Observers expect robust race to succeed Mayor Ness

Local politicos are anticipating a lively mayoral race in Duluth next year, following Don Ness' announcement over the weekend that he will not seek a third term.

Don and Laura Ness
Duluth Mayor Don Ness thanks his wife, Laura, for her support during the time he has been mayor at a news conference Monday afternoon at City Hall, where he commented on his decision to not run for mayor in the next election. (Clint Austin /

Local politicos are anticipating a lively mayoral race in Duluth next year, following Don Ness’ announcement over the weekend that he will not seek a third term.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see 10 to 12 people running,” said Duluth City Council President Linda Krug, who maintains that she has no personal ambitions to succeed Ness when he steps down in January 2016.
The picture will be far different from 2011, when Ness ran unopposed for a second term in office, predicted David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce. He said Ness’ exit is sure to stir renewed interest in the race. Ross explained that Ness enjoyed such high popularity as mayor that few aspired to challenge him.
“I’ve joked that to run against Mayor Ness was to volunteer for service as a human speed bump,” Ross said.
Yet 4th District City Councilor Howie Hanson launched his campaign for mayor in September, weeks before Ness’ announcement that he would not seek re-election. While Hanson had anticipated the mayor’s decision, in retrospect he said he wished he would have waited to make his own announcement.
“I think that coming out before Don announced his intentions was disrespectful on my part,” Hanson said. “It was a teachable moment for me, and I did apologize to him, man to man, for my lack of good judgment.”
So far, Hanson is the only person to have entered the race for mayor of Duluth.
Former Duluth City Councilor Jim Stauber said he’s optimistic a robust field of six to 12 candidates will emerge shortly.
“I hope we see a number of strong candidates step forward during the next election,” he said.
Stauber said he was disconcerted by the last uncontested mayoral race.
“If no one runs, it sends the wrong message to an incumbent,” he said.
Stauber suggested an incumbent might interpret the lack of competition as an indication that everyone approves of his or her performance, even though that’s almost never the case.
“I’ve been through six campaigns, and I think competition is healthy for everyone, including whoever wins, because at least you get to hear other perspectives,” Stauber said.
In all likelihood, most mayoral candidates will wait until after the November election to launch their campaigns, Stauber opined, but he expects the field will take fairly firm shape by March 2015. When asked about his own intentions, Stauber said he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of running for mayor himself.
At Large City Councilor Emily Larson also left the door open for a mayoral bid.
“I’ve been asked by people in the community to run, and I’m definitely considering it,” she said. “But right now, my attention is on this next election.”
Regardless of whether she enters the race for mayor, Larson said: “I’m certain it will be a full field.”
For his part, Mayor Ness said he has no plans to coast through his last 15 months in office. He likened his final stint on the job to running in a relay race.
“The goal of an effective relay is to run as fast as you possibly can and then to allow the person that you’re handing the baton to to get a running start, moving in the same direction. Then, at that moment when you’re about to collapse because you’ve been running so hard, you pass that baton on to the next person, who hopefully is running full speed going forward. That is my hope in this office,” he said.
“I want to put as much energy as I can into the next 15 months to solve as many problems as we can to try to create as much positive momentum in our community. Then, I want to hand off that baton to someone who is moving in the same direction and who is ready take on the task of bringing our city even further into the future,” Ness said.
In particular, Ness said he will continue to push for development of the St. Louis River corridor, as well as the continued growth of job and housing opportunities in the city.
Ness said he also will attempt to mend relations with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, after a bruising dispute over a contested casino revenue-sharing agreement.
“I am hopeful that we’ll find an opportunity in the coming months to give mediation another try and to try to come to a resolution,” he said, calling the conflict “the largest disappointment” of his time in office.
The casino dust-up has had more than simply financial ramifications, Ness noted.
“More importantly, it’s about the relationship we have with the Fond du Lac community. That is a critically important relationship that has been damaged and frayed by this contractual disagreement that we have. I would love nothing more than to find common ground and find a solution that works for both of our communities. I know that’s possible,” Ness said.
“I take responsibility for our end of it, but I’m hopeful at the same time that we will have the opportunity in the coming months to resolve our differences and start the healing process,” he added.

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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