Herb Bergson, former mayor of Duluth, Superior, dead at 65
The police officer turned politician was known for his support of the LGBTQ community.
DULUTH — Herb Bergson, former mayor of both Duluth and Superior, died of sepsis early Thursday in hospice care at St. Luke's. He was 65.
“Early this morning my brother Herbert W. Bergson, Jr. died due to complications from cancer surgery. At this time the family asks for privacy,” Brian Bergson, Herb's brother, said in an emailed statement. "Herb spent his life in public service as a police officer, a LGBTQ rights advocate, Mayor of both Duluth, and Superior, WI and a celebration honoring his legacy will be held this spring.”
In an expanded Facebook post, Brian added: "His proudest accomplishment was signing the first official proclamation endorsing Gay Rights for all Duluthians."
Herb Bergson signed the proclamation in August 2004, officially endorsing the annual Duluth Superior Pride festival and reversing former mayor Gary Doty's long-held position not to sanction the event.
"Whether people want to acknowledge it or not, there are gay people in our community who work at banks, who work as lawyers, who own businesses — they are in politics; they are in all walks of life," Bergson said at the time. "The bottom line is everyone is welcome in Duluth."
Bergson, a former Superior police officer, served as mayor of Superior from 1987 to 1995 and then moved to the other side of the bridge, where he was elected to an at large City Council seat before going on to serve as mayor from 2004 to 2008.
Duluth businesswoman Darlene Marshall helped with Bergson’s campaign and said he was just scrappy enough to pull off something that had never been done before: winning mayoral elections in both of the Twin Ports.
“I always found Herb to be dogged when he believed he could do something. He thought he could do that, and dang if he didn’t,” she said.
Roger Reinert also helped on Bergson’s mayoral campaign before going on himself to serve as a city councilor and later a state legislator.
Reinert, too, was struck by Bergson’s determination and tenacity on the campaign trail.
“He was such a hard worker," he said. "Man, that guy loved campaigning.”
Don Ness, who succeeded Bergson as mayor of Duluth, said: “I was kind of in awe of Herb as a politician and a leader, his ability and his almost insatiable desire to connect with the community, whether it was him out on side of the street waving at cars for hours at a time or working a room. Herb had such a warm and empathetic approach to public service.”
Marshall said Bergson always seemed to have a soft spot for people who were down and out.
Although he didn’t talk about it much, Marshall said Bergson grew up with a cleft foot.
“So, he was always kind of on the outside, looking in. And I think that’s part of what gave him such a big heart and a sense of empathy for anybody else who was marginalized or didn’t have it as good as other people,” she said.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson credited Bergson for recognizing and supporting initiatives like hosting the Mayor’s Pride Reception and changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.
“We are grateful for the bravery that it took to step out on those two issues at the time, and can see today the positive impact of his decision. My thoughts go out to his family and loved ones during this difficult time,” she said.
Ness said he was impressed by Bergson’s willingness to champion those who hadn’t previously had their voices heard, even if it meant taking a political risk himself.
“When I think about Herb at his best, during his time on the council and his early years as mayor, I think he demonstrated some remarkable political ability, showing courage as someone who had a heart for folks who are too often pushed to the margins of politics,” Ness said.
But Ness said Bergson’s deep-seated empathy may have come with a cost.
“When you kind of live with a big and open heart in a very public role, I think that can also take a toll over time. He never really shut himself off from the pain and suffering of others. It was the fuel for his advocacy and his leadership,” he said.
Bergson saw his popularity plummet as mayor in Duluth after a high-profile 2005 car accident and drunken-driving charge to which he pleaded no contest. Bergson also faced ridicule later that year when he notified chief administrative officer Mark Winson that he was fired by taping a note to Winson's office door.
In September 2007, he failed to make it past a mayoral primary election, finishing behind future mayor Ness and businessman Charlie Bell, whom Bergson had defeated four years earlier.
After leaving office in January 2008, Bergson lived in the Twin Cities for a few years before moving to Madison, where he managed a fraud-prevention website.
Bergson returned to Duluth in 2012 to attend the unveiling of his mayoral portrait in the Hall of Mayors in City Hall, in which he wears an upside-down triangle lapel button — a symbol of support for the LGBTQ community.
About 100 people crammed into the City Hall rotunda for a half-hour ceremony in which Bergson thanked his supporters, his family and his friends — his voice sometimes cracking and twice breaking into tears.
Bergson said he turned away offers to have his portrait painted for four years. But he agreed to sit for the painting after friends and some local businesses raised money to foot the bill.
"I didn't feel right spending public money on it," Bergson told the gathering.
In his retirement he was open about his troubles — even speaking publicly about depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse.
Reinert said he believes Bergson’s personal trials likely informed him as a human being.
“What I’ll always remember about Herb is he wore his heart on his sleeve. He was incredibly compassionate and had a huge heart for people that struggled, and I think that was probably in part because he had his own struggles,” he said.
Reporter John Myers contributed to this story.
This story was last updated at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 10 with quotes from Emily Larson. It was originally posted at 9:41 a.m. the same day.