ADVERTISEMENT

Evidence of the heavy rains that disabled Duluth earlier this summer.

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

In turmoil, a modern Duluth is emerging

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • August 25, 2012 - 7:04 PM

Duluth, you had quite a week.

Seldom does Minnesota's entire governing establishment focus on one city as intently as it did last week on Duluth. The city by the big lake that was shocked and ravaged by a flood in June was shocked and outraged by the conduct of one of its legislators in July.

Last week came a denouement of sorts for both the flood and the errant legislator, DFL Rep. Kerry Gauthier.

Gauthier announced Wednesday that he's out of elective politics, a few hours after announcing that he would stay in. Apparently the unanimous chorus of disapproval from DFL officialdom finally swelled loud enough to jar him into political reality.

He stayed away from the Capitol as a special session considered a flood-relief package for his district -- thereby depriving the proceedings of the prurient sideshow his appearance was bound to create. Action on the flood-relief bill is pending at this writing, but the skids appear greased in Duluth's favor.

The state's largesse ought to help replace flooded furnaces, buy up lots deemed no longer habitable, rebuild damaged sewers, shore up eroded roadbeds and generally keep FEMA dollars flowing.

It might also take some of the edge off the anger that reportedly has been the dominant feeling among west Duluthians toward their state representative as his late-night activities of July 22 became known.

But not all of it.

The anger Gauthier's constituents feel is only partially connected to the city's needy post-flood condition, my sources whispered. Yes, people were annoyed that just when Duluth needed all legislative hands on deck at the Capitol, the member from 7B was AWOL. "His effectiveness is totally wiped out," a Duluth City Hall denizen said in disgust.

But Greater Duluth has other legislators and local officials to pick up the advocacy slack. Any claim that the city suffered because it was one voice short in St. Paul last week likely won't withstand fair-minded scrutiny.

More galling to many was Gauthier's Craigslist solicitation for sex at a highway rest stop -- with a 17-year-old boy. Gauthier is 56.

Every parent who has, once had or will have a 17-year-old with Internet access -- male or female -- recoils at those details. State Rep. Tom Huntley from neighboring District 7A spoke for many when he called Gauthier a "child molester."

The fact that Duluthians were sputtering about the age gap between the two trysters at Thompson Hill -- and not the fact that they are both male -- is worth noting. It says something positive about Duluth's evolution in recent years.

Last year, the Duluth City Council was the first in the state to go on record opposing the same-sex-marriage ban on state ballots this Nov. 6.

Instrumental in pushing that resolution was the openly gay City Council president: Jeff Anderson, 35, who went on to carry St. Louis County and all but three precincts in Duluth as he lost the DFL Eighth District congressional primary to Rick Nolan on Aug. 14.

Largely lost amid last week's other kerfuffle was news of the opening earlier this summer of Duluth's first gay bar, the Flame Nightclub. "Of course we welcome this business to Duluth," Mayor Don Ness told the News Tribune. "I'd like to think that as a community we are beyond making an issue of whether or not it's a gay bar."

Generational change has come in recent years to Duluth's leadership, and with it, new thinking about the value of human capital and diversity.

Ness, 38, is an eloquent exponent of Duluth's getting "beyond" its economic roots as an industrial Great Lakes port to be a destination for tourism, aviation, higher education, health care and technology. His inclusive, communicative leadership style in the wake of the flood has won him considerable praise.

State Sen. Roger Reinert, 42, has emerged as a leading advocate for Duluth at the Capitol. He's worked hard to update the image of his city harbored by other state leaders.

Rather than pleading for state aid from a position of civic weakness, Ness and Reinert asked state government for aid to help ensure that one bad rainy day won't slow a vital economic engine.

If Gauthier hadn't wandered into the bushes on July 22, the human story attached to the special session likely would have been about Duluth's impressive crop of new leaders.

It's important to those leaders now that last week's news about the District 7B representative not be misinterpreted as a spasm of homophobia. They understand the economic and cultural value in what Anderson called "being a welcoming community."

As Reinert put it, "We're not your grandparents' Duluth."

Gauthier's bad behavior likely traces to his lifelong habit of hiding his sexual orientation. Today's Duluth leaders want young GLBT Duluthians to feel no need to hide.

------------------------------------------

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

© 2014 Star Tribune