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Duluth mayoral candidates' power base may be the key to win primary

There might be a dozen candidates for Duluth mayor, but most political observers believe that only half of them have power bases provided by groups of die-hard supporters.

There might be a dozen candidates for Duluth mayor, but most political observers believe that only half of them have power bases provided by groups of die-hard supporters.

Some have hosts of volunteers, war chests, elected experience or critical endorsements. A few have it all.

Charlie Bell, Herb Bergson, Meg Bye, Greg Gilbert, Don Ness and, potentially, Joanne Fay, are considered to be the front-runners, said Craig Grau, retired University of Minnesota Duluth associate professor of political science. Grau has been plugged into the Duluth political scene for decades.

"You could write a scenario where any of those six ended up being the two in the general election," Grau said. "I wouldn't be surprised, although some might surprise me a little. There are enough candidates cutting into each other's bases that who knows what could happen with a low turnout. It will get to be: Who can get their bases out to support them come Sept. 11."

About 19,000 people voted in the last mayoral race in 2003, which was also a non-presidential race year. Ness said all a candidate would need is 25 percent of the vote to make it past the primary. And the people who typically vote in Duluth primaries are the volunteers, friends, family and retirees.

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Grau broke down the candidates' power bases like this:

r Gilbert, who's a 10-year Second District city councilor, appears to be the labor candidate since he has most of the unions' endorsements. Gilbert, 49, also gathers a great deal of support from Duluth's progressive movement, which includes Democrats, environmentalists and Green Party members.

r Fay, 44, got the Republican Party endorsement and has support in the city's eastern portions, where she was a St. Louis County commissioner. She also should be popular among conservative women.

r Bell, 57, is considered a candidate with broad support. He has a background in business and community activism and is considered a moderate conservative. His former family business, Bell Brothers Funeral Homes, is well known. His family has deep roots here, and he has supporters across West Duluth, which is primarily blue collar. He also was endorsed by the police union.

r Ness, a popular At Large city councilor, also is considered to have broad public appeal and another family with a long history here. The 33-year-old's base is mostly young professionals as well as artists and musicians. However, Ness also has the backing of some heavy-hitter insiders, such as his campaign treasurer, former Allete CEO Arend Sandbult. He also has ties to the central part of the city, was a standout high school athlete and was active in politics at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

r Bergson, 50, has the bully pulpit as mayor, which he has not been afraid to wield. He has a small but active organization. He's kind of a Lone Ranger, Bergson claims, and he appears to have populist appeal. But he's also the candidate of choice for Duluth business legends Monnie Goldfine and Jeno Paulucci. Bergson also does well in western Duluth, where he lives.

r Bye, 64, a former city councilor and retired head of the city human rights office, has always been active in the Duluth DFL. She has support in the city's west-central area and has a track record with progressives and low-income residents.

The other candidates for mayor are Sunny Helbacka, Reiner Nelson, Todd Gremmels, Jim Pratt, John Socha and Robert Wagner.

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Bill Cortes is director of the Duluth DFL and a volunteer for Bye's campaign. Bye lost out on the DFL endorsement in April by less than

2 percentage points, Cortes said.

"Meg's power block is probably women and older Duluthians," said Cortes, speaking only in his role as campaign volunteer. "Generally speaking, she is more in touch with senior groups and the usual mix of DFL people."

Grau thinks Fay could cut into Bye's female vote. When people want a change in politics, they often turn to female candidates, so both might fare well, he said.

For now, Ness appears to be winning the battle of the lawn signs. He and Bell were at one time considered the heavy favorites, but Ness says he's worried that his block of support is so widespread and filled with nontraditional voters that he might not make it into the general election.

For instance, he said if Fay can rally the city's Republicans -- who make up 35 percent of the local electorate -- she could surprise some people.

After eight years, the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce decided to step away from politics this fall and refrain from endorsing candidates. Bell, a former chamber board chairman, said he wouldn't have sought the endorsement anyway.

"You push people apart when you force them to pick sides," he said.

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He called his campaign grassroots and spread out all over town. A lot of his volunteers are friends and former colleagues from his volunteer activities with the school district and West Duluth community development groups.

"Without a doubt, I represent a business and financial background," Bell said. "It's time to look at resumes."

Gilbert has been endorsed by the firefighters, construction workers, hotel and restaurant employees and the Duluth Central Labor Body, which represents teachers and nurses. He estimates that up to 15,000 union members are in these groups.

Grau said Gilbert's union support could sap some votes from Bell out west.

"I categorize them [my base] as working families with children or retired folks, people like me," said Gilbert, who is a business attorney. "These are people who don't want government money to go to business or developers."

Grau said that Ness, Bye and Gilbert will probably all take a share of the city's progressive movement.

"Special interests are looking for champions of their perspective," said Ness, who won no endorsements. "My approach is to represent the best interests of the community. With that many in the race, they can find one person who is willing to tell them what you want to hear, and I'm not willing to do that."

Bergson refers to his tight-knit supporters as "The Band." Like most major candidates this year, Bergson is focusing on door-knocking.

An incumbent mayor running for re-election has made it into the general election every year since 1979, when Mayor Bob Beaudin was beat in the primary by former Mayor Ben Boo and future Mayor John Fedo.

However, Bergson does not have the support of special-interest groups. He was once supported by the progressives and unions, but his clashes with city workers over unresolved contracts and another public fight with SMDC Health System cut many of those ties.

Then again, people who resent SMDC's refusal to help pay for a parking ramp that the city built for it or the generous benefits that the city workers receive might vote for Bergson, political observers said.

"Often, like in baseball, the tie goes to the incumbent, unless there's clearly a better choice," Grau said.

In just under three weeks, the voters will play the role of umpire.

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