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Our View: Lobbying lost, but not our message

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, spoke with Duluth and St. Louis County officials and business leaders who'd traveled to lobby in St. Paul. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE
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We were supposed to caravan to St. Paul this week, en masse, hundreds of us, to the Capitol and then to a big reception and a banquet breakfast at a posh downtown hotel, all with a unified goal: to advocate for and to lobby for the Northland’s needs before the Minnesota Legislature — and before pretty much any state leader willing to offer us a few moments.

However, like so much else, the 23rd-annual citizen-lobbying blitz that used to be known as Duluth Days and now goes by the far-less-flashy “Duluth and St. Louis County at the Capitol” was scrubbed — just like so many hands, in the name of curbing a pandemic and slowing the spread of a vicious virus.

Sure, the Legislature — and practically everything, it seems — has ground to a standstill, with the quite appropriate and necessary exception of addressing the coronavirus. But there likely still will be a bonding bill from lawmakers. At some point. It was supposed to be the main focus of the session since this is an even-numbered year. Minnesota’s public and infrastructure needs, responsibly addressed through bonding, won’t just go away, even if they and everything are taking a backseat for a while.

The Northland’s legislative needs also won’t just magically dissipate, including funding for lakefront and seawall repairs, capital improvements to the Depot, renovations and maintenance work at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and more.

So how will leaders make sure our messages to St. Paul aren’t lost right along with our annual lobbying trip?

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“We will continue to advocate to ensure that our city and our county receive their fair share,” Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Ross said in a statement this week to the News Tribune Opinion page. “Our sustained communication with state leaders is reason for optimism that our united voice is echoing within the halls of the state Capitol.”

To ensure that Duluth and St. Louis County aren’t forgotten, lawmakers still received the priorities booklet that was going to be a guide for this week’s citizen-led lobbying teams. Also, Ross said, “Our local elected officials are sharing our community’s priorities with the state’s decision-makers, (and) we are sustaining a virtual presence at the Capitol through a compilation of city and county key stakeholder messages, which we are submitting, in video form, to all Minnesota legislators and staff. …

“The stakes are at an all-time high for the city of Duluth and St. Louis County,” said Ross. “The chamber’s advocacy for our beloved city and our treasured county remains robust.”

In the same way, Duluth’s message isn’t being lost, the mayor said.

“We have been in regular communication for several months with decision-makers at the Minnesota Legislature about the importance of our project to fortify our inland coast,” Mayor Emily Larson said to the Opinion page. “So while we were ready to continue our advocacy and extend our lobbying efforts, we feel good that our message is clear and has been heard.

“We conducted tours of our project — a combination of restorations to both the seawall and Lakewalk — to the House and Senate bonding committees, have talked extensively with our delegation about this project, and were included in the governor’s bonding bill proposal,” she further said. “It’s my understanding that there may be a more concise legislative session focused on a limited list of nonpartisan issues. This could include a bonding package. We are ready to take this back up when the Legislature is prepared for us to do so. In the meantime, we’ll continue our efforts to keep in close contact and at the ready for any questions or concerns as they arise.”

More than two decades ago, when the Duluth community organized its first such lobbying effort, we were the only ones. We stood out. We were remembered. Now, communities and organizations from all over Minnesota descend daily on the Capitol, pitching their own needs and telling their own stories to win state favor for projects, funding, and legislation with local impacts.

Though it wasn’t held this year, Duluth and St. Louis County at the Capitol remains the state’s largest citizen-lobbying event. And its messages, that were supposed to be delivered this week, can't be lost — and won’t be, Ross and Larson vowed.

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