As election signs sprout from lawns across Duluth and campaign literature piles up on doorsteps, candidate spending continues to mount in these final days before the city's Nov. 5 general election.
And candidates rely on a diverse cast of donors to get their message out to voters. Many of those contributors come with clear agendas that provide insight into the candidates they think best align with their interests.
But Arik Forsman, an At Large city councilor now on the campaign trail, said contributors can't truly count on candidates to bend to their wishes. Through the end of July, Forsman, an employee of Minnesota Power, raised more than $21,000 — more than twice as much as any other council candidate during the early part of campaign season. Details about August and September donations won't be available until 10 days before the election, when a new round of campaign finance reports must be filed.
"If you look at my list of donors, there's a lot of them. I think that comes from having a message that is very inclusive and collaborative. We have a lot of pro-labor folks, a lot of pro-business folks, a lot of pro-neighborhood folks," he said.
"Quite frankly, I have such a diverse group of contributors that the only thing I can guarantee is that I will disappoint all of them at some point. And I'm up front about that," Forsman said.
"That's part of being a councilor who's open-minded and willing to listen on every individual issue is that I'm not all business or all-whatever you want to put against that. When you're in the middle, you're able to build those relationships, but you won't make everybody happy all the time," he said.
While Forsman has attracted funding from a number of corners, only one At Large Council candidate — Mike Mayou — has drawn support from Duluth For Clean Water, a group vocally opposed to the development of copper-nickel mining in the region for fear that exposed sulfide deposits could one day pollute area lakes and waterways.
JT Haines, a board member for Duluth for Clean Water, said the group has lined up behind candidates willing to take a strong stand against copper-nickel mines.
“We’re working hard to make sure that local people and downstream voices here in Duluth itself are actually heard in these elections. We think that’s really important,” he said.
But Haines is quick to acknowledge business interests are pushing forward their own preferred candidates.
“There are forces opposing what we’re trying to do, and frankly some of them are coming from outside Duluth, and a lot of them are funded by corporations and extractors and polluters, which is why we think it’s all the more important to support independent local candidates who are looking out for our best interests," he said.
But views vary, and some of the largest contributors in this year's election cycle are business leaders who have argued that modern-day copper-nickel mines can be safely developed in a way that will pose little or no risk to the environment.
Brian Maki, president and CEO of Lakehead Constructors and a vocal supporter of mine development, has led giving to Duluth City Council and mayoral candidates this year, donating $3,000 to six campaigns — the largest individual contribution allowed to each candidate he has backed.
Maki is closely followed by Al Hodnik, chairman and CEO of Allete Inc., the parent company of Minnesota Power, and Todd Johnson, chairman and CEO of Capstan Corp., a Superior company whose holdings include Northern Engineering, a firm whose clients include mining operations. The two and their spouses have each pumped $2,400 into city races this year.
Tied in the third tier of giving are three organizations with disparate agendas: the Duluth for Clean Water Political Action Committee (or PAC for short), BizPAC and the Duluth Fire PAC. Each of these entities has contributed $1,800 to local candidates.
BizPAC President Rob Stenberg said local business interests have been increasingly motivated to support individual candidates of their choosing because of the many issues they see playing out at City Hall and the stakes involved.
"I think the current council has taken up issues that they really have no authority over," he said.
"I think people are tired of that. People are saying: Fix my damn streets. Everywhere you go, everybody is talking about the streets, and the council is talking about plastic bags, and they're creating restrictions on legal products to be sold within the city of Duluth, and they're telling businesses what benefits they should offer, how much they should give in earned-sick-and-safe time, and we're losing population," Stenberg said.
"I think the business community in the city of Duluth has been dormant for decades and decades, and I hope that the business community is finally starting to say: Enough. We can't take any more. We've got to stand up for ourselves. So I think that's part of what you're seeing," he said.