City Council candidates running to represent Duluth's 2nd and 4th districts began a Tuesday morning forum with brief introductions and an explanation of why each was seeking election.
Incumbent 4th District Councilor Renee Van Nett, a single mother with two 10th grade daughters, said she first was moved to run for office four years ago for one primary reason.
"I got involved initially in politics because nobody was listening to Native children and their needs, particularly where I lived, and where health disparities are a real thing," she said. "I needed my children and other folks to have access to a better life and better access to City Hall, which seemed really strange to somebody like me."
Van Nett is employed as an impact director for Head of the Lakes United Way and will face a challenge from former City Councilor Howie Hanson, the same man she unseated last time around.
Hanson, an online publisher, earlier declined an invitation from the News Tribune to participate in the forum. He narrowly lost to Van Nett in 2007, who captured about 52% of the vote and is poised for a rematch.
Duluth's 2nd District race lacks an incumbent candidate, as Joel Sipress chose not to seek another term.
The race pits Mike Mayou, who works in admissions and marketing for the University of Minnesota Duluth, against Dave Zbaracki, who described himself as "mostly a stay-at-home dad," and part-time ski coach also involved in sales of outdoor gear. Both Zbaracki and Mayou grew up in Duluth and are graduates of East High School and the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Mayou said he has followed city government closely, regularly sitting in on meetings, since an unsuccessful bid for council office a couple of years ago. "I continue to dig into the numbers and learn more about city budgeting processes and a lot of other things like that. And I think it's really important that we have councilors who are really passionate about the issues and ready to listen and learn and also ready to engage, as well.
Zbaracki, too, made a previous unsuccessful run for council in 2017. He wants to focus on improving city streets and sidewalks to make them more accessible, while more fully funding public safety functions. Zbaracki also aims to foster more economic development, saying: "I think tourism is awesome. I think it's great, and we have a lot of amenities because of it in the city of Duluth that we wouldn't otherwise have. But a lot of those jobs aren't necessarily family-sustaining jobs for the long term."
Van Nett said her top priorities are public safety, housing and economic development. Van Nett doesn't profess to be an expert in those areas but said she has consistently turned to knowledgeable community members for guidance and advice.
"This work as a city councilor really grows you, if you let it," she said.
Mayou said increasing the city's supply of affordable housing tops his list of priorities. He said he will strive to develop "an economy that works for all of us, making sure that everyone can afford to live here, that everyone, regardless of where you're working, has access to resources."
"Environmental justice is a large component of my campaign, as well, really making sure we're addressing the climate crisis locally. And there are many steps we can take to reduce a lot of our city utilities," Mayou said.
Despite speculation that Duluth could be a place of refuge, Zbaracki said, "One thing I want to emphasize is that Duluth is not immune to the climate crisis."
"Obviously, we've seen with one of the hottest summers on record and wildfires and drought conditions and stuff like that, that Duluth is not immune to the climate crisis," he said, suggesting the city consider adding more electric vehicles to its fleet.
Van Nett said folks sometimes wrongly project her motivations, when it comes to issues such as climate change.
"As a Native person, people tend to assume that a Native person is always an activist. I'm not an activist. I create policy and law and I work the long game," she said. However, Van Nett said the city has been working hard with her support to reduce its carbon emissions, improve its storm water infrastructure and to reduce lead exposure in the city's drinking water system.