Ralph Doty: An examination of Bergson's intriguing political career

The political career of Herb Bergson is the stuff of legends. In a relatively short time he was mayor of Superior, a candidate for Wisconsin lieutenant governor, a Duluth city councilor and, now, he's mayor of Duluth.

The political career of Herb Bergson is the stuff of legends. In a relatively short time he was mayor of Superior, a candidate for Wisconsin lieutenant governor, a Duluth city councilor and, now, he's mayor of Duluth.

With Mr. Bergson seeking a second term as Duluth's mayor in a field of 12 primary election candidates, some folks are wondering whether he's changed much from his eight years as Superior's mayor. Has he learned anything from those Wisconsin years? Did his Superior experience provide him with background needed to succeed in Duluth? Has Bergson exhibited some of the same propensities as Duluth's mayor as he did in Superior?

An examination of Mr. Bergson's intriguing political career -- and the parallels between his years as Superior's mayor and Duluth's mayor -- provides a fascinating picture of the man who wants to be Duluth's CEO for another four years.

The early years

Mr. Bergson was labeled by some folks as the "boy wonder" when he announced Jan. 30, 1986, at the age of 29, that he wanted to be Superior's mayor.


During his campaign against three-term incumbent Bruce C. Hagen, Mr. Bergson, then a police officer, skewered his opponent for many things, including what he claimed were demoralized city employees. "A happy employee is a productive employee," he said during a political debate with Mr. Hagen.

Mr. Bergson's campaign literature claimed Hagen was aloof and unresponsive: "We need a leader who's candid, open and straightforward," he wrote. The same piece criticized Hagen for a proposal to lease the city's golf course to private interests: "This action would only eliminate good jobs and lessen the quality condition of this course."

Elected on April 7, 1987, Mr. Bergson's first term as Superior's CEO was somewhat rocky. He and the city council often jockeyed for prominence in the city's political arena.

The often-repeated accusation that the mayor exaggerated, misrepresented or purposely misled voters culminated in a brutal editorial in the Superior Evening Telegram on Nov. 11, 1991.

Here's the story: In the face of bitter citizen opposition to a proposed housing development in the Superior Municipal Forest -- which he initially supported -- and after several months of wrangling, Mr. Bergson suddenly blamed Don Reed, a southeast Wisconsin biologist hired to evaluate Superior's wetlands, for proposing the housing development project in the first place.

The mayor's allegation, which Mr. Reed vehemently denied, prompted a Superior Daily Telegram editorial which said, in part: "... it was revealed that Mayor Herbert Bergson lied about his role in advocating residential development in Superior Municipal Forest. ... The fact that Bergson lied came as no surprise to many persons close to the issue, for they knew it all along. ... The mayor's lie was calculated and perpetuated by him for several months, even though it wasn't documented until Friday. ... The mayor has made it clear that he's not beyond falsifying the truth, nor is he bothered by dragging innocent bystanders into the mud with him. ... [The mayor] has a preoccupation with secrecy, and he considers deceit -- combined with false sincerity -- an acceptable way of doing business."

A second term

At about the same time, after initially being coy about his future plans, Mr. Bergson said he would seek a second four-year term as Superior's mayor. After a bitter campaign, he won by a large margin in April 1991.


On June 19, 1993, Mr. Bergson told Wisconsin residents he would try for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. Then, after seven months of campaigning -- he was viewed by many politicos as the person to beat for the nomination -- Bergson suddenly and without warning announced he was pulling out of the race. Family reasons, he said on Feb. 6, 1994.

During his terms as Superior's mayor, there was a lot of bitterness and rancor with the city council and city employees. Bergson ran against Hagen in 1987, promising to "unite Superior and boost morale." He accomplished neither.

The troubled years

While mayor, Mr. Bergson was sometimes "on the edge" in terms of personal and professional behavior. On May 2, 1991, he was criticized for using a city van for a two-week family vacation. He couldn't understand what all the fuss was about, according to The Associated Press.

As his second term was winding down, he was quoted as saying he would "likely" seek a third term. But, once again, suddenly and without warning, on June 6, 1994 Bergson announced he had decided against running for another four years.

Family reasons, he said.

Another reason for leaving, he told the local newspaper June 21, 1994, was that he was "disgusted" with many Superior city councilors. On Sept. 21 he was quoted as saying, "Right now I just don't like some of the players."

During his eight years as mayor, Superior's financial picture soured. When Mr. Bergson took his oath of office in 1987, the city's reserve fund was $3,549,529. The following year, after one year of the Bergson administration, it dipped significantly to $1,936,361. Because Bergson was fearful about raising property taxes, year after year he dipped into the reserve fund to pay for his projects, and by 1991 the reserve was a mere $295,183.


