At a time when political discourse is so polarizing some people avoid it, Duluth City Councilor Noah Hobbs has turned to social media, of all places, to get back to old-fashioned, face-to-face interactions.
Using short sign-up surveys on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Hobbs is arranging 100 cups of coffee with constituents across the city.
"So far there's been only one person I was somewhat familiar with," he said. "I've had 14 cups with people that have been total strangers to me."
It made sense right away to ask Hobbs, why 100 cups?
The At-Large councilor barely hemmed.
"Why 100?" he said over a cup of joe last week at Lake Superior Bakehouse in downtown Duluth. "It's a good round number that pushed myself. I've already done 15 in the first month, so it should be doable conceivably in five-and-a-half or six months."
Hobbs cited a Politico article published in February as his inspiration. The story was about Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Ind., who conducted 100 cups of coffee with city influencers before deciding on his mayoral bid.
Hobbs is applying the method in a new manner.
"I thought I could turn a campaign tactic into just an outreach tactic, and so far everyone seems to enjoy it," Hobbs said. "People are still signing up and referring folks."
Hobbs described it as a different kind of access. He'd previously held prescheduled coffee hours, but never got many people to respond. Now, he grants undivided attention to prearranged guests at the coffee shops of their choosing. People let their guard down when he meets them on their turf, he said.
Prior to every visit, Hobbs loads his Microsoft Surface with materials related to his guests' topical interests, which they share in a brief survey when they arrange to meet. Sometimes, Hobbs is bringing city engineering drawings, other times zoning maps or budget breakdowns. The person sets the agenda, he said, and Hobbs hopes to come with insight and answers.
"If they want to talk about the Minnesota Vikings," he said, "I'll talk for 45 minutes about how I think their season is going to go."
To date, the conversations have never been about just one topic, and it's been the array of subjects which surprises him. He's got a growing list of three-dozen topics covered. People have weighed in on the city's $86 million budget, public golf courses, trash receptacles, earned sick and safe time, youth sports, the Waseca Street reconfiguration near the zoo, housing, tourism tax spending, and much more.
Hobbs said the conversations tend to "deafen" the familiar topics found in headlines or other manners of council communication. To hear his council email tell it, all the city of Duluth wants to talk about for the past few weeks are personal protective gear for the police and pop-up spaces in Canal Park. But, then again, emailers tend to communicate their strong negative reactions to things, Hobbs said. A regular crowd of people show up in his social media comment sections, but they recite similar themes, too. Those who come to council chambers had better be ready to come with allies and speak loudest, he said.
A shared cup of coffee brings a different form of engagement over more personalized issues.
"Hearing issues straight from the average, typical Duluthian has been really energizing," he said.
Britta Bloomquist, 30, moved to Duluth two years ago from the Iron Range and Virginia, where she was friends with then-councilor Nevada Littlewolf. Bloomquist liked having a connection to the inner workings of her city. When she decided to sign up for coffee with Hobbs, she admitted she was "feeling disconnected in Duluth."
"Coming from a small town like Virginia, where there's only about 8,000 people, Duluth felt a little intimidating at first," she said. "Having coffee with Noah brought back that hometown feel."
Bloomquist is an avid bicyclist with her boyfriend, Eric. When they met with Hobbs over coffee, they talked about bike access on city streets - and how it's especially contrasting to ride St. Louis County's portion of rebuilt East Fourth Street. The county portion features a nice bike lane which abruptly ends when the city's jurisdiction of the street begins, Bloomquist said. They also hoped the city would stop building super sidewalks, because she contends the mix of bicycle and pedestrian traffic is too dangerous.
"We talked a lot about biking infrastructure," Bloomquist said, "and how Duluth is so mountain bike heavy."
Hobbs, 29, owns an e-bike and rides to work as the lending director for One Roof Community House. He takes the Cross City Trail to work and uses the bike's electric motor to help climb the streets in the Central Hillside.
"It was a great connection, and I feel like I'll be able to talk to Noah when I run into him again," Bloomquist said. "I also look forward to meeting other councilors now."
Hobbs hopes the endeavor will lead his colleagues to think outside the box, too. It's already showing him more similarities among people than differences.
A self-described moderate liberal, Hobbs said he's spoken with several moderate conservatives. Small sample size aside, he has found the coffee talks to reveal just how significant the middle ground is compared to the more disparate voices on social media and the edges of the political spectrum.
"If I had any waning faith that you could to this, I don't anymore," he said. "People want civility in politics. They want to meet face to face."
A first-time councilor, Hobbs was elected in 2015 and has yet to decide if he'll run for re-election in 2019.
"I do enjoy being a city councilor," he said. "It's been an interesting role. As an introvert, you'll very rarely see me giving a speech in front of a large group. These coffees have fit my style better than going to a roomful of 20-30 people."
He told of how one woman he met near UMD opened the conversation by saying she was surprised he showed up, and that she didn't think an elected official would follow through.
"I like where the level of conversation goes," Hobbs said. "And if you can restore faith in local government, sign me up."
Find Noah Hobbs, schedule coffee
To find Noah Hobbs online and register to be a part of his 100 Cups of Coffee, visit Twitter:Hobbs_Duluth