Duluth mayoral candidate Emily Larson says conflict taught her to be a more effective city councilor
By Peter Passi on Oct 10, 2015 at 10:02 p.m.
Shortly after her election to the Duluth City Council in 2011, mayoral hopeful Emily Larson found herself at odds with what had been some of her most ardent supporters from the local labor community. Although they had campaigned vigorously for Larson, organized labor leaders took her and a handful of other councilors sharply to task over their support for a package of civil service reforms proposed by Mayor Don Ness’ administration.
It was a difficult time for a young councilor just cutting her political teeth, but Larson said: “I look back now and I’m actually really grateful for the opportunity it gave me to figure out who I was going to be as a public servant and how I wanted to do my work.”
Larson, 41, said she followed her conscience but never stopped listening.
“I feel like I grew a lot through that in a way that’s been really productive and that has helped me become much more effective. What I’ve learned about leadership, especially for myself, is that there are a lot of decisions I’ve made that people have supported — whether that’s a neighborhood, or a business or labor — and I’ve also had decisions that each one of those groups have opposed or have not supported,” she said.
Larson said the City Council often finds itself faced with challenging decisions.
“The reality is that most issues you get coming at you are very, very gray, and at the council level, things often need to be a yes or a no … almost a black or a white answer. But the reality is most often there is something in the middle, and I’ve found many times that’s a space where I can operate sometimes, in that gray area, trying to see not only if there’s a compromise but to fully explore the complexities of an issue,” she said.
After a withering round of criticism, Larson said she and fellow councilors continued to plug away at the the civil service reforms.
They were revisited and revised with the help of a study group that made several recommendations, some of which were then used to tweak the city code.
Larson said the experience reinforced her belief that leaders don’t back away from conflict.
“I’ve never shied away from that. And it’s one of the things I’m most proud of in myself,” she said. “If there’s a conflict, I don’t avoid it. I walk right toward it, and approach it as an opportunity to either get closer to the opposing viewpoint and have a better understanding or an opportunity to at least share what my values are regarding the issue.”
Larson acknowledged that some of her decisions on the Duluth City Council are destined to disappoint certain constituents.
“This work is challenging. Duluth is very engaged with its policymakers. So I’m very used to people being candid and honest with me about their opinions,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to do that or I’m going to agree, but I’ve learned to how to be really present with that and listen and take it in and determine what information I need to make a good decision and then to be really clear about what the decision is, because no one likes surprises.”
Although Larson has made her home in Duluth for the past 24 years, she grew up in St. Paul.
Her mother is a poet and her father worked in the information technology industry. They divorced when Larson was 10 years old, and both parents remarried. Consequently, Larson said, she grew up with four parents, dividing her time between households.
Growing up, she recalls her family dinner table being a place of lively discussion.
“My parents didn’t avoid conversations with kids in the room. If there was an issue, or anyone wanted to talk about current events, it was just all on the table.”
Larson is the youngest of three children in her biological family. She also has two stepbrothers and two stepsisters.
She was introduced to Duluth by rail.
“Duluth was the one vacation we had as a family. We really didn’t have much money. We didn’t have a lot of resources. So Duluth was the big vacation for us,” Larson recalled.
“I remember getting off the train at the depot in Duluth and walking our suitcases down the street to the Holiday Inn. I loved it,” she said.
Larson returned to Duluth at the age of 17 as a freshman at the College of St. Scholastica and never turned back.
“It’s a place where I immediately felt at home,” she said. “You know, you don’t choose where you are born. You don’t choose where your parents raise you. But you do choose your home. And this just felt like home.”
Larson graduated from St. Scholastica with a degree in social work, and quickly put what she had learned to work in her adopted city.
“As a social worker, you have to assess what’s going on. You have to build relationships with people. You have to build trust. You need to develop a plan. You have to know the resources that are out there,” she said.
Larson said her work prepared her well for future challenges.
“It’s actually a perfect training ground for public service, because a lot of that is the same, just applied differently. So I’d done direct social work for many years through CHUM, and I worked with families who were homeless or at risk of being homeless for 12 years. I worked at the drop-in center. So my clients were people and families. And now that same application of public service is there. But your client is different. You’re really applying it to the whole community and where you can have the best impact,” she said.
Larson said she decided to become a policymaker to better get at some of the root problems she saw in her community.
When Larson’s not tending to her duties as a city councilor or nonprofit consultant, you’ll often find her outdoors or engaged in some form of physical activity.
“I spend a lot of time outside. I run. I walk. I do yoga. That’s really important for me actually, just the breathing of it,” she said.
Larson also savors time with her husband, Doug Zaun, a local architect, and their boys, ages 12 and 15.
“We hang out as a family a lot. The four of us are pretty close, and we like to spend a lot of time together. That’s something I didn’t get a chance to do a lot as a kid, when you split your time between two houses. We did joint custody, and that was great, and my parents worked well together and everything was very pleasant … but this idea that you have one home and you get to spend a lot of time together — that’s not something I grew up with, so it’s really nice to have that,” she said.
Larson said she entered the mayoral race nearly a full year ahead of the general election, knowing how much work it would take to build support.
“I do notice that people care very deeply about this race, and they’re very concerned … about what the next administration and what its energy is going to be like. How are we going to keep growing? I hear that from people very clearly,” she said.
After the two terms of popular outgoing Mayor Don Ness, Larson acknowledged many residents have high expectations for whoever wins the election next month.
“Somebody did tell me: Those are really big shoes to fill. And I actually do have really big feet,” said Larson, pointing to her size 10 shoes.