In 1993, Mr. Bergson's last year as Superior mayor, the reserve fund was in the red by $111,729. Moreover, during his tenure the city's bond rating went down. In 1987, Superior's bond rating was A3, the highest possible level. When he left office, the bond rating had fallen to Baa, a two-step decline.

During Mr. Bergson's administration, Superior's debt level grew from $17,312,000 to $25 million. After he left office, the reserve fund began to grow and, by 2002, the rainy day fund was up to $4,334,900.

The Duluth years

In late 1994, rumors started making the rounds that Mr. Bergson intended to sell his home in Superior and move to Duluth. The Superior Daily Telegram, on Sept. 21 and Nov. 28, 1994, quoted him denying the rumors.

"We have no intention of moving from Superior. People should have better things to gossip about," he said in September.

In November 1994, the mayor confirmed that his Superior home was for sale, but he denied reports he planned to relocate to Duluth. Three months later, on Feb. 23, 1995, he said that when his second term expired in April he would move to Duluth, but he would resume his former occupation as a Superior police officer.

A few weeks after leaving elected office, he again became the center of a controversy. On May 2, 1995, a headline story in the Daily Telegram reported that less than a week after Margaret Ciccone became mayor, "she had police remove ... Bergson and another city employee from her office when they were discovered making an unauthorized Saturday visit ... Bergson, who was on duty as a Superior police officer, contends no wrongdoing occurred."

He was in the mayor's office, Officer Bergson said, because a member of his former office staff -- facing dismissal -- asked him to witness her remove some personal property. No one was able to explain who was using a computer terminal in the mayor's office at the time of the pair's visit.

On May 30, 1995, Mr. Bergson did what he said many times he would never do -- run for mayor against incumbent Gary Doty.

Bergson lost.

Now fast-forward to his four years as Duluth's mayor, a tenure noteworthy for many problems, including: a drunken driving arrest in Wisconsin; the illegal leak to the Duluth News Tribune of a report from the Minnesota Legislative Auditor Jim Noble; hundreds of questionable ticket giveaways to entertainment events; firing Mark Winson, the city's chief administrative officer, via a letter taped to Winson's office door; deteriorating city finances and streets and more.

This year, on July 18, a day after Mr. Bergson announced he had changed his mind after twice saying he would not seek a second term as Duluth mayor, the Superior Daily Telegram reviewed his record while serving as Superior's mayor: "During two terms as Superior's mayor, Bergson was surrounded by controversy. Former finance director Tim Nelson contended Bergson vastly increased Superior's debt. He rankled environmentalists for supporting a plan to deposit St. Louis River dredge spoils in the municipal forest, only changing his mind at the last moment."

To be fair about it, Mr. Bergson was given credit for his work in Duluth with the disadvantaged, low-income housing, extricating the city from its commitment to the defunct Northwest Airlines maintenance base, trimming the number of city employees and putting the municipal golf courses under private management.

But, it also noted that "he's also clashed personally with [Duluth] city councilors, despite pledging better relations with the council when he came into office. The city faces a $6.7 million shortfall for 2008."

The bottom line

Learning about Mr. Bergson's years as Superior's mayor makes it easier to understand his work and behavior as Duluth's mayor.

Knowing more about his background can be instructive as to what we can expect if he's re-elected.

Don't say you weren't warned. As French writer Alphonse Karr wrote, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Note: I e-mailed a request to Mr. Bergson to interview him for this column. Unfortunately, he declined my invitation.


City Councilor Laurie Johnson -- the subject of my column several weeks ago because of her possible conflict of interest when voting on items that might impact AFSCME, the union for which she works -- responded in the Budgeteer by

denying she had a conflict on several union matters before the council.

Her response was appropriate as far as it went. But she missed the main point: Her answers on an AFSCME candidate questionnaire -- quoted at length in the column -- should prompt voters in her district to ask: Who does she represent on the city council, her union or residents of her district?

For example, she wrote in the questionnaire: "I am aware the problem is the mayor's desire to gut the AFSCME contract with the city. I will vote against any (emphasis added) attempt to implement the city's proposals." Is that what residents of her district want from her?

Union members are perfectly free to run for public office. But when they do, they are seeking the support of all residents of their district, not just unions. And if they win the election, they must be sensitive to perceptions when they vote -- or abstain -- on union issues.

Write Doty at or c/o Duluth Budgeteer News, 222 W. Superior St., Duluth, MN 55802.

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