If more politicians were like Duluth’s Don Ness, I’d wager, more millennial-generation Minnesotans would enjoy politics. And fewer boomers would fret about the direction democracy will take this state in their declining years.
Those are among several reasons it’s a bummer to feature Ness in my almost-annual year-end farewell to politicians exiting the public arena. At the still-tender age of 41 and after only two terms, the Duluth mayor whom one blogger dubbed “the hipster king of the Zenith City” is leaving elective office on Jan. 4. True to hipster form, his final mayoral address was the finale of a “Thank You Duluth” concert on Dec. 16.
Ness will be succeeded by City Council President Emily Larson, an engaging personality who may nevertheless struggle to emerge from her popular predecessor’s shadow. (She could commiserate about that with Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.)
Ness hasn’t yet said what he intends to do next, though an announcement may be imminent. That leads to another reason I hate to see him go: I fear he could be drawn to political punditry. He’d be tough competition.
That’s evident from Ness’ new book, “Hillsider: Snapshots of an Unusual Political Journey.” It’s a life story, photo album, political commentary and love letter to Duluth, rolled into one self-published volume. A reader doesn’t have to be a political insider to get a kick out of it. In fact, political insiders might feel a mite wounded by the kicks it gives them.
Take this, for instance: “So much of politics is just aggressive theater, blunt-force tactics designed to bolster narrow self-interests, and embarrassing displays of power that emphasize rhetorical weaponry over process.” Or this description of government: “…an expensive, winner-take-all auction for political power and influence” in which “political strategists, lobbyists, industries, consultants, and the media all get filthy rich from the anti-democratic idea that politics is about rewarding people you like and punishing people you dislike.”
The millennials I know voice much the same criticism, though not as eloquently. Too many of them delivered their critique tacitly in 2014 by not voting.
Only 19.9 percent of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds voted last year, the lowest share ever recorded and down from 24 percent in 2010, the last presidential midterm election.
I’d call that meager turnout a squandered opportunity for what is now the largest living generational cohort in the country. The 18- to 34-year-old millennials overtook us boomers (ages 51 to 69) this year, the U.S. Census Bureau projects. They’ve got the numerical heft to change American politics, if they care enough to try.
I’m here to tell young civics cynics that while Ness may share their assessment of America’s political defects, he isn’t going away disgusted. He assured me earlier this month that while he has “never enjoyed politics for its own sake,” he has spent nearly his entire adult life in that arena because he found serving his hometown “tremendously rewarding. It’s been a real honor to go to work every day and try to make Duluth a better place. I encourage folks to take that on.”
What’s more, he thinks political change for the better is possible. For the last eight years, he’s tried to illustrate how, as a DFLer who refused to be “a partisan warrior” and sought ways to work across party lines.
“I think of my time in public life almost as an experiment. Can you commit to a different brand of politics and be successful?” he said. “I’ve seen that at the local level: You can take a soft-sell approach, build trust, project a sincere effort to do well, be vulnerable to criticism, and it can be seen and understood by residents.”
It was understood so well that Ness won his second term in 2011 without opposition — even after reducing health benefits for retired city employees and imposing unpopular cuts at City Hall to weather the 2008-11 economic storm. He and his city were tested by a major flood in June 2012 and emerged stronger still.
He did so in part by performing well a portion of a politician’s job description that many 2016 presidential candidates seem to have overlooked. Ness tells Duluthians often how wonderful their city is. He urges people to feel proud of their place and confident about its future. His slogan wasn’t “Make Duluth great again,” a la Donald Trump, with implicit criticism of the status quo. It was “We believe in Duluth’s future,” the 2007 motto that he wanted on his campaign lawn signs with no mention of his name. (His campaign committee talked him out of taking modesty that far.)
So why is he leaving office? Ness said the work he set out to do as mayor is largely done. Run for Congress or governor in a few years? He discourages such talk. “When I try to project the model I used in Duluth to the state or national level, it falls apart. The simplicity of the blunt-force rhetoric the parties use doesn’t allow for a soft-sell approach. It gets chewed up and spit out before the average person gets a chance to form an opinion about it.”
But he’s been thinking about the millennial generation’s opportunity to change the way the American political game is played.
“It may be that an important part of the evolution of this generation of Americans is their rejection of the politics we see today on the national stage,” he mused. “Their rejection could be the basis for a different political movement. It’s the very nature of this generation to be collaborative, community-minded, more focused on common values than ideological battles. They see that what we have now is destructive and divisive and moving us away from solutions.
“If we can find leaders within the millennial generation who can speak to the need to get back to governing the nation, this can be the generation that saves America.”
Whatever Ness does next, I hope recruiting and inspiring leaders among the next generation of Minnesotans is part of his gig.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.