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Don Ness doesn’t want to be America’s most popular mayor anymore

At 41, the two-term mayor of Duluth says he’s leaving politics, possibly for good. All of which has a lot of people in Minnesota asking a simple question: Why? 

Mayor Don Ness: “I find satisfaction in having a clear understanding of what the conventional wisdom is and the path that people expect politicians to follow and looking for opportunities to go counter to that.”
MinnPost photo by Paul Walsh

The boy mayor is graying at his temples. It’s a Wednesday night in the middle of November, and Don Ness is a long way from his Duluth home, signing copies of his new book at Askov Finlayson, the trendy Minneapolis apparel store owned by Andrew and Eric Dayton, Gov. Mark Dayton’s sons.

The location is an oddly nice fit for Ness, who’s billed tonight as the “mayor from the North.” The store is named after two northern Minnesota towns, which inspire the shop’s rugged-but-chic aesthetic. Ness could model in the store’s fall lookbook, dressed in a stylish blue windowpane button-up shirt and a dark charcoal gray sports coat. 

Ness stood behind the checkout counter to sign copies of “The Hillsider,” his Kickstarter-funded book that’s a breezy scrapbook of photos and musings about his whirlwind political career so far, which started with winning a seat on the Duluth City Council at age 25 and ends in early January after two terms as the city’s mayor. 

“So you’re the magic Donny Ness?” asked Gordon Frederickson, who walked to the store in a cold November downpour to pick up a copy of the book. Ness made a concerted effort at one point in his political career to ditch his youthful reputation and shift from “Donny” to “Don,” but he still hears it all the time. “Well, I don’t know about magic,” Ness laughed.

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“I say Magic Donny because you’re kind of a legend with my age group,” said Frederickson, who lives in Prior Lake. “I’m a millennial interested in Duluth.”

Ness would never have heard anything like that 16 years ago, when he decided to run for Duluth City Council instead of succumb to the lure of life in the Twin Cities. But today it’s impossible to ignore the revitalization of Duluth, which emerged from near-financial ruin and is now seeing an influx of good news — and new businesses. In 2014, the city of 86,000 people was named the best town in America by Outside Magazine. And this September, the jobless rate sank to 3.2 percent, its lowest level in 16 years.

It’s part of the legacy Ness leaves behind after two terms as the energetic mascot of Duluth, a turnaround that has given Ness unheard of popularity for a politician, with a nearly 90 percent approval rating last year. In DFL circles, he has frequently been cited as a natural candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s 8th District, or even governor of Minnesota one day.

“Basically, I teach people to be Don Ness,” said Wy Spano, a longtime DFL political operative who trains young leaders through a program at Metropolitan State University. “To move from staff or volunteer job to star local politician to one day a statewide or national office.”

But Ness, at 41, is doing what is inconceivable to some: stepping away from politics indefinitely at the height of his career — a move that has left many in Duluth and around the state wondering: Why?

From Donny to Don

Ness’ first foray into politics was a campaign for student council president at Washington Junior High School in Duluth. The night before the election, he stayed up all night tracing photos of Donald Duck. His slogan: “Vote for a duck, vote Donny Ness.”

Don Ness was raised in Duluth, the son of a preacher and a social worker.
Photo curtesy of Don Ness, featured in “The Hillsider”
Don Ness was raised in Duluth, the son of a preacher
and a social worker.

“I think it was the only election he ever lost,” Patrick Ness says of his gangly older brother. “He was incredibly awkward back then. But I still remember telling people when I was in eighth grade and he was a senior that he was going to be governor one day.”

Ness grew up in a family engaged in the community — but not in politics. His father was a Christian preacher and his mother was a social worker. Occasionally they would hold church services inside their Duluth home, and Ness, the oldest of four sons, helped keep track of the church’s books. They never had much money.

By the time Ness was old enough to think seriously about his future, he wanted something dramatically different for himself. He enrolled in the University of Minnesota-Duluth and started taking business classes. “My teenage rebellion was: I’m going to get a degree in finance and work in the tallest building in downtown Minneapolis and make as much money as I can,” Ness said. “I wanted to escape what I saw my parents dealing with.”

