GRAND MARAIS, MINN. – In an era of often overheated political clashes, something surprising happened during a candidate forum in this tiny city on the shores of Lake Superior.
Asked why voters should elect them mayor, candidates Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux and Kelly Swearingen each gushed about their rival.
“I feel like the people of Grand Marais have really great options here,” said Arrowsmith DeCoux, a local bed-and-breakfast owner who has held the office for the past six years.
Countered Swearingen, a Grand Marais City Council member: “If I’m the person that people choose, I’m going to work really hard. But I know that Jay is as well.”
As election acrimony hits full steam throughout a deeply divided nation, the mayoral race in this town of 1,300 shows a decidedly different political tack: congeniality among candidates who respect each other and get along. They give joint media interviews and both danced via Zoom during sound check before the forum hosted by WTIP, the community radio station.
“It’s refreshing,” said Joe Friedrichs, the station’s news director. “If Biden and Trump were to say, ‘No matter who wins, we’re going to be fine,’ that’d be the exact opposite of what we hear when we watch the candidates debate on prime-time TV.”
That’s not to say there aren’t tensions in town. Some locals question why Swearingen challenged Arrowsmith DeCoux when she still has two years left in her council term.
“Jay has been doing an absolutely phenomenal job as mayor,” Rebecca Stoner said at the city’s Whole Foods Co-op. “He’s brilliant. He understands our county and our community.”
Others say they think Swearingen has more historical context that will help her prioritize the needs of folks living in Grand Marais year-round. Unlike Arrowsmith DeCoux, who moved to the city a decade ago, Swearingen was born and raised in the lakeside town that draws summer vacationers from across Minnesota (and she’s held the girls’ shot-put record at Cook County High School for more than 30 years).
“I think Kelly has a little more heart when it comes to the people who live here,” Anna Hamilton said as she transferred groceries into her car outside Johnson’s Foods. “She doesn’t hold the tourism as much of a priority over the local people.”
But despite any boiling frustrations among voters, the candidates can’t seem to help but compliment each other.
In an interview, Arrowsmith DeCoux remarked that Swearingen’s accounting background and management experience have been great assets to the council. Swearingen called Arrowsmith DeCoux a policy whiz whose research skills have helped her learn about various issues.
“Having those differences and strengths is what makes our council work,” Arrowsmith DeCoux said.
He got to know Swearingen after she joined the council in 2018. The governing body consists of four members plus the mayor, who participates in council votes but also has the ability to direct agendas and make proclamations.
Swearingen said she made a last-minute decision to run for mayor over the summer because she wants to focus on some different priorities, like evaluating the city’s personnel and staffing structure and building Grand Marais’ relationship with the county. Her pink and purple signs are sprinkled through yards in the city, but the candidates have otherwise done little campaigning.
“It’s not like I think what Jay’s doing is wrong or what I’d like to do is right,” she said. “I just have a different avenue I would like to follow.”
Arrowsmith DeCoux said he’s been focusing more on a climate action plan for Grand Marais, Indigenous land acknowledgments and modernizing the city code. Both candidates consider housing and infrastructure to be highly important issues for the city, and they’ve only ever disagreed on a handful of council votes.
If Arrowsmith DeCoux is reelected, Swearingen said she’ll gladly continue to serve out her council term. If Swearingen wins, Arrowsmith DeCoux said he’ll give her a COVID-friendly elbow bump and enjoy spending more time with his family.
“I am excited to be running against someone that I respect and believe is an intelligent, dedicated person,” Arrowsmith DeCoux posted on Facebook last month. “With that said, whether you vote for me or for her, PLEASE GET OUT AND VOTE!”