Voters in the state’s fifth-largest city chose a slate of new leaders in Tuesday’s election, including the city’s first woman mayor, as most incumbents in Duluth chose to step down rather than run for re-election.
Mayor-elect Emily Larson, a former social worker who serves as Duluth’s City Council president, swept the mayoral race with 72 percent of votes cast and a majority in each of the city’s 34 precincts to defeat local businessman Chuck Horton.
Larson will replace Don Ness, who announced last year that he would leave office after finishing his second term.
“It feels really good,” Larson said Wednesday of her victory. Street and infrastructure repair, housing issues and connecting neighborhoods across the lakeside city will be her priorities, she said.
Larson will take office as more new faces appear at the City Council, which saw four new members elected. By the time January inaugurations come around, just one of the council’s nine members — Jay Fosle — will have served longer than two years.
Larson inherits a city invigorated by Ness. Duluth saw its population of 20-somethings surge in recent years as it remade itself from a down-on-its-luck patch of tired neighborhoods to an up-and-coming mecca of outdoor life, craft beer and mountain bike trails. Its reputation rose as Outside magazine called it a “Best Town” last year and Lonely Planet travel guides named it a top 10 U.S. destination. Now, said Larson, Duluth will have to pivot to keep those young people around as they move into homes and start families.
Despite the city’s popularity among millennials, Duluth’s population of about 86,000 hasn’t changed much since the 1990 census.
Larson, who serves as a commissioner for the Duluth Economic Development Authority, said she expects to see some growth in tourism, but expects more economic development from manufacturing, industrial development and the city’s role as a regional hub and international port. The city has some $2 billion in construction projects in the pipeline, she said.
Still, the city hasn’t fully recovered from the recession, measuring slower jobs growth than most other major Minnesota cities.
Larson campaigned on economic development, and said Wednesday that her vision includes the health and welfare of local residents, some of whom are struggling. “How do we continue growth in our city and make sure everyone is a part of it?” she said.
Larson, 42, was born in St. Paul and moved to Duluth at 17 to attend the College of St. Scholastica, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. She said she fell in love with the city soon after arriving.
“I feel like the city chose me,” she said.
In addition to serving on the City Council, Larson is a member of several local boards.
Her husband, Doug Zaun, is a local architect. They have two sons, ages 12 and 15. On her campaign website, Larson called herself a trail runner and “full-time admirer of Lake Superior.”
She spent $60,000 to $65,000 on her campaign, she estimated Wednesday.
Fresh City Council
The elections also saw victories for new City Council candidates Gary Anderson, Em Westerlund, Noah Hobbs and Elissa Hansen along with incumbents Fosle and Joel Sipress.
Sipress ran unopposed; he’s already served two years on the council since being appointed in 2014 to fill an empty seat.
“I’m actually really excited about the new energy that will be coming on the new council,” Sipress said.
He praised Ness for putting the city on sound financial footing. The city’s new economy includes the aerospace sector, niche manufacturing, professional employment and creative professions along with tourism, said Sipress. The challenge ahead will be ensuring that everyone in Duluth shares in the city’s economic recovery, he said.
Ness, who often shares thoughts with his constituents via Facebook, posted a message of congratulations to the newcomers, saying he was “absolutely thrilled” for Larson. “Nice job, Duluth. You’ve made some excellent choices,” he wrote.