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It was in college where Ness got involved in the student Senate. Back then, politics was “more of a social thing” for Ness, but it wasn’t long before he was elected chair of the group. He also became Student Association president and traveled to the Legislature as part of that role. In school, Ness also became a champion defender of Duluth against students from the Twin Cities suburbs, who complained the city didn’t have much to offer.

After graduating with a degree in business administration, Ness wanted to stay in Duluth, but there weren’t many job options. He moved back into his parents’ house while many of his friends were moving to Twin Cities, and thought about leaving himself. “Community leaders were telling me go down to the cities, get a job and maybe one day you can come back,” he said. “That was the conventional wisdom.”

Fortunately for Ness, the 1998 elections were on the horizon. DFL campaign jobs were starting to open up, including a spot on 8th District U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar’s team. His political involvement in college impressed the congressman, and he was hired as Oberstar’s campaign manager, a role he would serve in over the next decade. It was also the start of the sense of inevitability when it came to Ness’ political trajectory: Oberstar had worked for John Blatnik, the congressman who served before him, and many assumed that one day, Ness would take Oberstar’s place. 

That narrative was reaffirmed for some when Ness ran for an open, at-large Duluth City Council seat in 1999 at the age of 25. He won that contest, becoming the second-youngest person ever elected to the nine-member council.

Don Ness, right, and his grandmother, Marge
Photo by John Schadl, featured in “The Hillsider”
Don Ness, right, and his grandmother, Marge, posing for a 1999 campaign brochure.

Ness was optimistic at the start of his tenure on the council, he said, albeit a bit clumsy. He positioned himself as the swing vote on many issues as a way to create debate, but it didn’t always work out that way. Among other things, he eventually reversed his very first vote cast on the council, against turning a historic home into a bed and breakfast. He was also the deciding vote on a controversial smoking ban in the city of Duluth. He tried to find a compromise and complicated the bill with amendments. In the end, he withdrew his changes and voted in favor of the ban.

Eventually Ness hit his stride in city hall, at one point switching from “Donny” to the more serious “Don.” He was re-elected to another term and served as the city council president. He was young and energetic and he used social media to share updates about his life, garner support for his positions and push back on his detractors. He openly documented his growing pains as a politician, a level of candor that earned him credibility in the community.

But more than anything, Ness was a voice of optimism about Duluth at a time when things were looking bleak. In the mid-2000s, then-Republican State Auditor Pat Anderson predicted the city of Duluth would go bankrupt in the near future. At the heart of the problem: health-care benefits for city retirees. An old deal worked out between the city and the employee union granted workers generous, fixed health benefits upon retirement. But the deal didn’t account for changing health-care costs and technology and was draining the city’s bank account.

“I remember when that issue first came to the council. It really wasn’t on people’s radar yet,” Ness said. “But that was really an opportunity to take my background in finance and policy. I decided this is the issue that I’m going to dig into.”

Ness took the problem to an economics professor at the College of  St. Scholastica and eventually helped establish a volunteer task force, which spent five months looking into the issue more. They drafted a plan that became the backbone of the city’s push to consolidate the retirees’ multiple health-care plans. The move would dramatically cut costs for the city, but it was also fiercely challenged by the unions and retirees, who didn’t want to see their benefits cut.

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Mayor in the courts

The controversy stretched into Ness’ first run for mayor in 2007, one of 12 Democratic candidates seeking the post, including the incumbent mayor, Herb Bergson. Voters were spread thin between the multitude of candidates, and Ness had broad but “passive” support. Many of his supporters were young, he said, but they didn’t have a good track record of showing up to vote in primaries.

He took second in the primary election after Charlie Bell, a well-known Duluth business leader and a someone Ness considered a friend, but he decided to move on to the general election. The two were split on the retiree health-care issue, with Bell advocating for leaving current health-care plans in place. In the end, Ness beat Bell 52 to 47 percent.

