Elections nudge Duluth political scene, but not much

Duluth, Minnesota (file photo)

Off-year elections generally only get attention because of “what it all means.” The year-round political speculation industry loves a taste of something real to add some heft to the conjecture.

So we can look at yesterday’s election and say that Democratic success in New Jersey and Virginia means something. President Trump’s unpopularity seems to be fueling the enthusiasm of opposition candidates.

We can look at the mayor’s races in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In the Mill City, city councilor and smooth-talking-son-of-a-gun Jacob Frey leads in first-choice ballots, though he must survive the city’s ranked choice voting system which will be tabulated later today. Incumbent Mayor Betsy Hodges appears not to have the votes.

Meanwhile, in the state capital, former city councilor Melvin Carter won decisively, becoming the city’s first black mayor. A descendent of a highly community engaged family in the historically black Rondo neighborhood, Carter’s win reflects a rejection of negative campaigning waged against him by allies of his opponent.

What do these races mean? Well, I suppose that the liberal base of these cities was looking for stylistic change, favoring upstart candidacies and rejecting nuanced elements of the status quo.

But up north in Duluth, a lot of election noise produced a city council with only one new member. At-large council incumbents Zack Filipovich and Barb Russ won their bids for re-election, as did second district councilor Joel Sipress. In the fourth district, Renee Van Nett defeated incumbent Howie Hanson. This reflects a sweep by the DFL-endorsed slate of candidates in this increasingly liberal city.

Meanwhile, in the Duluth School Board races, two longtime gadflies Art Johnson and Harry Welty lost their bids for re-election. Sally Trnka and Josh Gorham won the at-large seats, ousting Welty. District 1 incumbent Rosie Loeffler-Kemp easily won re-election, while challenger Jill Lofald (a former speech coaching colleague of mine) whomped Johnson in West Duluth’s District 4.

Victors in the Duluth school board race declared this a victory for “positivity.” I half wondered if the Duluth district’s fiscal woes would boost the fiscally conservative candidacies of Welty and Johnson, but that never materialized.

Meantime, Duluth overwhelmingly approved a sales tax increase to create a dedicated street improvement fund. The measure was sold as a way to pay for needed improvements without increasing property taxes, and ensuring that tourists and regional drivers also paid their share.

Up in Aurora, on the eastern Mesabi Range, city councilor and copper-nickel mining advocate Dave Lislegard won the mayor’s office, cruising to an easy win over Dave Meyer.

Some intrigue, but mostly the political trends of our times seem to press on, unabated.


  1. Art Johnston and his allies cannot stop being angry about the Red Plan redevelopment of the Duluth schools and cannot stop hating the superintendent, the teachers union, and the rest of the board. Even people who might have opposed the Red Plan when it was adopted several years ago have tired of this and are ready to move on, and Johnston and his faction have done a poor job of making a transition to other issues. This leaves only one dissident on the board, and does open the possibility that future board elections will put more focus on some of the real problems of the district, including the financial issues you mentioned as well as poor performance of many schools on standardized testing, albeit with greater emphasis on cooperation than on the bitterness and quest for revenge that has dominated Duluth School District elections for a decade.

    Lofald also managed to become a vehicle for the West Duluth pride in Denfeld high school, where she was popular teacher for many years, while Johnston focused on its failings. Duluthians have a pride in their schoosl that may be at times unrealistic, but do not necessarily want to hear people bad mouth them.

    The At Large Council election was a straight up triumph for the regular DFL and the Labor Movement in Duluth over dissident DFLers, demonstrating the continuing strength of the regular DFL in Duluth, as you say. The election was for all intents and purposes over when the dissidents failed, one by a narrow margin, to get the DFL endorsement. The only successful overthrow of regular DFL candidates in the recent past was Jen Schultz’s election to the 7A legislative seat, something that happened through her winning the endorsement in the face of some confusion among regulars during the very short time between the announcement of the retirement of Tom Huntley and the convention, and having the regulars honor the endorsement. Of course since then Schultz has embraced the regular DFLers and been embraced enthusiastically by them as a result of her strong performance in the legislature, based on an obvious willingness to work hard and to serve as a key figure in the St. Paul, especially on the health care issue and Duluth local issues.

  2. John Ramos says

    Can’t wait for the massive school district levy increases coming down the pike. Thanks, Red Plan!

    • An excellent example of what I was talking about when i mentioned ongoing bitterness. It is too late to litigate the Red Plan by about ten years, and ongoing anger about it does not help in dealing with issues like the district financial trouble, even if it is an important cause.

      I was against it too, but when you get all steamed up about it, the best thing is to go have a beer, perhaps with Art and Harry, and get it out of your system, then come back and discuss something that is relevant today. It’s like getting mad about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff or the Treaty of Versailles. It’s relevant as history, but not to politics today.

