On Duluth, Don Ness and keepin’ it fresh

Duluth Mayor Don Ness

Mayor Don Ness speaks from a podium sculpted from ice on the steps of Duluth City Hall during his last inauguration.

This weekend, Duluth Mayor Don Ness told his Facebook followers that he was leaning against running for a third term as leader of northern Minnesota’s largest city. Ness is famous for making important statements and breaking news on social media; it’s one of the things that has made him so popular in a city once better known for its political rancor.

Ness, 40, won his first race for mayor in 2007 against a strong opponent, but went on to run unopposed in the 2011 race — the first time that’s happened in the recorded history of Duluth. His popularity has cut across liberal and conservative lines, and he is widely lauded as the face of Duluth’s 21st century progress — no longer just a burnt out industrial port, but a place of entrepreneurs, artists, outdoors activities and commercial development.

When the city council voted to raise the Mayor’s pay last year, Ness deferred the compensation until after the next election. This was a widely praised decision, and everyone assumed that the pay raise would be Ness’s for the taking as he would be heavily favored in a 2015 re-election bid.

But what if Ness didn’t run? That was the question he posed himself in this “thinking aloud” conversation last weekend.

The reaction from his fans was swift. Run! And it feels like that would be the sentiment shared by the city, where Ness continues to enjoy an eerily strong level of support. Others assumed that Ness would be running for something else — Congress, Governor, Senate, something, anything! But Ness quickly said he wouldn’t be running for any office except for mayor, and maybe not even that. He’ll decide later this year.

Baffling, right?

I don’t think so.

Here’s my read on what Ness has said about this, and some of my own thoughts:

Don Ness and I have never exactly hung out, but we emerged from the same primordial stew of 1990s and early ’00s northeastern Minnesota DFL politics and knew each other. There were others around: current IRRRB commissioner and former Iron Range state Rep. Tony Sertich was there, as was current Rep. Jason Metsa. Others who went on to work for the legislature, governors and senators. Later on, current Reps. Carly Melin and Joe Radinovich would appear on the scene. This was a culture of putting in hard work and lots of time supporting DFL candidates and issues with the idea that the best way to affect change in your community was through politics. That was certainly my view as a teenager and college student and it endured with me through my 20s as I was a political-minded newspaper editor. When I started this blog, it was with a distinct mind for political engagement.

Don Ness got onto the Duluth city council while working for Jim Oberstar and for a whole decade it was widely assumed that he was the man in waiting for Congress in Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District. But after he got in as mayor he stuck — he was a good mayor and he turned down several opportunities to run for higher office, including the coveted MN-8 seat everyone assumed he’d want (and that he would have won hands down).

Ness talks about being excited to see what time with family outside politics would be like, and I know exactly what he’s talking about.

I’ve been encouraged to run for office in the past and at least once I would have had a clear shot at a nomination for state legislature, if I wanted it. Ultimately, I had to make a choice and, admittedly with some regret at the time, I decided my family wasn’t ready for me to be gone like that. How important that decision was! My life today is full of so many opportunities to shape and serve my community, all while enjoying a happy life with my wife and family — none of it requiring me to raise money or spend time in a distant capital.

There’s always someone willing to serve in political office. But political office is just one aspect of service; service to your family and in your community is just as important, arguably more so. Over the past 50 years, the state legislature (and even Congress) has moved from being an institution that allowed families to thrive next to a member’s service, to being one in which family life was to be set aside for fundraising, constant political events, and more and more legislative process.

Humans are evolving with this change. Some become the shark-like automatons we see at every level of politics. Others are coming to the same conclusion as Ness. Maybe there’s more out there? These are real humans, and we need to support people like them.

What if the best way to improve your community was to live and work in your community? What if the daily news cycle matters less than your daily routine? What if moving dirt and helping people was more important than press releases or jockeying for leadership positions in some nebulous caucus of ego-driven suits?

I have come to the conclusion that there is no replacing the time you spend with your family and actually living in your community. The best kind of political process is one in which people take turns serving their communities with short stints in various offices, never with a mind to stay there forever. People should embark on these tours of service at times that work for their families, or that are compatible with how their family lives. (I know some families that are gleeful in a parent and spouse’s political service, and that’s fine for them).

What’s wrong with serving a few years in your 20s, and a few more in your 50s or 60s? What if one term is enough? What if you wander in and out of the political scene, each time with new perspective and experience?

No place has known political longevity like the Iron Range, and while the seniority has served us well in the procurement of funds, it’s hard to avoid the fact that our political leadership is utterly devoid of new ideas or imagination.

Mix it up. This isn’t a Democratic or Republican thing. It’s a human thing. Be human, and humans will be served well.

Don Ness will have a tough choice to make this year, but even if he doesn’t run — life will go on, for everyone.


  1. Sadly, the reason Congress and other political bodies are so useless is because the only people willing to run are egotistical sociopaths. This needs to change if the country is to survive in the future. I hope both of you run for higher office. The country desperately needs you.

  2. Dido on the first comment. We need Don for one more term but will support him in any decision he makes. Family should come first. It would be great for our community if he could continue to balance both. I’m just not sure who will be able to follow through on all the positive programs he has started. Best mayor I have seen in my 50 plus years here in Duluth. Good luck to Donny in whatever the future holds for him and his family.

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