But a lawsuit was looming: Public employee retirees threatened to sue the city if Ness moved forward with his plan. He went ahead anyway, and the class-action case went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the city in 2009. The change meant the difference between “solvency and bankruptcy” for Duluth, Ness said.

But it also soured some of Ness’ base toward the new mayor.

“It was very contentious at the time and really left some raw feelings,” said Don Bye, the 8th District DFL chairman who represented retirees in the dispute. “I thought he took a high-handed approach. It might have been popular at the time, but my overall observation was that they spent more money on outside attorneys to try and get rid of the benefit than it would have taken to settle.”

George Clooney and Renee Zellweger visiting Duluth in 2008
Photo by Paul Walsh
George Clooney and Renee Zellweger visiting Duluth in 2008 to promote their film “Leatherheads,” based loosely on the 1920s Duluth Eskimos football team.

It wasn’t the only high-profile legal battle facing the city during Ness’ tenure. In 2009, the city had a problem with sewer overflows into Lake Superior, and a lawsuit loomed if nothing was done. Using a mix of unpopular clean water surcharges and stimulus dollars, Ness partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency to fix the aging infrastructure and overflow problems — under budget and two years ahead of schedule.

During Ness’ tenure, the city also sued the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which had abruptly stopped paying the city its cut of a revenue-sharing agreement that governed the tribe’s casino. The city sued to get the money back, but a federal judge ruled the band did not owe the payments. 

Privately, the political and legal battles were starting to wear on Ness. He was also devastated by the 2010 election, when a Republican wave defeated Democrats across the country. Among the defeated was Ness’ mentor, Oberstar, who lost his seat in a shocking upset. What’s more, his wife, Laura, was pregnant with their third child, and his job as mayor didn’t pay what a private-sector job could. So, in an effort to tie up any loose ends in case he didn’t run for re-election in 2011, Ness threw himself into the job that year. 

But in the process, he realized he still wanted to be mayor.

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“In 2008, when I came into office, the world was imploding,” Ness said. “But then the problems were being addressed and there was a point where I saw 2012 as the time when we were going to make a switch and start to promote Duluth’s successes. Finally, you could feel something really good coming.” 

Even then, Ness’ popularity with voters was off the charts. He was so popular, in fact, that no one even challenged him in the 2011 election, making Ness the first mayor to run unopposed in Duluth since the city was incorporated in 1887. He was inaugurated into his second term on January 9, 2012, his 38th birthday. It was a sunny day and temperatures were in the 40s, a record high for Duluth.

Duluth’s renaissance

Then, on June 19 and 20, more than 10 inches of rain fell on Duluth within 24 hours, the most precipitation the city had ever seen. The rain cascaded down Duluth’s hills, flooded its streams, snaked into ditches and sewers and tore apart its streets. Eleven animals at the Duluth Zoo drowned, and two seals escaped into the city. President Barack Obama declared the flood a federal disaster.

It was a setback to the city’s progress, but Ness also saw it as a “rallying point for Duluth.” “It brought everyone together in a way I had never seen,” Ness said. “The recovery went quicker than most people thought.” 

It also gave Ness the chance to shift his role from that of Duluth’s chief legal defendant to its biggest cheerleader. He jumped into Lake Superior in an effort to get Google’s attention and win a hyper fast fiber-optic Internet network, and he promoted Duluth as an up-and-coming city for millennials who were interested in an enviable quality of life, touting its proximity to the lake, to camping and hiking and bike trails. 

Ness was an avid supporter of the arts and spent several years running the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival. The organization was troubled when he first took over, but under his leadership, the event turned into an eight-day affair every spring. “He came in when some of the bands were fighting and smoothed things over and turned it into this huge event,” said Teague Alexy, a Duluth musician.

Don Ness gathered in front of reporters and television cameras
Photo by Andy Miller, featured in “The Hillsider”
Don Ness gathered in front of reporters and television cameras for a press conference in Duluth.

