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Ness adds 'teacher' to his resume

Don Ness, former Duluth mayor, has been teaching a class on political strategy at UMD. (News Tribune file photo)

Growing up in Cloquet, Michael Baumgarten first came to know of Don Ness when the former Duluth mayor was the wunderkind of local politics.

So when the college junior saw Ness’ name attached to an offering on the University of Minnesota Duluth course catalog, Baumgarten jumped at the chance.

“Right away I knew: ‘I’ve got to take this class,’ ” said the 22-year-old political science major. “He’s a local celebrity and it was a really cool opportunity.”

Ness, 42, is teaching a once-a-week night course titled “Strategic Thinking for Campaigns, Activism and Governance.”

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Ness, describing a small upper-level class that features several of its 15 or so students having previously worked on political campaigns. “It’s a discussion-based class and we have a lot of lively conversations.”

The current elections for U.S. president and Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District provide ample fodder, but the intent isn’t to rehash the headlines or merely talk about the mechanics of campaigning. Instead, Ness said it’s his goal to dive into the motives for what unfolds on television and in the headlines.   

“We talk about how somebody in political life can find advantage in being more strategic and thoughtful about their actions,” said Ness, who proceeded to unfurl a deep understanding of what it takes to gain strategic advantage.  

Asked to recollect a personal example of this, he talked about his first election for mayor, when he beat Charlie Bell by roughly 1,500 votes in 2007. Duluth was facing a lot of big issues at the time, including a budget shortfall and the looming threat of the city’s retiree health care plan bankrupting the city.

Instead of passing those issues off as having been caused by those who came before him — a timeworn political strategy — “I came in and embraced responsibility for those very significant problems,” Ness said.  

He believes that approach built trust with the citizenry. Ness went on to be re-elected with 95 percent of the vote in 2011, running unopposed.

After leaving office in 2015, Ness took a full-time position at Lake Superior College, where he currently works as the executive director of Workforce Training and Community Development. The notion of teaching first arose in “very casual conversations as I was leaving office,” he said.

Earlier this year, UMD professor Paul Sharp, the head of the political science department and a one-time teacher of Ness’ when he was a UMD student, finally approached Ness about making it happen. Ness, who guessed he has given more than 100 guest lectures in his career, developed a curriculum that was approved.

One of the results of that curriculum is the fact that Baumgarten gets to play lobbyist for a semester. As part of the course, Ness has his students mocking out a scenario which finds Uber attempting to work its way into the Duluth transportation matrix.

Students have been divided into city councilors, a mayor, a reporter, lobbyist and more and they debate the possibility from their selected roles. Ness said he wants his students to see politics from multiple dimensions and putting them into the mock scenario forces them to behave with empathy and sometimes counter to their personal beliefs.   

“As lobbyist, I get a very colorful and fun role,” Baumgarten said. “Just last class he was talking about a smoking ban that was being debated in Duluth years back. He’ll supplement his experience into what we’re doing. We really get it firsthand from him.”

Ness doesn’t know what his teaching future holds. He’s not scheduled to teach again next semester.

Instead, he’s amenable to seeing the same curveballs he enjoys delivering to his students. Last class, he told Baumgarten that Uber had failed to honor its contract with its public relations firm.

“Now instead of pushing for the city to get an Uber contract I’m lobbying for the taxi cabs,” Baumgarten said. “This is one of those curveballs he likes. It’s not a cliché kind of class.”