Duluth Central - Administration building. Photo credit: Ted Heineken
Duluth Central - Administration building. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

There are many things I want to write about when it comes to our public school district. I’ve started a couple of articles--on subjects such as the district’s recently released energy report and the Red Plan’s swimming pools--but I keep being drawn into this important election, now only a month away. 

I believe the way elections are orchestrated in this town should be reviewed. Everything has become too pro forma; Duluth, MN, has become a greased political machine. I’m pretty sure DFL stands for Damned Fine Lubricant. 
Central Property

The first thing I want to do is give this town a head’s up. The district’s power players know they are in trouble about the school district’s vacated properties, especially the Central campus. From the beginning, I’ve been suspicious about an October Surprise during the campaign, which the mainstream media will only be too happy to play along with. 

It started happening during the candidate sign-in period, last July. There was a bevy of stories in the media about an “up-tick” in parties “interested” in the Central property. At least one DFL-endorsed candidate has been dropping hints of late that the big surprise will be coming yet. Don’t believe a word about an interested buyer, unless there is a signed purchase agreement--and even then, be cautious. The last developer with a signed agreement for $10 million pulled out when he discovered the “extraordinary” costs of developing the Central site. 

Again, the mainstream media will gladly be the district’s puppet, as it has been since the cotton-topped con man, Mr. D., first came to town. By now, the citizens of this town should have learned some hard lessons on their own. Duluth should be filled with skeptics. We are in the middle of a political campaign, and the town’s dominant political party knows it is politically vulnerable about the mess it’s led us into. The DFL and its power associates are going to pressure and manipulate everything in the system to cover their bottoms and put a big, pretty bow on their screw-ups. 

This is the way Board member Welty viewed the situation on his blog: “Over the past month it has seemed as if the DFL candidates, who are not on the Board, have had the benefit of inside knowledge…Something may be cooking with the Central sale. At least one of the DFL challengers hinted of some machinations that we actual Board members of the minority have yet to learn. An 11th hour announcement, perhaps, to help the preferred candidates?” 

As the nuns in my parochial school used to say: put on your thinking cap, Duluth. As the Red Plan proved, there are power players in this town who can create a phony narrative and hand it out like candy. Don’t let yourselves be led down another primrose path. 
It’s a rigged game

When I met with the teachers’ union a couple of months ago as a school board candidate, I told them I would not ask for their endorsement. I said: “I’ve been through this process three times already, and whoever got the DFL endorsement automatically got the union’s endorsement every time. I don’t have any doubt the exact same thing is going to happen in this round.” 

As predictable as a sunrise, the four DFL-endorsed candidates got the union’s endorsement.
What’s being passed off as democracy in this town is a rigged insider game. When the Duluth News Tribune asked a DFL spokesperson why the party holds its endorsing convention before all the candidates even have a chance to sign up to run for office, she lamely explained the early endorsements are “specified by her organization’s (apparently unalterable) constitution.” 
The DFL political machine is so stuck in a greased rut it can’t change its constitution to even resemble democracy? 
DFL candidates are often very good citizens. I like Sally Trnka and Josh Gorham, my two DFL opponents in the At-Large primary race. If you turned off the lights in a dark room, both of these worthy people would positively glow with good intentions, but neither one of them knows a thing about the job they’re actually applying for. 

After the last election, I quoted an elderly woman in this column. Her name was Pearl, and I’d spoken to her while I was out canvassing. Pearl articulated the dilemma I’d been witnessing so well: “The problem with these damned elections is that they’re nothing but popularity contests. The dummies just elect a bunch of dummies who don’t know anything!” 

I’ve been through four election cycles and it’s gotten worse each time. Increasingly, in Duluth, what you know doesn’t matter at all. Who you know in the DFL/union power clique apparatus determines if you end up being a winner.
Elections in Duluth are stacked, unfair contests, but most people haven’t woken up to just how much of an advantage it is to have DFL/union endorsement. It’s like two people are competing to climb Mt. Everest. One is handed a million bucks to spend on equipment and supplies and gets a whole Sherpa clan to help him/her scale the summit; the other one gets fifty bucks, a lame mule and Yosemite Sam. 

   DFL: Diversity For the Lucky

A few years ago, I was sitting on a bench outside the council chamber in city hall. A bunch of DFLers were congregated nearby and I overheard their conversation. One of them said, “If we could just get rid of the bad ones — Fosle and Fedora — wouldn’t it be great in here!” 
This the DFL’s goal: the party machine wants its endorsed people on all the seats in the council chamber as well as in the mayor’s office. They also want all the seats on the school board, all the positions in the Duluth delegation to the State, and they want all the county commissioner positions thrown in for good measure. Then, once they’ve taken over everything and eliminated every voice that dares to disagree with them, the party faithful will be able to finally sing, full-throated, their diversity song! 

