Mayor Larson wins in Duluth while council sees changes

Emily Larson

Mayor Emily Larson cruised to re-election over challenger David Nolle in Tuesday’s municipal elections. Larson won by more than 5,000 votes, about 63 percent to Nolle’s 36 percent.

Larson heads an administration that has largely continued the progressive policies begun under former mayor Don Ness. She also inherited the challenges that have bedeviled Duluth for a generation: aging city infrastructure, a growing gap between rich and poor, and increasingly unaffordable housing.

A lot of issues could have reared up on her. Just a few weeks ago we learned that low income renters near a major medical campus project might lose their homes. This, while almost every campaign thumped for affordable housing plans.

Nevertheless, Larson ran an effective campaign and won a second term. Voters liked the general direction of Larson’s administration and Duluth’s prospects under her leadership.

The Duluth City Council will look dramatically different, however. Part of that was inevitable with two incumbents not seeking re-election. But a conservative critic of several recent council actions scored a major upset in a very close race for two at-large council seats.

In the at large race the top vote getter was Derek Medved, owner of four gas stations. Medved ran on providing more business perspective to the council. He’ll get his chance.

Running just behind him was incumbent Arik Forsman. Forsman was appointed to the council to fill the remainder of Elissa Hanson’s term after she resigned. An Iron Range native, Forsman works for Minnesota Power.

In third, missing the cut, we find current council president Noah Hobbs. Hobbs, a housing nonprofit director, ran a vigorous campaign. He promoted weekly coffee sessions with constituents. He even touted the endorsement of Gov. Tim Walz, his former high school teacher. It was close but Hobbs is on the outside looking in.

In fourth, progressive environmental activist and student Mike Mayou. While there is some separation between Mayou and the top three vote getters he had intense support from the city’s liberal bloc.

Meantime, in ward elections:

  • District 1: Gary Anderson beat Becky Hall by 60 percent to 40 percent.
  • District 3: Roz Randorf defeated Theresa O’Halloran-Johnson by 55 percent to 45 percent.
  • District 5: Janet Kennedy outpaced Jeanne Koneczny by 52 percent to 48 percent. Kennedy becomes the first African-American elected to the Duluth council.

I don’t live in Duluth and, as I’ve been saying, I’m writing a book so I haven’t been covering the race. But it’s not hard to miss an interesting aspect of how the at-large race turned out.

Three of the four candidates were DFLers who sought the DFL endorsement. Only Mayou won that endorsement at a convention marked by some of the same disagreements over pipelines, mining and environmental issues that have dogged recent DFL contests in the city.

The incumbents Forsman and Hobbs had the blessing of the Duluth Labor Assembly.

Voting in multi-seat elections is complicated. Two get elected, but every candidate is on their own to get votes. So, if you’re really passionate about just one candidate in a close race there’s a certain appeal in voting for that person alone.

A lot of people did just that with the DFL-endorsed Mayou. I imagine some conservatives did for Medved as well. More than 7,000 people under-voted in the at-large race.

But the result of this split is that a new conservative councilor was elected while the progressive mayor was re-elected with 63 percent of the vote.

People can do what they want. You want to undervote, that’s your right. The gambit could have worked if Mayou had the gas to get there. But there are consequences. Instead of two DFLers winning, now there is only one. And the one who got on, Forsman, is arguably more “middle of the road” than the one who didn’t, Hobbs.

Again, it’s no skin off my hindquarters. I live in a forest. But that’s just what I see.

And then yet again, maybe having someone like Medved could be good for a council that runs the risk of descending into group-think after this much time together. Maybe. Shrug. (I live in a forest).

Many perspectives exist. I’m just saying it most certainly could have gone differently. The DFL will keep losing races in Northern Minnesota over this inter-party split until it finds a way to unite people divided over specific issues behind a larger purpose. Tonight was just one small example.


  1. Great points but the convention context is important here too. Forsman and Hobbs opted, after getting roundly beaten by Mayou on the first ballot, to withdraw from the convention and party process. Instead of seeking the second DFL endorsement, they opted to together challenge and run against the DFL endorsed Mayou. That was a (partially successful) gambit too, but has to be identified as the origination of the division, not the people single voting for the DFL endorsed candidate when faced with yet another devils bargain. Put differently, who is a more loyal Dem, those voting for the Dem? Or those who opted for division. It’s clear that had Hobbs and Forsman respected the endorsement process rather than splitting the vote, we’d have two DFL endorsed candidates winning tonight and one person enjoying a more leisurely summer. This context is going to be important, and likely also often missing by those with a particular agenda, in the coming days.

