Chapter 1: Meet Emily
Chapter 2: Economic Development
Our view/endorsement: Let Larson, Mattson emerge for mayor
By News Tribune on Aug 28, 2015 at 12:02 a.m.
In the race to replace popular, longtime Mayor Don Ness, one candidate, City Council President Emily Larson, rises high above a crowded field of would-be successors.
She simply has a depth of knowledge about city operations, finances, opportunities and challenges the others can’t touch.
She understands that attracting and keeping job-creating businesses and industry requires the city to be a reliable, honest and consistent partner, not an open wallet.
She has contacts and relationships from City Hall to St. Paul to make her an effective leader and to assure Duluth keeps moving forward.
She knows a new mayor won’t automatically mean a new and better relationship with the Fond du Lac Band. There’s work to be done in the wake of casino controversies she’s eager to get to.
Larson is ready to go to work with infectious enthusiasm and optimism tempered by brutal honesty, doses of reality, unprecedented transparency and a commitment to be inclusive.
“I have a vision for Duluth that is about building on the momentum that we have created in the last five, 10 years, the economic growth, the progress we’re seeing and the way Duluth is seen across the state in a very positive way,” Larson said in an interview with the News Tribune editorial board. “But I’m also running because I’m concerned that there are people who are going to be left behind in our next chapter if we’re not very careful. What I mean by that is there are a few neighborhoods that struggle a bit economically, and there are people and families right now who don’t feel a part of the vision for Duluth and what’s happening, and I have priorities to bring people together and to have an inclusive leadership.”
Larson’s resume alone makes her an attractive candidate. In addition to being a city councilor, she’s a commissioner for the Duluth Economic Development Authority; she has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota Duluth; she has worked to help homeless families and families at risk of homelessness; and she’s a small-business owner, consulting with nonprofits and helping them to be more effective.
Larson recognizes that the city’s $5 monthly fee for street repairs is hugely unpopular. At the same time it doesn’t raise nearly enough money to complete the street repairs that ought to get done every year. So let’s make sure a fair amount of the work done by St. Louis County, paid for via its new sales tax, happens in Duluth, she said. And let’s lobby the state to finally pass a transportation budget so state highways in Duluth are taken care of, too. And then let’s talk — really talk — about how to pay for street and infrastructure improvements in Duluth.
“I know (the city’s) budget. I can tell you we can find some money. But to talk about finding the millions of dollars that we need: it’s not going to happen in this budget,” Larson said. “We can probably find a few hundred thousand.
“Cities and citizens and residents are absorbing the disinvestments at the state and federal level. That’s the reality,” she continued. “The frustration in part is because people haven’t been included in the discussion. So … let’s open it up. Let’s open up the budget. Let me show you what we have. Let me show you what we can move. For example, lots of people erroneously think tourism dollars can be used for roads.” Let’s get educated and then really talk and prioritize.
Last year Larson was a leader of a study that determined Duluth’s downtown public library needs tens of millions of dollars worth of work or needs to be replaced. When it quickly became clear there wasn’t public support for such an outlay, Larson showed true leadership by stepping back. Don’t do anything about the library until a long-term strategy for fixing the streets is in place, she said.
“I believe, I sincerely believe that the momentum that we’ve seen in Duluth is important. It’s transformational. It’s changing the narrative,” Larson said. “And I sincerely believe that we have to be very intentional about how we move forward.”
After Larson, the most likely candidates to emerge from the Sept. 15 primary to advance to Election Day Nov. 3 are Howie Hanson and Chuck Horton. That doesn’t mean either should emerge, however. Voters have a better choice we’ll get to in a bit.
Like Larson, Hanson is a city councilor. But he won his seat by default in 2013 when the incumbent landed a new job, moved away from Duluth, dropped out of the race — and still won 38 percent of the vote. Hanson is a real estate investor and longtime blogger dogged by repeated plagiarism offenses.
While he has performed adequately as a city councilor, and while it would be difficult to question his passion or commitment to Duluth, his idea for bottling and selling water from Lake Superior likely doesn’t jibe with federal and international laws that prohibit water diversions from the Great Lakes. And his proposal for a city-run casino seems similarly unrealistic and out of touch.
In addition, in an interview with editorial board members, Hanson complained about the city’s “wild spending on social programs.” But when pressed, he wasn’t able to name any that should be defunded. In fact, he said that, “There isn’t a lot of city money that’s being thrown out there for social programs.” That sort of contradiction can cause concern.
“I love to build community. As a businessman, I bring a real strong fiscal approach to it, to government,” Hanson said. “With an ear to the ground, I really like hearing about new projects. Economic development has really been my passion all these years.”
Horton is an Army veteran who talked openly with the editorial board about his anger issues and trust issues in the wake of serving in Iraq. Horton also is a longtime and well-known boxing coach and boxing promoter in Duluth.
While his military service can be appreciated and while his work to help troubled kids through boxing is admirable, his doomsday campaign of negativity and fear this summer can be a concern to voters. Duluth city leaders and residents alike can heed his warnings about crime and drugs, but the entirely new direction Horton promises for the city and for City Hall would be wrongheaded and lead to an unraveling of the good accomplished in recent years.
“I am so different than everybody in this race,” Horton said. “Born and raised here. Spent some time in the military. Know about leadership. Ran a business. And I’m the kind of guy that can get things done. And it’s not going to be the usual suspects in office. The kids in this town, guys, really need some leadership. We’re disappointing them. We’re wasting money when we should be putting that into our parks and rec. … We’ve turned our back on certain sides or parts of this town. When I grew up, Duluth didn’t have so much of the haves and have-nots.”
So who should voters select with Larson to move on to Election Day?
James Mattson is the everyday choice, the common-sense, straight-shooter, he’ll-watch-the-purse-strings-like-a-hawk choice. He’s a father figure who’s literally a father. He has two grown kids. He’s a grandpa. And talk about someone who commits to what he loves: Mattson has been married 37 years. And be assured, he loves Duluth, his lifelong home.
“I just want to bring a common sense-type theme to politics in Duluth,” he told the editorial board. “I don’t know if it’s just me or if I’m looking at it wrong, but it seems administration after administration after administration, it’s all the same. They all do the same things. They spend money they don’t have. They tax people to death. They put fees on your utility bills. And I just don’t understand that. … I just want to try to change that, try to make some decisions, try to make some changes in the city that probably won’t be popular. But that’s what I want to do.”
Mattson works in the service department for a local car dealership. He’s a political outsider — in a good way.
If elected, he’ll work to attract an auto assembly line, a computer board company, a manufacturing company that uses precious metals or some other industries (he has lots of ideas) to give Duluth more good-paying jobs. Then, he said, young people not only can be educated here; they make their lives here and prosper here.
Mattson also wants to cut taxes and city fees. To absorb the loss in revenue to the city he’d do away with overtime and require city workers to drive their own cars and pay them mileage.
Mattson was asked why voters should support him.
“I work 40 hours a week. I consider myself a working-class guy,” he said. “Maybe a blue-collar mayor (is just what Duluth needs right now).”
Plus, Mattson added, “I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.”
Maybe not. But if he campaigned just a bit harder and took the race just a bit more seriously, voters could reward him by talking about the issues he considers important, the practical, everyday issues we all ought to consider important. And they could advance him with Larson from the Sept. 15 primary to Election Day on Nov. 3.