Emily Larson downed a big swig of homemade protein shake from an old spaghetti sauce jar and got ready to make her pitch.
It’s never easy to ask people for money. Yet here she was, not yet halfway through her first term as mayor, urging voters to raise the city sales tax a half percent for something as mundane as road maintenance.
“This is not a perfect solution,” she plainly told a group of business leaders, a refrain she repeated in more than 20 meetings throughout this city. But after considering every other option she could find to fix the city’s notoriously bad streets, “this was the plan that felt like the most equitable one to me, and you will let me know if you agree.”
Weeks later, nearly 77 percent of voters who showed up at the polls approved.
Whether the overwhelming support was an endorsement of the mayor’s solution or more of a sign that Duluthians were fed up with crumbling streets, Larson’s supporters and even some critics considered it a triumph for a relative political newcomer and someone seen as a rising star.
“She’s a young woman and she is just getting started politically,” said Don Ness, a friend and her popular mayoral predecessor. “The sky is the limit in terms of her potential.”
Larson’s enthusiasm and ability to communicate well have been praised even by those on the opposite side of her liberal leanings.
“I think even when people disagree with her, they at least appreciate the fact that she’s willing to speak out and come to functions and be out there,” said conservative radio host Brad Bennett, who credits Larson for showing up in places — including his radio show — and talking to people likely to challenge her.
Added Ness, who lauded Larson’s “fearlessness” to engage in difficult conversations: “Most often what I see is when people leave those conversations, even if the end result isn’t what they wanted, they know that they’ve been heard.”
Tackling sticky issues
Soon after taking office in January 2016, Larson mended a rift with a nearby American Indian tribe over casino revenue sharing. In addition to her sales-tax-for-streets pitch, she supported a water rate increase to start replacing the city’s aging water pipes. Not long ago, she proposed a budget that cut city departments by $2 million — 2.5 percent — and increased property taxes by 4 percent.
Larson has also vowed to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by buying into a solar garden and endorsing a project to burn natural gas instead of coal in the city’s steam plant for seven months. She’s also trying to fight the opioid crisis and working to forge greater equity among disparate Duluth neighborhoods.
Improving streets and water pipes is part of the natural progression of what the city needs now, Larson says, after Ness helped transform Duluth’s image from industrial relic to burgeoning jewel of tourism, outdoor amenities and craft businesses.
But she understands that there will be bumps.
While voters signed off on her sales-tax-for-streets idea, final approval at the Legislature could be derailed if Duluth business leaders decide to fight it. In recent months, the business community has been at odds with City Council members over a proposal to mandate that Duluth employers give workers paid sick time, calling it part of an onerous government intrusion.
The debate turned into a kerfuffle after the local Chamber of Commerce president raised the possibility of businesses withholding support of the sales tax as leverage against the proposed “sick and safe time” policy, according to a Duluth News Tribune editorial.
Larson took offense, calling it a “threat” on Facebook.
“I won’t take the bait,” she wrote. “Because all or nothing strategies like this always backfire and we are better than this outdated political playbook here in Duluth.”
In a statement to the Star Tribune, chamber President David Ross described concern about rising taxes in Duluth, which already has the highest sales tax in the state. The chamber has “appealed to” City Council members and the mayor on the sick leave issue, he wrote, though “it remains to be seen if they will listen to and respect the consistent feedback we are providing them.”
Greater Downtown Council President Kristi Stokes, who praised Larson for hearing people out even when they don’t agree, said she is hopeful the mayor can “help build some consensus ... that we can find something that can address all sides.”
Larson, meanwhile, said she anticipates a policy with compromise: “Something ... that can really work both for this community and our business owners and our workers.”
Larson never dreamed she would end up as mayor of this Lake Superior port city of 86,000 people.
Growing up in St. Paul in a household where current events were discussed at the table, she visited Duluth as a child on the only big family vacation she can remember before her parents divorced. She returned for college at St. Scholastica and never left.
“I was home,” she said. “I just knew it.”
