Duluth Mayor Don Ness signaled to an audience member to ask a question during a press conference for the new Miracle Field in Lincoln Park.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness signaled to an audience member to ask a question during a press conference for the new Miracle Field in Lincoln Park. Howie Hanson / For StarTribune.com

In 2007, there were 12 candidates running for mayor of Duluth including the incumbent. After filings closed on July 19 of this year, there was only one candidate, Mayor Don Ness.

It marks the first time since Duluth was incorporated in 1887 that there will not be a contested race for mayor. Duluth has a long history of competitive and contentious local elections, and it’s not unusual for anywhere from 3 to 11 candidates to challenge the incumbent.

So what's different this year?

For one, a recent National Citizen Survey showed Ness has an 86-percent job approval rating. It’s a remarkable number considering the animosity directed at politicians and incumbents at all levels of government these days.

It’s also worth noting that the approval rating has come on the heels of very challenging times in the city of Duluth. Over the past four years Ness has cut popular services, reduced retiree benefits, raised taxes, challenged city unions, and had five different chief administrative officers in the first two years of his first term. Any one of those issues could have derailed a re-election campaign.

Ness has called himself a “lousy politician” because he prefers to work on administrative matters rather than make public appearances. As a young father of three, he often declines invitations for speaking roles in order to be home with his wife and kids. He is introverted, serious, and many would say awkward in social situations.

Not necessarily the model for electoral success.

"I have tremendous staff, (and) our success is based on the talents and determination of our employees who decided to take full ownership of our biggest problems and then solved them," Ness said of his approval rating. "We decided to be brutally honest with our residents and trusted that they would understand and support decisions that they didn't like, but deep down, they knew were necessary.

"As Americans we have become so accustomed to be lied to and pandered to that most politicians don't believe citizens are capable of accepting the truth. If I've been successful, it’s because I decided to trust that citizens would support our efforts to make tough, painful, and structural changes to how we do business in Duluth."

Many have assumed that Ness will run for higher office, but he has rejected the prospect of running for Congress in 2012.

"I love being mayor because I can see a problem, craft a solution, and implement it in a very short period of time," said Ness. "I'm fed up with politics in DC and unfortunately that sort of cynical, partisan, power-driven politics has infected our state capitol. Sure, I'm ambitious; I want to help make Duluth one of the great mid-sized cities in America. I've gladly given up any higher office ambitions to focus all of my energies to that goal."

There is something special happening in Duluth these days. There is a sense of optimism, confidence and pride that has been missing for decades.

By solving some of the biggest issues facing the city, Ness has had a role in that success. But he is quick to deflect the praise.

"This is a success story for the whole city, I'm just playing one small role," said Ness. "It’s really about the private sector creating jobs, a new generation of entrepreneurs competing world-wide, an authentic and crazy-talented arts and music community, and residents who have chosen Duluth because they want to live in a city with a sense of place that reflects their values.

"We're not interested in a zero-sum competition with other regional centers in Minnesota. Our sights are set on competing nationwide with dynamic, progressive cities such as Boulder, Asheville and Burlington. We want all of Minnesota to be proud of Duluth."

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