enough job explaining this issue. I don’t care if a person hates me or hopes that I fail — that’s part of politics — but it’s still my job to represent that person, so I need to understand where he’s coming from.
Not all feedback people have given you over the years has been positive. Are you finding it easier to deal with negativity the longer you’re in the public eye, or has that always been easy for you?
It’s been a slow, and often painful, transformative process. I’ve said before that I could not be mayor today if I hadn’t played basketball at Central. I learned how to take someone screaming in my face and take the constructive feedback that I needed without letting it ruin me in the process. I was a pretty sensitive kid; sports helped prepare me for the rigors of political life.
Now I pride myself on doing the right thing in the face of obnoxious and overblown rhetoric.
I want to be the eye in the storm. Let the attacks happen. It’s all a sideshow. I’ve got a job to do.
One common complaint in Duluth is the condition of the streets, whether it’s from potholes or road construction or what-have-you. One citizen the Budgeteer talked to was concerned about the bricks on downtown streets. He said it seems like the bricks are fixed year after year, when it might save money to just take the bricks out and put in cement or blacktop. Is that ever going to be an option?
The bricks are 25 years old and, generally speaking, that is the life of a heavily traveled road before major maintenance is needed. The bricks are unique, but they are certainly showing their wear.
In the next 10 years we are going to need to do some very significant work downtown, but, for a lot of reasons, we are going to work to maintain them for a few more years.
Is it hard to live a “normal” life here in Duluth?
Nah. I consider it a totally normal way of life, in part because I don’t play into the role of being mayor. I’ve got a job to do, just like a lot of people.
It’s a tough job, but a lot of people have tough jobs.
I just live my life as unassumingly as I can, and I’ve found that folks respond well to that. I don’t think of myself as special or important, and that sends a signal that other people don’t need to either. I still go to the local rock shows, have a beer and hang out with friends. When I’m with my kids, I’m just another dad at the park — that’s the way it should be.
Speaking of spending time with your family, what’s new with you and Laura and the kids? You have a baby on the way, don’t you?
We’re due in mid-January. I love my family; it’s the most important thing in my life. I love the age my kids are at: Eleanor is amazing, and James is half terror and half the sweetest little boy you could possibly imagine. Laura holds it all together. She’s the best thing ever to happen to me.
You’ve lived in Duluth your entire life. What is it about this city that you enjoy so much?
Duluth has a very unique sense of place.
It includes the natural beauty of the lakes, the parks, the streams.
It also is a city that reflects the values of the people who live here. I think that’s why we have such interesting and dynamic people who live here; this place draws them here. If you go to some generic, cookie-cutter suburb, you are going to find a lot of generic, cookie-cutter families.
There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that Duluth offers so much more.
Is this a job you can see yourself doing for another 15 years?
No. My hope is that I can do this job for as long as I have the passion, the drive and the initiative to continue to move the city ahead. I would much rather leave the job too soon than to stay in the job too long.
I’d like to make as much positive change as I can in the shortest amount of time possible and then to hand the baton to the next person in full stride, and let that person build upon the stronger foundation that we have set for Duluth.
I love this job, and I love working for the city where I grew up. But I am also looking forward to the next chapter in my life, where I can take on a different (less public) challenge.
Do you have any idea what future roles you may consider?
Political roles? No.
It’s hard for me to picture running for another office. I just don’t have the right personality: I’m too low-key, too boring.
To succeed on the larger political stage you need to be obnoxious, brash, overly partisan and put entertainment over policy formulation. That’s not for me; I don’t want any part of that culture.