Larson says 'No coasting' in quest for second term as mayor of Duluth

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson certainly holds a significant edge over her challenger, David Nolle, when it comes to campaign resources, but she's not underestimating her opponent or taking the prospect of winning a second term for granted.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson runs along the Lakewalk recently. Larson, Duluth’s first woman mayor, is running for her second term. (Steve Kuchera /

"We have been door-knocking for months. We have been reaching out to voters. We've done all the things that I've done in other campaigns, because I think it's important," she said.

"Our residents deserve a campaign and the opportunity to make a choice. So, I feel very strongly that there can be no coasting in any of this," said Larson, who has twice before successfully run for office — once for City Council and then she was elected Duluth's first woman mayor four years ago.

However, this time around as an incumbent is admittedly different for Larson, because she's had to pace herself a bit more.

"I work seven days a week in some capacity as mayor. So, my door-knocking has been focused on weekends. There are forums during the weeknights. I've taken time out of office just to have time with my family, versus using all that time just to campaign," she said.

"Life keeps happening. I've got my work life. I've got my family life. And then I've got my campaign life. But it's actually manageable. Part of it is just recognizing the limitations of what you're capable of and having realistic expectations about what makes sense," Larson said.


Larson expressed confidence in the abilities of the team she has assembled at City Hall and said that has provided her with greater flexibility as well.

Larson said opinions about her administration are bound to run hot and cold at times.

"If people are honest, and I want them to be honest, I'm going to hear the good and the bad. I can't just choose the good feedback. That's not how this works if I want to have a true authentic connection with this community and feel as though this leadership and my work as mayor is a mirror of this community. I need to be ready and steady to take in that negative feedback or helpful feedback as well," she said.

To decompress, Larson often turns to physical activity in the form of running and yoga. "I make time for those. But the other thing I do is I eat well. I go to bed at the end of the day, and I do not sleep with my cell phone," she said.

Before deciding to seek a second term, Larson consulted with her husband, Doug Zaun, and her two sons, ages 16 and 19, because as she described it, her job as mayor is "a family vocation."

"We absolutely had a family conversation, and we all ended in the same place, which is: This is the work we do, and we want to keep doing it," she said.

The importance of family is not lost on Larson. Her mother is a poet and her father worked in the information technology industry. They divorced when she was 10 years old and each remarried, leaving Larson to split her time between two households. Larson said she grew up in homes of modest means but full of vibrant conversation.

These days, Larson said: "Family dinners are not optional. We sit down. We look at our schedule every week. We plan time to spend together. The four of us are very close, and we've got each other's back." Her eldest son, who recently enrolled at the University of Minnesota, now is excused from the table more often.


Larson, 45, came to Duluth as a 17-year-old freshman enrolled at the College of St. Scholastica. Four years later, she graduated with a degree in social work and spent the next 12 years at CHUM serving families who were homeless or at risk of being homeless.

Larson doesn't recall having political aspirations at first but said she recognized elected office as a useful vehicle to get things done and found she had an aptitude for connecting with voters.

While many issues remain on the minds of voters, Larson said that this election cycle she has seen one concern really emerge.

"Four years ago, I didn't hear a thing about housing, and now it is literally the No. 1 thing," she said.

Larson said that during a recent round of door-knocking in the Observation Hill neighborhood, "I heard just a tremendous amount about people's concern for housing, about affordability, about a generation wanting to move into senior living but not having enough of that at an affordable price point, concern about their kids and what's going to happen to them. "

Larson said what she's hearing on doorsteps as a candidate confirms her belief that her administration is right to be focusing on the issue.

Of course the poor state of Duluth's streets also remains a topic of widespread concern, although Larson noted that people expect the city to make some real progress with street improvements now that a dedicated half-percent sales tax is in place, raising an anticipated $7 million per year for roadwork.

She acknowledged the bar of expectations has been raised but said: "I asked for that bar. So, I'm OK with it. I really appreciate that when I'm at people's doors and they're talking about streets. I appreciate how much they're paying attention to it."


Duluth Mayor Emily Larson pauses in a run along the Lakewalk to ask a walker who had been taking a selfie if he wanted her to take a picture of him. (Steve Kuchera /

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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