  3. John Ramos says

    Personally, I consider an issue to be current for as long as the bonds are being paid off–which means the Red Plan is current for another 10-15 years. When you see the school district’s reserve fund plummet from $25 million to nothing in only 12 years, largely due to paying off the Red Plan bonds, it’s not bitterness to suggest that we will face big levy increases in the future in order to continue paying off the bonds. I call that common sense. The only difference is that with the new school board we’ll do it with huge smiles on our faces. Fun!

  4. John Ramos says

    I’m not trying to relitigate the issue. I would just like to see us elect people other than exactly the same ones who got us into it. But I guess that’s too negative. In keeping with the majority’s preference, I’m practicing my massive grin now.

  5. You are missing the point. Yes, the Red Plan (like the Treaty of Versailles and the Smoot-Hawley tariff) has negative affects that persist today and will persist into the future. The debt is only part of it, since there are also issues with the way the school areas in the city are divided, the choice of two high schools, and a host of other stuff. But ranting about the Red Plan does not do any good. It is history. The people who created it are for the most part gone (all of the board members from the time, the superintendent, most of the administrators from the time. The current superintendent was an assistant at the time, and played a role, but had only minimal real power or responsibility , since the then superintendent was the one in charge of decision making.)

    We can continue to froth at the mouth about the Red Plan, but we cannot get rid of the bonds or some of its other problems. The Red Plan is the status quo, and debating it or creating antipathy around it accomplishes nothing, since we can’t get rid of it. We CAN work on the real problems, including funding, which indeed is heavily impacted by the debt from the Red Plan building projects, and the achievement gap, and the East-West gap, and the generally dismal performance in science and math and the quite poor performance in reading that the district’s grads display at both high schools, and the high true level of drop outs when students are tracked honestly, and the question of what we will do about the high schools when Edison pulls about one third of the students out of the district schools, as they still intend. And a bunch of other stuff.

    As I said above, I was an opponent of the Red Plan for a variety of reasons, but now I am more worried about the future of the schools than about the past. Wish I could go back in time and fix it, but honestly if I could my first priority probably would be to buy Apple stock at $1.75 a share (allowing for splits) in 2003. Then I would get to the Red Plan.

    Hissing and spitting at each other does not get anything done. Which, IMO, is why the citizens of Duluth told Art, Harry, and Dana to hit the showers. The time has come to make other issues the important questions in elections, many of which reflect badly on the district. Getting the Red Plan rabies group off the board will, I hope, allow for more attention to those other questions, both by our elected officials, and the media, including the “Reader,” and will allow for people to work together to solve those very real problems, and to debate those problems in future elections.

    Yes, we should not have implemented the Red Plan as it was implemented. But since you, I, Art, or Harry cannot do a thing about it now, we need to move on.

  6. John Ramos says

    “Move on” by practicing our gargantuan grins. As I said, I’m working on it.

  7. John Ramos says

    The bobble-head nod will also be important. I’m practicing that, too.

    • I would be very interested in hearing what you think should be done with the Duluth schools. Please feel free to list your ideas. Ms. Palcich, who seems to think she has special access to THE TRUTH is more than welcome to make suggestions as well.

      Let me start out. I do think that the point that the Johnston group was making about poverty impact funding is a good one. Special funding meant to alleviate problems related to low income and race should be spent in the schools that qualify for the funds, and should not be subtracted from the otherwise equal funding of the school. In other words, funding intended to ameliorate special problems should be used to ameliorate those problems where they occur, and should not result in cuts to other funding, so the schools end up having more money per pupil than schools without those problems.

  8. Elanne Palcich says

    People don’t want to hear/face the truth.

  9. John Ramos says

    Number One, sell Old Central. This is easy.

  10. John Ramos says

    Number Two, sell New Central.

  11. John Ramos says

    Number Three, require voter approval for major projects.

  12. John Ramos says

    Number Four, post school district financial documents online.

  13. John Ramos says

    Number Five, negotiate a little harder with the teachers to get better deals.

  14. John Ramos says

    Number Six, don’t let the superintendent’s wife endorse School Board candidates on behalf of the teacher’s union.

  15. John Ramos says

    How many of these should I do?

  16. John Ramos says

    Number Seven, don’t approve half-billion dollar projects when you have declining enrollment

  17. John Ramos says

    Number Eight, don’t let consultants be the same people who will do the projects they recommend.

  18. David Gray says

    You can’t sell the Central campuses, they might be used by people who are responsive to their clients.

  19. John Ramos says

    Essentially, not a single problem that led to the Red Plan has been corrected. Now we’re supposed to put on our optimistic grins and “move forward” without changing anything. Pardon me if I feel like pausing for a bit.

  20. I agree with selling the Old Central, if there is a market for it, although I think it should be sold with the proviso that it not be torn down, since I consider it to be the most important architectural site in the city.

