Tom West: All bets are off in mayoral donnybrook

At 5 p.m. on Father's Day a few weeks back, I was semi-conscious in my recliner, watching the U.S. Open golf tournament on TV. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door.

At 5 p.m. on Father's Day a few weeks back, I was semi-conscious in my recliner, watching the U.S. Open golf tournament on TV. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door.

I launched myself out of the chair, gave my spine a readjustment as I walked and hoped I looked semi-presentable.

Standing at the door with a smile and a brochure was Jim Stauber, candidate for mayor of Duluth.

While some candidates announced their intentions to run a few days after last November's election, for me the official beginning of this race for mayor will be forever linked to that Father's Day rap on the door.

Stauber is running, and he's running hard. A few days after that he held a fund-raiser; one of the hosts was the mayor's wife, Marcia Doty.


With a candidate slate that includes three city councilors, a state legislator, a county commissioner, a prominent businessman and a newcomer appealing to young voters, the 2003 race for mayor is shaping up as one for the ages.

Conventional wisdom says that Stauber, businessman Charlie Bell and commissioner Joanne Fay are vying for the conservative, pro-economic development side of the electorate. Meanwhile, the CW goes on to say that Councilors Herb Bergson and Greg Gilbert and Rep. Tom Huntley will split up the more liberal, labor and environmental vote. The CW also thinks that Vern LeTourneau, the newcomer who jumped into the race late, is probably too late for this heavyweight donnybrook -- but in a race like this every bet is hedged.

The key to the Sept. 9 primary will revolve around the mechanics of campaigning. The biggest question will be which candidate can get his supporters to bother with a primary vote. One theory is that the candidates at the far ends of the political spectrum have the most dedicated -- and in some cases extreme -- supporters. Under that theory, Stauber and Gilbert are thought to be the likely survivors of the primary.

That theory only works, however, if candidates get their supporters to vote. Some candidates count every person who says, "Good luck," to be a guaranteed vote. It doesn't work like that.

Good campaigns will identify their supporters with certainty. They will also make the phone calls or provide the rides needed to get them to the polls. The work may not be as exciting as hollering at a rally, but it is much more important.

Among the people I talk to -- and I'm the first to admit I don't talk to everybody -- Bell has a lot of support. In casual conversation, Bell's supporters are more likely to volunteer that fact than supporters of others.

While Bell, Fay and Stauber seem to be appealing to the same voters, the difference is that Bell is a West Duluth boy who never forgot his roots. Through the family mortuary business, he has been there for countless families in their time of need. He has also worked hard on various West Duluth organizations. If Stauber, Fay and Bell are splitting the pro-economic development crowd, Bell's support in the west half of town may give him an edge.

The operative word here is "may." It will still come down to the quality of each campaign.


Meanwhile, Fay's last minute leap into the campaign changed the dynamics for the umpteenth time. She is the only woman in the race -- and City Hall has been noticeably top heavy on masculinity since the last election.

Looking from the east-west angle at the three more liberal candidates in the race, it would appear that Bergson has a slight advantage because he lives on the west side. He has been a popular vote getter in the past, both in Superior where he was mayor and in his last Duluth city council race.

The knock on Bergson, to hear some people tell it, is that he is more Superiorite than Duluthian. These people say things like, "I know Duluth and Duluth will never elect a mayor from Superior." I'm sure there are some people who think that way, but it still seems to me that it's a poor way to make a vote decision.

New Yorkers, I would remind you, in the last election chose as their U.S. senator somebody who grew up in suburban Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts and Connecticut and lived all of her adult life in Arkansas and Washington, D.C. You may disagree with that decision, too, but I believe most voters understand that their vote is about the future, and not about the long-ago past.

And that brings us to Gilbert and Huntley. The DFL tried to wire its endorsement for Huntley by holding the convention early and on short notice. DFL leaders were upset when Gilbert supported Green Party candidate Joel Sipress 18 months ago in the special state Senate election won by Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth. However, Gilbert was able to block Huntley's endorsement.

Gilbert's detractors, and they are legion, think he's far too liberal for this city. I look at him differently. I see someone who is intelligent and thoughtful in his demeanor. I also respect his insights on what the electorate is thinking. The master at diagnosing the mood of Duluth voters is Mayor Gary Doty, but Gilbert isn't far behind.

A lot of people see Gilbert as a polarizing figure, but when you meet him he doesn't come across that way. That's one reason he has been so popular with the voters in his council district. He may be way left politically, but lots of people get elected by voters who disagree with their views on issues but like other things about them.

Huntley got off to a slow start because of the botched endorsement, but the DFL leadership still seems solidly behind him. Why not? He was briefly a candidate for lieutenant governor as Judi Dutcher's running mate. He has far broader political experience than any of the other candidates.


What's there to knock? His age? Give me a break.

Like a prism, the mayor's race is fascinating to look at no matter what view you hold. In his or her own way, each candidate sparkles.

I can even see two conservatives surviving the primary. Or two liberals.

My advice? Keep your money in your pocket because all bets are off.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

What To Read Next
Get Local