Slowly, businesses started to trickle into Duluth, including two aviation companies and craft breweries and distilleries. Maurices women’s apparel planned a new headquarters in downtown Duluth. Joel Vikre, who recently opened Vikre Distillery and cocktail room with his wife a block from the city’s historic liftbridge, said they went to Ness first when they thought about setting up shop in town. They had lived on the west coast and around the world, but it was Ness’ reputation that made them want to make their home in Duluth. “It’s strange to think our move did, in some ways, hinge on the reputation of a single person,” Vikre said.

In fall of 2013, the Duluth City Council voted to give Ness a $20,000, 25 percent raise — bringing his total compensation up to $97,500 a year. It was the first raise approved for any Duluth mayor since 2000. 

Ness’ children were getting older, and his family didn’t have much in the way of savings, but he didn’t think it was politically the right move. He turned down the money.  “I do believe that the mayor’s salary should be adjusted, but that would be most appropriately done after the next election,” Ness posted to his Facebook page at the time, garnering nearly 2,000 likes. “I think it is very important that this important policy decision be made with the position in mind and not the person.”

By 2014, unemployment was lower than it had been in decades, and the city’s general obligation debt had gone down $30 million over a five-year period — even while general fund reserves had gone up by $9 million. 

At the same time, Ness was quietly pondering his exit from politics.

‘Cloudy’ future

Over lunch at the Zeitgeist Arts Cafe in Duluth, part of the revitalized “old downtown” part of Duluth, Ness pulled up an image on his phone that he calls the “Sad Don Picture.” It’s a newspaper image of his face, closely cropped, looking forlorn. “Whenever something bad happens, I see this picture,” he joked.

He probably won’t see that picture circulating much anymore. On Oct. 12, 2014, Ness announced he wouldn’t seek re-election in typical fashion: a long post on Facebook

Since then, there’s been a bit of a disconnect in Duluth. Some assume Ness will run for office again in the near future, possibly for Congress or for governor — that he’s just keeping quiet about it for now. Others assume Ness has a job lined up that he hasn’t made public yet. Ness has heard the rumors circulating, which he shot down in a public Facebook post.

But mostly, people can’t understand why Ness would step away now, when things are looking so good. 

“I find satisfaction in having a clear understanding of what the conventional wisdom is and the path that people expect politicians to follow and looking for opportunities to go counter to that,” he said, taking bites of a chicken caesar salad while it downpoured outside the cafe. “In part, that’s what captures people’s imagination and attention, and it’s also the piece that I’ve found over the years gives you credibility, especially when you’re asking people to make sacrifices and to contribute themselves.”

Don Ness performing a song about potholes with the Farsights during the 2015 Duluth Homegrown Music Festival.

When he talks about Congress, he sounds wholly uninterested: Spending days in Washington, D.C., away from family; back on the campaign trail every two years; traveling across the expansive 8th District; billions spent on negative ad campaigns. “People just roll their eyes when I say I don’t want to run for Congress, and say, ‘Yeah, yeah sure, we know you’re not only interested in the local level,’ ” Ness said. “As mayor, I know my community and I know what I can do and change. When I think about any other political role, it’s much more cloudy.”

Aaron Brown, a longtime DFL activist in northern Minnesota who came up in politics at the same time as Ness, said the mayor made a conscious decision to stay local. “People just can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to go to Congress if you’re Don Ness, but it’s a terrible job if you love your family, and he does,” Brown said. “We have a system set up where you have to be a sociopath or become a sociopath to stay in politics.” 

For Ness, he doesn’t imagine getting back into politics for the next 10 to 15 years, if ever. He wants to see his kids grow up and head off to college. He also wants to commit to his next job, whatever it may be. He’s had a few interesting options come up for his next gig, but nothing quite perfect yet, he said. 

“That’s kind of discouraging,” he laughed. “I’m coming to realize as a mayor there are a huge spectrum of issues that you get to plug in and learn about. I love that part of the job, and as I think about other opportunities, it’s almost as much about having to let go of things I’m interested in in selecting the one path forward.”

“If there’s a job that’s being mayor without the politics,” he added, “that’s exactly what I want to do.”