    However, assuming that Edison does follow through on its plan to open a high school, and the projections for enrollment are correct, it would drop high school enrollment for ISD 709 to about 1600 kids. That is too small for two schools to be financially practical, especially in two buildings meant to hold 1200 and 1600 students respectively.

    At the same time, both East and Denfeld are located too far out in their respective ends of the city to be politically practical for a single site school.

    Consequently the new Central site would be the logical site for the single Duluth high school. It also has the enormous advantage of being located on property that the school district owns already, and is ideally located in relation to both halves of the city.

    I would actually recommend selling Denfeld to Edison, which is in better shape than new Central, having recently been renovated. Edison could use the surplus space for a grade school or middle school. The sale would be conditional on allowing time to complete rebuilding on the new Central site (which would take no longer than for Edison to build or rebuild its own school) for a high school with capacity for 1800 or so students, and perhaps (assuming the sale of Old Central) for a more modest headquarters for the district. The part of the site containing the former technical school, which has the million dollar views of the lake and city, could be sold off for development at a lower price than the whole site, bringing in more cash, and development allowed on that part of the site.

    Meanwhile, the new East site could be sold for development, after obtaining a deal from the city to allow high density housing, high rises to 5 to 8 stories, and light commercial such as grocery stores and so on and restaurants. I would also seek to allow liquor on sale licenses. With those rules, it would be a fantastic development site in an area of the city that is attractive to most people, including lake views, and would return the land to the tax rolls.

    That would give the city two high schools, one public, one charter, competing with each other. The public school would have a single campus, ending the whole East-West gap issue at the high school level. If West Duluthians want, the sale of Denfeld could stipulate that the name be retained and that the sports teams name and colors be kept by its new owners. The new high school should have a new set of colors and a new team name to obliterate any connection with the old schools. (Lakers? Mariners? Wolves? Eagles? Norsemen? Whatever.)

    Otherwise, I think everyone in Duluth is in agreement that the notion that no more major projects should be done without voter approval. The idea of putting the records on line is a good one, with the exception of records relating to ongoing bargaining or bidding, which need to be kept confidential until deals are completed.

    Separating consulting from business vendors is just good sense, Somehow, Johnson Controls has managed to sell the opposite idea, not just in Duluth but all over. Similar issues have developed in Range cities and elsewhere.

    More aggressive negotiation with the teachers is probably easier said than done. I don’t know the atmosphere now, but I do know that Mark Myles was totally hardball in negotiations, and had no better luck than the current administration has had, if as good.

    However, I need to point out that every single thing you have said has nothing to do with the actual problems in Duluth related to education, and all are essentially financial or related to voter rights. We do need better financial management. We do need to honor the legal processes. Most of your suggestions are fine, although many don’t relate to anything going on now, but rather to closing the barn door after the horse has gone. Obsessing on stopping imagined new Red Plans is useless, since no one is suggesting one.

    ISD 709 does need to accept that Edison is here to stay, and learn to go about their business without obsessing about them.

    IMO, the main problem that Duluth schools has is its poor performance as a school system in educating its kids. We need better results. Unfortunately, although Edison is good at making parents happy, its results in educating kids are not any better, pretty much tracking what would be expected based on its clientele , with results better than West schools but worse than East schools. Unfortunately as well, in the last couple of years Edison’s results are getting worse, while ISD 709 is essentially staying the same except for children of color.

    It is my hope that if we finally put the whole Red Plan debacle to bed, since there is nothing that can actually be done about it now, that we can devote more attention to the actual problems with educating kids. I would like to see a campaign where the issue was poor scores in math, not anger left over from a decade ago. IMO pounding the table and demanding beheadings is not useful, and is a major distraction from the real issues.

  21. Well, I guess we’ll see how the Happy Contingent does. They don’t care about money at all.

  22. I forgot about your comment about the superintendent’s wife. I have to assume you are either single, divorced, or Southern Baptist, since trying to tell most women who they are allowed to endorse politically pretty much went out in 1919. I think it is grounds for divorce in all the states north of the Mason-Dixon line. South of the Mason-Dixon line it is grounds for shooting your husband in the knee. If he does it three times you can shoot to kill.

  23. Excuse me, Gerald. As a person and as a woman, the superintendent’s wife can vote for whoever she likes. But when you have her endorsing candidates on behalf of the Duluth Federation of Teachers, that’s an obvious conflict of interest. The people she’s screening are going to be her husband’s future bosses. She should not be involved in that decision. Since you already know that, I can only assume your last comment was trolling.


  24. Barb Russ was not DFL endorsed, though you’d hardly know it. Filipovich was endorsed with 167 votes with a 167 vote threshold on a hotly contested ballot. The old narratives did indeed grind it out down the stretch, with some help, but there were rumblings here.

