Don Ness came to Duluth City Hall as a councilor at age 25. In January, at age 41, he'll leave his second term as mayor to pursue a career outside of politics. The only mayor to run unopposed in the city's history four years ago, he is widely credited with helping to steer positive changes in Duluth. We sat down with Ness in mid-August. The conversation is edited for space:
Q: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
A: I feel fortunate to have been in this office at a time that Duluth has kind of embraced its strengths and its confidence and optimism that hasn't been there in the past.
Probably the thing that I'm most proud of in terms of my role within this is that we had a lot of legacy problems hanging over our city that were contributing to that more pessimistic view of what Duluth was about: The retiree health care problem that threatened to bankrupt the city and the failure of our sanitary sewer system that resulted in overflows into the lake, and these really kind of embarrassing problems — kind of persistent budget deficits hanging over our city.
A smart business person is not going to invest in a community in which the narrative is about eventual bankruptcy. So by fixing those issues and removing those as barriers, then what we've seen is the private sector has responded by making these investments.
Q: What do you wish you could do over, or do differently?
A: In my last months here, I was anticipating that I would finally feel that sense of completion and feeling like, "all right I've done what I could and now I'm ready to transition out." And I'm just feeling, over and over again, this sense of regret about wishing I could have done more, or addressed this issue or, you know, found a way to fix some of the existing problems. Because the work isn't done.
Q: What are some of those tasks that eat away at you?
A: The street infrastructure issue, one that is a significant problem. There's all sorts of reasons why it has proven more challenging, and yet that was an issue that, for the long-term health of our city, we need to fix, and I haven't done that.
And then a lot of it is just the smaller pieces. I think back to what my intent was eight years ago in entering office. What I had hoped to be able to accomplish or spend most of my time on is bringing innovation to government. I think we've been able to do some of that, but not nearly as much as I was hoping for.
Q: What are the challenges going forward?
A: I think the age of our infrastructure. The challenge of sustaining that and looking for new ways to create that sense of enthusiasm for the next project.
The positive thing for this approach is that it is the reinvestment into what exists that has been the core of the success, which I think is a much more sustainable approach to investing in a community, rather than the continued outward suburban growth.
Q: What's next for you? You haven't said.
A: I haven't said because I don't know. Before right now, it has felt too early to give a lot of thought and attention to my next role, feeling that it would both be a distraction to the job that I still have in front of me and probably not fair to whatever the next organization is. I'm really interested in the challenge of being in the private sector and doing something more entrepreneurial … and [where] I can employ more creativity on a day-to-day basis.
Q: No more politics ever?
A: I need time away from politics because in the past I had a lot more patience for it. I didn't enjoy some of the political games or the positioning, but I understood it, and I was able to kind of find interesting ways to counter the conventional way of approaching politics. I think by taking a step away I'll also have a much clearer sense of whether or not I really have enjoyed public life, if I miss it.