    • Thanks for the comment, JT. I actually had written a paragraph pointing out the Hobbs and Forsman withdrawal but pulled it after it required more and more and more context to understand. (Since I was breaking my “no blogging” rule already I didn’t want to go into a full “DFL Convention Analysis” relapse). I guess I just wanted to point out that the “all in” approach can have consequences, and it seems rather instructive going into a consequential election year where a unified Democratic party probably wins and a divided one probably loses.

      But it’s right to say that it’s not just “one side” in the division that causes the outcome. Hobbs and Forsman wanted to run together as a ticket. But in doing so they peeved a bloc of voters. I don’t know. I still think party endorsements in city races are counterproductive at least half the time. But that’s another post. And I’m not blogging. This never happened.

      • Haha, well thank you. I’m glad you cover the Duluth races, and I’m happy to settle on the point (at least for this exchange that is mostly not happening) that a unified party probably would’ve won here. Of course there is much more to say about all that transpired — including just what exactly makes a good candidate these days in the first place — that would be, I think, useful for folks considering the go-ahead. It wouldn’t hurt to have a couple more Aaron Browns around this joint.

  2. Tom Knutila says

    I feel similar divisions between left leaning and more centrist Democrats will plague the party nationally and potentially open the door for 4 more years of Donald Trump. The Party of Trump is small but united.

  3. The Council election does not really change the structure of the Duluth Council significantly.

    Medved will almost undoubtedly be a more effective conservative representative than the former lone conservative, Jay Fosle, who for the last few years has mostly sulked and skipped meetings, but will remain isolated unless he joins with more moderate members. Kennedy would be expected to join with Anderson and Joel Sipress to make up a new progressive bloc, replacing Em Westerlund, who did not seek re-election, so the progressives stay at a minority of three. Randorf, who is probably the biggest unknown quantity, will likely join Forsman, Van Nett, Filipovich, and Russ to continue domination by a middle of the road bloc. No matter how Randorf ends up lining up, she is unlikely to be much to the right of Hobbes, who liked to talk like a progressive but vote like a centrist — in his concession, he cited gaining approval for Uber and Lyft as one of his biggest accomplishments.

    West Duluth may be getting its first effective representation in at least 20 years, since their previous reps have either been chamber of commerce types or grumpy isolates who never accomplished anything. Kennedy is deeply committed to the West, where she has lived all her life, and to dealing with the poverty and urban decay that plague that part of the city. Medved also may be a strong voice for the West if he can work his way past more doctrinaire anti-tax and anti-regulation ideology to work on things that actually help West Duluth but probably cost money.

    The other story beyond the DFL endorsement is the Labor endorsements. Duluth Labor used candidates’ positions on Polymet as the absolute litmus test, endorsing only clear supporters of non-ferrous mining. This was especially striking in their refusal to endorse Anderson, a former union member and Teamster activist who has, other than Polymet, a straight down the line pro-labor record. Labor did not see fit to endorse him against Becky Hall, the well known Tea Party and Trump activist. Labor also endorsed candidates who oppose a raise in the minimum wage, who tried to block the Sick and Safe Time ordinance unless business was allowed to dictate the terms, and in general tend to side with corporate interests. But the candidates did support non-ferrous mining, which seems to be the only thing that counts.

    This schism on the left over non-ferrous mining, and to some extent other environmental issues, promises to get a lot worse before it gets better. This is especially true as the DFL becomes more successful in the outer Metro, and the Party is more and more dominated by urban and ex-urban politicians and voters who are, for the most part, strongly pro-environment and against non-ferrous mining.

    • Gerald,

      Your characterization of Hobbs would appear to be that of a personal dislike for him (there was a lot more in his concession speech). The guy opened the warming center, passed ESST, worked to get the housing task force started so the council would have actual recommendations to add to Duluth’s affordable housing stock, He has been an effective progressive something that isn’t all that common and it appears a purity litmus test took him down and gave you the more conservative duo of Forsman and Medved (endorsed by the UMD College Republicans)

      • I don’t dislike Hobbes at all, and have supported him, and he certainly has led on some progressive issues, especially the warming center. But on ESST he was a leader of a successful attempt to weaken the bill in order to meet business objections, and he has been a consistent voice for permitting businesses — Uber, Lyft, the scooter franchise, AirBnB , and others — that are problematic in terms of their impact on quality of life and especially on Duluthians with low incomes.