She majored in social work, then practiced in the field for a dozen years before getting a master’s degree and opening her own business consulting with nonprofits. She married architect Doug Zaun and worked on some campaigns as the couple raised two sons.
She remembers lamenting to her husband one evening in 2010 that she was struggling to recruit an ideal candidate for an at-large seat on the Duluth City Council. She was thinking it should be a woman under 40 who had kids in the school system, someone who had strong values about people but also understood business.
Zaun, cooking dinner in their Hillside neighborhood house, stopped and looked at her: “You’re kidding, right?”
Larson had always brushed off suggestions that she run for office. But if she wasn’t willing, she decided, she couldn’t expect anyone else to do it.
She won the council seat the following year with 72 percent of the vote.
An extrovert with a facility for words, she quickly learned she was also a natural campaigner and leader. When Ness declined to run for a third term in 2015, she decided to run for that, too. Again, she won with 72 percent of the vote.
As mayor, Larson, 44, rises early, often going for a run or ski on the city’s miles of rustic trails. And every day before work, she peers at the big lake from her sunroom windows.
“I can’t believe I get to live here and I can’t believe I get to have this job,” she says she reminds herself.
Larson oozes enthusiasm, often offering encouragements such as “Love it!” and “Great!”
Stopping at the Zenith Bookstore, which opened in July, she discussed the owners’ thoughts on murals and community gardens. “Love it!” she said. “Thanks for being here and choosing Duluth!”
Later, driving her Pontiac to a meeting to promote civility, she cited entrenched attitudes in the city: that blue-collar West Duluth neighborhoods have been long neglected while the city poured money into the more affluent East Side.
“There’s both some accuracy to it, but there’s a lot of perception to it,” she said.
She goes to the west side whenever she can, she says, and has made it a priority to improve health and livability in the struggling Lincoln Park neighborhood by upgrading parks and investing in housing and business loan programs.
“We’re still rebuilding trust,” she said. “Showing up is one of the ways you do that.”
She also visits different neighborhoods every month for “city hall in the city” meetings, giving residents a chance to speak to her about anything.
But in a city known for its liberal politics, some observers are skeptical that much will change overall.
Former City Council Member Russ Stewart, who teaches philosophy at Lake Superior College and is a former business owner, called Larson a “compliant figurehead” for an “entrenched, powerful, left-leaning elite in Duluth.”
He said the mayor and most council members “lack a basic understanding of the lives of average working people and instead take their cues from politically motivated nonprofits, unions, and activist groups.”
While campaigning for mayor, Larson didn’t emphasize that if she won, she would become the city’s first female in that role. “I felt strongly about running on merits that weren’t exclusive to gender,” she said.
But she fielded gender-tinged questions, she said. Still does.
“Who’s going to take care of your kids?” people asked when she knocked on doors.
The historic significance of her victory didn’t hit her, she said, until she saw women tear up on election night: “All of a sudden, I was like, ‘Wow ... that’s a good, healthy thing to see in this community.’ ”
Once the primary working caregiver for the couple’s sons, now 17 and 14, she and Zaun flipped roles when she became mayor. Now, he takes the lead in parenting, balancing it with running his business.
Another question Larson is getting used to: Does she have higher political aspirations?
“I’m just getting started in this work. I’ve got a lot I want to do and I feel really committed to seeing that through,” she said. “If doing that leads to something else, that could be fine. But I’ve never, ever been a fan of this approach that you map it out and then make decisions based on that map.”
Stewart called it “obvious” that Larson is being groomed for higher office, backed by unions, activist groups and others.
But Ness, who once tweeted that Larson could be the governor’s pick to replace Al Franken in the U.S. Senate, calls her “one of the most naturally talented elected officials I know.”
“It’s a combination of positive energy, of self confidence, of an emotional intelligence and empathy that allows her to connect with people in this very natural and authentic way,” Ness said.
Bennett, the radio host, also anticipates a political future for Larson: “Especially if she proves that she can get things done with limited resources and work with both sides of an issue like she has so far, I think she has the potential to do bigger and better things.”