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Our View: Elected leadership in Duluth right now is unprecedented, historic

From the editorial: "The diversity in those we’ve chosen to represent us is certainly worth noting — and worth celebrating after generations of white-males-only rule."

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Renee Van Nett doesn’t feel she was elected to the Duluth City Council — and then re-elected this past fall — because she’s Native, a member of the Leech Lake and Red Lake bands of Ojibway. Instead, voters notice she works hard, she said, and she embraces the progressive, liberal, and DFL values that have catapulted so many for so long to elected service here.

If anything, “I would say that people tolerate … a Native person,” Van Nett said in a telephone interview last week with the News Tribune Opinion page. “However, we have hundreds of years worth of relationships that Native folks have plowed here, so we’ve been doing this work for hundreds of years in this area and this community. … We plowed that road.”

Van Nett in 2021 earned the distinction of not only being the first Native woman elected to the City Council; she was the first to serve as council president, which included “steep learning,” she said.

Hers is far from the only distinction or first among Duluth’s current elected officials. The diversity in those we’ve chosen to represent us is certainly worth noting — and worth celebrating after generations of white-males-only rule.

Our current council has a majority of women for just the second time in Duluth history and for the first time in about 20 years. The Duluth School Board also has more women than men right now, and the School Board president, retired teacher Jill Lofald, is a woman.

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Emily Larson became Duluth’s first female mayor in 2015 when she won an overwhelming 72% of the vote. She was the choice on 64% of ballots cast in 2019 when she won re-election.

Janet Kennedy is Duluth’s first Black city councilor and helped create the Duluth African Heritage Commission.

Gary Anderson is just the second openly gay city councilor and the first married to a same-sex partner.

Azrin Awal, who immigrated to Minnesota from Bangladesh when she was 3, was elected to the City Council in November, becoming Duluth’s first Asian-American and Muslim city councilor.

In addition, Duluth’s three legislative representatives are all women right now. They are District 7 Sen. Jen McEwen, Rep. Liz Olson of western Duluth’s District 7B, and Rep. Jennifer Schultz of eastern Duluth’s District 7A.

“We also have three (City) Council members who are under 30 years old, and I don’t know if that’s ever happened before, I really don’t,” Councilor Anderson told the Opinion page last week. “That’s a really unique opportunity to be more forward-thinking and to utilize the strength of the younger people in our community.”

As Anderson further pointed out, the current council has business chops, too, in departing Councilor Derek Medved, an owner and operator of a chain of gas stations; in Councilor Terese Tomanek, who ran a chiropractic clinic in Duluth for 15 years; and in Councilor Roz Randorf, who operated a flower shop, worked at the News Tribune, and works as a Dale Carnegie corporate trainer. In addition, Councilor Arik Forsman’s economic-development position at Minnesota Power involves attracting and retaining jobs-providing industries, corporations, and businesses.

“I think our council really has strong voices from all of our district councilors, so from east to west. I think we have strong experience from the business community and from the economic-development community, as well as strong progressive voices. And I think all of this diversity makes us a more effective and stronger council,” Anderson said. “With a majority of women, I think this is a unique time and a powerful time for us to really get a sense of who we are as a community. It’s an exciting time, and I’m grateful and proud and happy to be on the council right now.”

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“We’ve come a long way in community response to who we are,” said Van Nett. “That speaks about who the city of Duluth is and what they want and how they want our city’s direction to go. Because people who elect people like me, they show up. They show up to the table and they say (that’s what) I want, that’s what I’m looking for, and that’s what we believe in.”

In this unprecedented, historic moment, what Duluth wants, it seems, is far different from what generations before us chose. And that’s change that can be embraced. Because from many perspectives and backgrounds come many ideas, improving the chances of the right ideas and the right solutions emerging.

Related Topics: OUR VIEWDULUTH CITY COUNCILDULUTH SCHOOL BOARDLEADER
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