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Race to the primary

With August underway, a dozen mayoral candidates are struggling to get the public's attention before the primary on Sept. 11, when just two will squeeze through to the general election.

With August underway, a dozen mayoral candidates are struggling to get the public's attention before the primary on Sept. 11, when just two will squeeze through to the general election.

Most political observers say there are only four or five frontrunners. But with so many people in the race having name recognition, nobody seems to be able to say for certain whom the two winners will be.

Sunny Helbacka retired this spring from being a recreation specialist in western Duluth. He said his personal and professional connections should be enough to get him through without knocking on every door in the city, which is exactly what At Large City Councilor Don Ness said he and his army of volunteers intend to do before the primary. Three times.

Helbacka joked on Friday that he was campaigning with the hummingbirds in his backyard garden near the St. Louis River.

"I think those other guys have a long way to go to catch up," Helbacka said. "I hope they have a lot of money. I've been working very hard in this community for 30 years."

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At the Spirit Valley Days parade on Thursday, Charlie Bell looked like he already was the mayor of West Duluth.

He had about 75 blue

T-shirted and balloon-wielding volunteers in the parade, along with an old school bell mounted on the back of his pickup truck. As he jogged from one side of Grand Avenue to the other to shake hands with the crowds, he was greeted with warm calls of "Way to go, Charlie," "How ya doin', Charlie?" and "Come here and give me a hug, Charlie."

Bell helped create the annual party and has been involved in renovating Public Schools Stadium and establishing the area's successful business and community group.

"This is part of what I do; I build communities," said Bell, who is running a campaign focusing on "real-life experience."

As for Bergson, that same morning he had waved at 1,222 cars, by his count, in just over an hour on the corner of Raleigh Street and Grand Avenue, which is 30 blocks east of his home. About 80 percent of the drivers waved back, and many gave the controversial public figure thumbs up and honks.

Only one person raised another finger at the incumbent, who's tangled recently with SMDC Heath System and the American Federation of School, County and Municipal Employees union. A laid-off Northwest Airlines mechanic pulled over to thank Bergson for getting the city out of its obligations to the shuttered maintenance base and hopefully back to work for a new airline company.

Back in September 2003, longtime Mayor Gary Doty had stepped down and the race was wide open. Seven candidates were running. About 43 percent of registered voters in Duluth cast ballots in the last mayoral primary. Bell and Bergson made it past the primary with 4,760 and 4,930 votes respectively. Second District City Councilor Greg Gilbert, with 4,429 votes, was edged out.

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The candidates all say they plan to run clean campaigns, devoid of dirty tricks and whisper tactics. But most said that doesn't mean they won't work to distinguish themselves from each other, especially when it comes to talking about the records of the incumbents, Bell's campaign manager Ron DeGrio said.

Ness said he won't be standing on street corners or going to events. He said he will talk to people one-on-one to get out his message for Duluth's future through cooperation.

"We're not going to spend our time attacking the other candidates," Ness said.

Some of the candidates have expressed quiet concern that Gilbert, a business lawyer, might be one of the two to advance. He has the support of unions and environmentalists, two groups that tend to come out in force during primaries in Duluth.

Gilbert said he's been spending as many as 10 hours a day door-knocking in the heat listening to people talk about their problems with trees blocking views and dangerous intersections. He said he is trying to gain their trust first, then share his ideas.

"People don't like all the divisiveness in the city right now," Gilbert said.

Former city councilor and human rights officer Meg Bye said she's taking a low-budget but intense approach. She said she's running on her resume and integrity. She has been filling her days by visiting senior centers, picnics and pancake breakfasts.

Political neophyte Jim Pratt has a full-time job as a personal financial adviser and volunteers as a baseball coach. So he does most of his campaigning during his lunch breaks downtown.

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"I'm trying to maintain a balance," Pratt said. "I'm getting out there as much as I can while being able to maintain my family and my job. I can't outspend the people who are raising the armies, but people respect what I'm trying to do and that I'm willing to sit down with them and talk. Some people say there's no way I can do it that way, yet I believe it can happen."

Candidate and children's home counselor Todd Gremmels is out talking to people about how the city needs to invest in small businesses and city infrastructure. He also knows he's got a slim chance of succeeding.

"But I would like people to listen up," Gremmels said.

The other mayoral candidates are Joanne Fay, Reiner Nelson, John Socha and Robert Wagner.

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