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Conservative shift for Duluth?

Charlie Bell, Tim Little, Becky Hall: The top three vote-getters in the two citywide races Tuesday night are widely identified as conservative and don't have any kind of union support in sight. Are the winds of political change blowing in the lib...

Charlie Bell, Tim Little, Becky Hall: The top three vote-getters in the two citywide races Tuesday night are widely identified as conservative and don't have any kind of union support in sight. Are the winds of political change blowing in the liberal bedrock of Duluth?

It's too premature to say from one primary election, but Tuesday's results were at leasteye-opening. Hall, for example, dominated the At Large City Council race, winning 30 of the 36 precincts and finishing second in the others. Last year, when Hall ran for the state representative spot against DFL incumbent Thomas Huntley, she got trounced nearly 2-1.

Tuesday's results, said Roger Fischer, a retired University of Minnesota Duluth history professor and active volunteer on Hall's campaign "surprised the heck out of me."

Why did Fischer feel his candidate did so well? Part of it, he said, is that none of the big winners in either race did much mud-slinging.

"I think people voted more for an end to the bitter acrimony in local politics," he said.

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Still, Fischer won't go so far as to say that there's a conservative shift in the city. Joanne Fay was endorsed by the 8th Congressional District Republican Party, but she finished a distant sixth in the mayoral race.

"This is Duluth, remember," he said. "These things do happen. ... I think it could be a natural swing of the pendulum."

The conservative win also may have been influenced by the number of Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party candidates splitting the votes, especially in the mayoral race, said Garrick Percival, a UMD assistant professor of political science.

"There weren't as many conservative choices," he said. "We'll have to see what happens when we see fewer candidates."

There will also be more people voting in the general election. The primary turnout was one of the lowest in recent years for a mayoral election. Only 37 percent of registered voters hit the polls to cast 21,471 votes Tuesday. By comparison, during the 2003 mayoral primary, turnout was 43 percent for 23,107 votes.

"It's low turnout relative to Duluth," said Mary Currin-Percival, who is also a political science professor at UMD and is married to Garrick Percival. "I thought it would be higher."

What kept voters away, she guessed, were the long list of names on the ballot, candidates who had similar stances on issues, and that many didn't know much about the City Council candidates.

Surprising to both Percivals was how poorly the union-endorsed candidates fared. Typically, Garrick Percival said, a union endorsement in a DFL stronghold can serve as a shortcut for voters and lead to big numbers at the polls. The only union-endorsed candidate in the two citywide elections to advance was Tony Cuneo.

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"I think it might signal a weakening of unions in the city," Garrick Percival said.

"Union endorsements used to mean a lot," said Currin-Percival. "I don't think they mean as much as they did in the past."

Of course, Mayor Herb Bergson built his campaign around his fight with the city's largest labor union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

But political analysts believed Bergson's loss was due instead to something else.

"A friend of mine said there always seems to be some problem with him. It's always a series of confrontations," said Wy Spano, creator and director of UMD's master's degree in advocacy and political leadership program. "A lot of people, even though they recognized his name, wanted to try something different."

Declaring twice that he wouldn't run before changing his mind at the last minute didn't help, either.

"Those pledges suggest something about his character," Percival said. "If that trust has been violated, they look to other candidates."

BRANDON STAHL covers health. He can be reached at (218) 720-4154 or by e-mail at bstahl@duluthnews.com .

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