After two terms, Duluth’s “boy mayor” is leaving the job he has seemed born to, with a successor to be elected Tuesday. He spoke Wednesday to the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce at Hamline University about his approach to politics and governance — the subject of his new book, “Hillsider.”
At age 33, Ness was elected to his first mayoral term in 2007 from among a dozen candidates, including the incumbent. Four years later, he ran unopposed.
Ness’s task as mayor, as he saw it, amounted to more than running a city. When he took office in 2008, he said, Duluth was “stuck in this mire” of underachievement, “on the bleeding edge” of the looming Great Recession. He felt that as a more confident city, “Duluth just might fulfill its potential.”
Inspired by the business bestseller “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and his own motto “Own it, solve it, take pride,” Ness told of three challenges he faced as mayor to which he applied his tough but optimistic approach: mounting health care obligations for retired city employees, a sanitary sewer system that frequently overflowed into Lake Superior, and a city government culture where he “felt bombarded with negativity on a regular basis.”
The city’s financial house is in much improved order, in Ness’ assessment, with a wave of investment by private developers unmatched since the 1950s.
“In previous economic cycles, Duluth has never been on the front end,” he said. “We’ve always been on the back end of the cycle. And then people start looking at Duluth just as the economy is going into its next recession and they say, ‘Oh boy, we missed our window.’ … This feels different in Duluth.”
In attendance at Ness’s chamber talk was Brian Harvey, a former news director at KDAL-AM in Duluth and now market manager with Zipcar in the Twin Cities. He served as campaign manager for Ness’ City Council re-election campaign in 2003.
In an interview, Harvey said he got to know Ness through the Bridge Syndicate, a group for young professionals the city councilor organized to network and celebrate Duluth. Harvey sees that effort by the Bridge Syndicate as having been “crucial to the long-term viability of the community.” Ness writes in “Hillsider” that the group membership rose from 10 to 500 in one year.
Is Ness an “introvert” as he describes himself? “I wouldn’t have described him that way,” Harvey said. But in waging a political fight, he said, Ness wouldn’t take a hard shot or go for an opponent’s throat. “He’s too genuine.”
An audience member linked the priorities in Ness’s Twitter bio (“husband, dad, mayor—in that order”) to Vice President Joe Biden putting his mourning for his son Beau before a potential bid for the presidency and Rep. Paul Ryan’s reluctance at running for speaker of the U.S. House because of time away from family. She then asked Ness if those moves signaled a “new message from male politicians.”
“Work-life balance is more important. The advice I was getting coming into that office,” Ness said, was, “‘You have to say yes to every single event. You have to be present because that’s what people expect.’
“Mayors get invited to everything. … I’m not going to go to those events unless my presence is important. … My family comes first. I’m going to put in those very intense days, but come 5 o’clock on most days, I want to be home to have dinner with my family and put the kids to bed.”
“[There is] so much wasted time and energy in most politicians’ day to day lives,” he continued, saying he preferred “trusting that the public will actually see the tangible results and put value there, rather than [my] trying to craft a message and feeling that I need to convince the public that I’m actually doing stuff, but meanwhile you’re just spinning in political worlds.
“I do think that that is an encouraging trend,” he said. “I think that as politicians become more grounded in their families they actually deliver better service to their constituents.”
Family and a healthy attention to his personal life permeates Ness’ “Hillsider.” The book, self-published using a Kickstarter campaign, employs an unusual scrapbook style, with an episodic text sprinkled amid a deluge of photos from throughout his career.
In the book, Ness charts his growth as a politician from early thoughts jotted in a notebook (“Duluth is at a crossroads. … We need leadership uncorrupted by cynicism—instead motivated by idealism”) through his decision to transition from Donny to Don and his rise to mayor.
Throughout the narrative, the DFLer displays a common touch. But he also pays tribute to role models in politics. He calls the late state Sen. Sam Solon “my most valued and important political mentor.” Ness and his wife, Laura, first bonded in the aftermath of the plane crash that killed U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, whom he describes as “a whirlwind of passion, generosity and incorruptible conscience.” He recalls how after a series of mishaps in his first day as campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, the congressman said, “I’m proud of you.”
Says Ness: “That one moment of grace made me loyal to Jim for a lifetime.”
Oberstar’s defeat in 2010 “hit me hard,” Ness writes, and he grappled with the question of whether to run for his own re-election in 2011. But he rallied by focusing on the tasks at hand: “I loved the work of being mayor: studying policy issues, crafting the city’s annual budget, and helping constituents solve problems.”
Ness acknowledges at the end of “Hillsider” that his decision late in 2014 not to seek a third term “doesn’t seem to make any sense.” But he told his St. Paul audience he felt he had tackled the city’s challenges most tailored to his talents, and what lies ahead for Duluth is better suited to someone else’s special abilities.
“I feel really good about stepping out with … momentum for our city and a clear direction,” he said, warning that a delayed departure from office can be hazardous to one’s legacy of accomplishments.
“The moment in a political life that you wait too long, then the next person is going to be somebody that goes in the complete opposite direction,” he said. “I felt pretty certain that we could have had success in the next four years, but at the end of those four years, people would want somebody completely different than Ness. And then that next person would unravel what we’ve done.”
Ness said hopes to “hand off the baton” to Emily Larson, who he predicted will defeat Chuck Horton in Duluth’s election for mayor on Tuesday. “She has a skill set that is different than mine. She has the same kind of direction that I have.”