        I agree that he is more progressive than Forsman and certainly than Medved. But in terms of any impact, since Forsman is a returning incumbent (whose appointment Hobbes voted for) and Medved essentially replaces Fosle as the lone conservative, the question, as I said, is how Randorf stacks up compared with him. Putting aside non-ferrous mining, which Hobbes supports and Randorf opposes, Randorf’s campaign suggests that she is in the same category as Hobbes on progressive versus conservative — one from column A, one from column B — a true centrist. I am guessing about Randorf, since she is unproven, but my point was that it seems likely that there will once again be five centrists on the Council, with Randorf replacing Hobbes, and that they will once again dominate the Council. There is a definite left-right spread philosophically among the centrists, but they all vote the same on most important issues.

        • I’m fairly certain Hobbes hasn’t taken a stance on non-ferrous mining, I did a quick search and I can’t find anything – maybe DFCW JT can show evidence? Forsman 1000% is a cheerleader and booster, I can’t find anywhere that Hobbes is that way. I thought he did well and was a solid DFL’er but I don’t have a vested interest as I live in Twig. I would have preferred to have him and Forsman or him and Medved versus the current make up, plus he is a West Duluth resident that’s always a plus.

          • I have heard him defend the mining in the past, and he had to have endorsed it at his screening for the Labor endorsement, since they only endorsed candidates who backed Polymet and non-ferrous mining.

            I think that JT pretty much hit the nail on the head with his narrative. The Duluth DFL, dominated by the progressive faction following the 2018 CD8 race caucuses, basically offered a compromise by running only a single candidate for the At-Large race, leaving the other seat to the centrist faction. The centrist faction turned that offer down, demanding the whole pie. That led to a lot of anger on all sides. Bullet voting by both progressives for Mayou and by conservatives for Medved led to Hobbes losing, beaten for the second seat by superior financing and salesmanship by Forsman.

            Although I am sure that Hobbes feels bad, as I have now said several times the election does not make any difference in the ongoing power alignment in the Council. The progressives can have an impact only by getting the cooperation of the centrists. Medved has to get the cooperation of the centrists to do anything except give speeches. And the centrists have enough votes to be able to pass things without any support from the progressives or Medved.

            If Hobbes has ideas he still wants to push for, he certainly is well connected and has the ear of many of the people still on the Council, so he can still get things done if he wants. And he’ll have time to finally catch up on “The Game of Thrones.”

          • It’s clear you know Hobbes on a much more intimate level than I Gerald.

        • Circling back on this Gerald
          I emailed Hobbes to ask him about his stance on mining and he gave me an answer and we grabbed a cup of coffee. He has not defended the mining in the past, and despite your claims wasn’t a benchmark for a labor endorsement. And did not need to come out for it for the endorsement at all. It was actually a really great conversation, I’d suggest you take him up on his standing coffee offer.

          • The labor endorsement was rigidly given only to candidates who did not oppose non-ferrous mining. That was a litmus test. It doesn’t matter what people are saying outside the process, that is true. All four candidates I have spoken with were asked about it, and ONLY candidates who expressed some form of support received the endorsement. As I noted, those rejected included one person who had worked as a union organizer and very actively supported every union position except non-ferrous mining, and those endorsed included at least one candidate opposed to raising the minimum wage.

            I expect that this will continue to be the case in Duluth politics for some time. Labor requires that at the least you “support the decisions of our wonderful state regulators in the DNR and MPCA.” Given the fact that past elections have shown the majority of Duluth DFL voters oppose non-ferrous mining, it is often amusing to watch politicians trying to dance around the issue, especially those with ambitions for higher office.

            All that said, I personally am sorry to see Hobbes beaten by Forsman. There may be an opening as at-large available again in 2021, and perhaps he will run again.

  4. Solid take ^^^ (though I think there is some additional nuance with Janet and Roz).

  5. The Duluth News Tribune has an interesting analysis of the results of the election and the use of bullet voting.

    It turns out that the “undervote” in this election was actually lower than in 2011, quite a bit lower than in 2015, and only slightly higher than 2013. In fact, the 2017 election was actually the outlier among the last five city elections because it had significantly fewer undervotes than in any of the other elections.

    What may have been different this time was that Medved’s and Mayou’s campaigns were openly encouraging the undervotes, although that may have happened before as well, but more quietly (Medved actually used his website to ask supporters to bullet vote, but later took down the post.)

    The article:

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