  25. First, Barb Russ was not endorsed by the DFL but was endorsed by Labor. In this case, the endorsement by Labor was nearly as effective as the DFL, if not more so, since it came with phone calling, door knocking, and mailers. The near miss at DFL endorsement by Rich Updegrove was critical in the end, since it allowed all sorts of people backing the three non-endorsed candidates to be active in the race.

    And sorry, John, but a husband and wife are not a package, at least not since the days of Madmen. She is totally free to act as her own agent and has no conflict of interest legally or morally. People are free to draw their own conclusions about how her opinion reflects her husband’s, but she is not obliged to shut up just because she disagrees with you.

    My main point stands: Art, Harry, and Dana lost because most Duluthians have tired of the Red Plan conflict and wanted it to stop. I realize you have not, but as the election showed, that no longer resonates with the voters. You are certainly free to continue to be angry, however, since you, like the superintendent’s wife, have your right to publicize your opinion.

    • A husband and a wife form a financial partnership during marriage. In that way they are a “package”.

      • But they are not a package in their professional, political, intellectual, or social lives. At least not since about 1920 in the US, “Coya come home” to the contrary. And the legal aspects of that financial partnership are limited in MN, since we are not a community property state. My wife has bank and brokerage accounts I never see.

  26. John Ramos says

    It’s an obvious conflict of interest. If you want to be disingenuous about it, that’s fine.

    • You have to recognize that that is just your opinion, and not an objective fact. Unless you want to be disingenuous about it. I can certainly sympathize with being on the losing end of an election, so I understand your desire to demonize your opponents.

      • David Gray says

        Gerald, nothing you are saying is anything other than your opinion as well.

      • John Ramos says

        Wow. The superintendent’s contract is approved (or not approved) by the school board. To have the super’s wife screening school board candidates is so obviously a conflict of interest that I should only have to say that. Demonization? I’d say the same thing if anybody’s wife (or husband) was in that position.

        • John Ramos says

          I find it interesting that Deanna Gronseth chose to endorse every School Board candidate who approved her husband’s last contract, and chose not to endorse every School Board candidate who voted against her husband’s last contract. What a coincidence!

          • She had a job. The job is in education, and she has been working with the education union. None of those things should be a surprise, any more than a doctor’s husband being a nurse or a cop’s wife being another cop.

            Do you honestly believe that she had any real impact on the teacher’s union decision? The Art group has reviled the union for years, so it should not be a shock that the union would not endorse Harry, Dana, or Art. It would seem simple minded or masochistic if they did. That, not any conspiracy theories about the superintendent’s contract, is the reason why the union did not endorse any of the Art group.

            By your definition of conflict of interest, Art’s partner should not be working for the district, since he votes on her salary. Harry and Alanna should not be allowed to run for the board because of grudges related to their failed careers with ISD 709. Many of the board members should be ineligible because they have a conflict of interest because their kids are being graded by people who work under them. We could go on and on. To make your standards actually work we should restrict the school board to members who live and work in Winnipeg, where they would have no real interest in the Duluth schools at all, except as an intellectual challenge.

            Anyhow, I have not talked with a single person who was influenced by the union endorsement for school board. Most people don’t even know about it. It is clear from the numbers that significant numbers of voters who voted for Harry and Art in the past decided not to vote for them this time, and this is certainly not the first time that the union has endorsed their opponents and not them. They have never been endorsed by the union.

            I can understand the bitterness and disappointment about the result, because after the 2015 election it actually looked like Art had a good chance of having a majority on the board. The conspiracy here, I think, was a careful effort by Art’s opponents to find and field a very attractive group of candidates who were able to pile up decisive margins of victory, partly by playing, as you keep alluding to, to the desire of most Duluthians to end the era of bitterness and divisiveness that has dogged the board since the Red Plan was passed. A clear majority of people who voted want that, and the board to move on to other issues. The election result reflects that. The Duluth News Tribune headlined the result as a victory for “positivity,” and that is probably right on target.

            Having read your work on many occasions, I understand that part of your style is bristling anger, usually focused on your opponents. That was a big part of the hallmark of Harry, Art, Alanna, and Dana in their campaigns as well. But, as I said in my first comment and continue to say, Duluthians seem to have tired of that for the time being, and that seems to be the biggest reason for the election result. In my opinion, and I will readily say it is my opinion, Deanna Gronseth had exactly no impact on any of that. But if it makes you feel better to rail against her, unleash the dogs of war.

          • David Gray says

            Some people confuse volume with quality.

          • John Ramos says

            I see that.

  27. John Ramos says

    Practicing my toothy grin now, for when we have to cover the rest of the bonds.

  28. Alanna Oswald says

    I object to the opinion of having a failed career in the district. I was successfully employed in many positions in the district. None of them were career positions.

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