ST. PAUL - Seventeen years ago, when the Duluth community organized its first lobbying blitz of Minnesota lawmakers, we were the only ones doing it. We stood out. We were remembered.
Today, communities and organizations from around the state descend on the Capitol every single day to pitch their needs, to tell their story and to win favor for money and laws that help them prosper, grow and be happy.
With the annual, two-day, hundreds-strong Duluth and St. Louis County at the Capitol event wrapping up with a legislative breakfast this morning, it's fair to ask: Is our event still relevant? Is it still making a difference? Or have we become just another in a long line of visitors here?
"That's a good question," said Roger Wedin of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, which organizes Northeastern Minnesota's yearly jaunt south. "I would imagine, and especially this year in a condensed session when there's so much going on, it's probably kind of a blur for some legislators. But I think we do it well, and I think people have come to enjoy it. We put on a pretty good, I don't want to call it a party, but a gathering at the Crown Plaza with lots of free local food and opportunity to network.
"Our partners still support us in a big way, so they still seem to think it's worth their while and their investment," Wedin continued. "When you have a group of people taking time from their busy schedules and paying their own way to promote whatever we're promoting as a region and our specific requests, I think that means something to legislators."
The event includes meetings between lawmakers and lobbying teams at the Capitol and State Office Building during the opening afternoon, a reception in the hotel ballroom that evening that's sort of like a sport and fishing show but with Northland businesses and attractions instead of resorts, and a breakfast the following morning with politicians and speeches. A rally in the rotunda, which last year included the Duluth East band and that typically gets so loud and festive it leaves little doubt our delegation has arrived, had to be scrapped this year. The rotunda was booked a year in advance.
"A lot of communities have modeled their days at the Capitol after the Duluth days. So yes, we still do stand out," said Craig Pagel of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota. "It makes us every year have to try and be better."
Former Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson attended his eighth or ninth Duluth days this week. He wasn't sure how many it has been. If anything, he said, the event is getting stronger.
"I don't think Duluth is getting lost because Duluth does it right," said Anderson, now a staffer for U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. "I talk to lots of legislators; they always say that Duluth has the most organized and the most effective day at the Capitol. ... I don't think our day is lost in the fog. There might be some other cities (to whom) that happens, but not us.
"It's citizen lobbying," Anderson said. "(Lawmakers) are hearing not from people who are paid to advocate for a cause or a project but from people who are really affected or who just genuinely care for their city. It's incredibly effective when real people come and talk to them about real issues."
In all, "close to 500 people" from Duluth and St. Louis County were expected to participate this year, Wedin said. "It'll be our biggest ever," he said, further making the case that the event is effective and beneficial.
University of Minnesota Duluth Chancellor Lendley "Lynn" Black came here to lobby for, among other Northland needs, a new chemical sciences and advanced materials building on campus. The university is poised to put up
$12 million and is hoping for
$24 million from the state's bonding bill.
"I think we still stand out. I have heard from many sectors of the Legislature how much they enjoy and appreciate this event," Black said. "It's a tradition. It's certainly worth my time and effort, as I try to piggyback on this event with other meetings I need to do."
Zack Filipovich attended his first Duluth days as a city councilor.
"We are still kind of the premiere event of this kind. We're still leading the way," Filipovich said. "We could always have a bigger group of people come down."
No doubt next year we will.