I’ve argued for a decade that the primary lesson that should have been learned from the Red Plan is respect for dissent. I once said in front of the city council that everyone should see clearly now, in retrospect, that the DFL positivity train, rolling down the tracks with no speed limit, even when brimming with good intentions, can lead to a train wreck and a railroad job.

The DFL’s credibility took a big hit with the Red Plan. Until the party recognizes and acknowledges that fact, we are going to have a very divided town. 
Make no mistake: the DFL’s muscled machine is still the dominant power. It may very well keep control and get its way, but it will continue to fight significant headwinds. At-Large DFL-endorsed school board candidates Josh Gorham and Sally Trnka seemed to have no clue of the underlying division in the boardroom. Sadly, if the DFL continues to be the dominant, controlling voice in the room, that division will continue. The only way the Board’s division would disappear is if the DFL managed to throw everyone else out. 

Josh Gorham and Sally Trnka seemed to have no clue, but the division between the candidates in this election cycle is the most pronounced I’ve seen in a decade. This school board election has boiled down to a stark contest between the DFL-endorsed party machine candidates and the independent outliers--the non-DFL endorsed candidates. Both sides are trying to say happy things in front of the cameras, but I can report from behind the scenes that these two political circles don’t intersect at all in their basic belief about the best way to remedy what ails our school district. 

 Grassroots or status quo

The problem with the DFL (as it is with national democratic party) is that it’s become controlled by special interests--much less reflective than it once was of grass roots democracy. Once the fighting champion of the powerless, the democratic party has become an entrenched part of the establishment, the status quo. 

Being part of the status quo in Duluth, the DFL is protected by the rest of the town’s establishment, which runs a very pathetic electoral vetting process. The Duluth News Tribune did the most extensive work during the primary season, but its candidate coverage only amounted to a little background biography, a three-part questionnaire with an 85 word per question limit, an op-ed piece of 500 words and a half-hour meeting with the editorial board. 
As a candidate, I actually looked forward to the meeting with the Trib’s editorial board, because a half hour would allow me to talk in depth about a few issues. The Trib’s interviews were recorded and put out on the web in the last election cycle, so I was hopeful the public would have a chance to hear what I said. I also thought a recorded interview would allow the public to judge whether the News Tribune’s interpretation of the interview (reflected in its endorsement) was accurate and justified. 
What happened? The paper decided to record for only about a minute, and then let their camera person run off to another job. 
The only recorded interview during the entire primary amounted to a few minutes on Barbara Reyelt’s Northland Voices show. The League of Women Voters forum wasn’t even audio recorded, meaning only the 30 people or so who showed up saw or heard it. 
How in the world are the voters supposed to gauge five candidates with that kind of pathetic exposure? In my opinion, the whole electoral system should be revamped. It’s become too cluttered up by media players and special interest groups. There should only be one venue in the primary and one in the general election. The candidates should be handed four questions when they walk in and be allowed up to three minutes to talk about each one. They should also be allowed to talk about two other subjects--anything they choose--including using the time to rebut or respond to anything previously said by anyone else. 

These forums should be recorded and sent out everywhere--radio, television and especially the internet. How is it possible that no school board forum, so far, has appeared on the internet? 
The people of Duluth need more in-depth exposure to candidates and district issues than they’re getting. During the last election, the League of Women Voters actually had a “lightning round” in one of its forums, where candidates had only 15 seconds to respond. Were they testing us for a crisis? 
“Please respond to this scenario, candidates: Kim Jong Un’s regime has launched a nuclear-tipped missile at Chicago. North Korea’s scientists were off by about three hundred miles in their calculations, and the missile will strike Old Central in exactly 15 seconds. What would you do to save all the little kids? Go!” 

The lack of substance in these forums is not just because candidates have so little time to reply. In the last election cycle (2015,) not a single question was asked about the district’s budget in a forum sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and the News Tribune. The district’s financial ledger was in terrible shape; a $3.3 million deficit was announced just six months later. In a forum ostensibly vetting candidates to take fiscal control of our public school district, not one question was asked about the money. Instead, we were asked a mud-raking question about whether or not we thought it was a good idea for the Board to spend time trying to throw one of its own colleagues overboard. 

As far as mud-raking questions go, I have to admit it wasn’t a bad one. Every candidate said he or she wouldn’t have wasted the time or energy doing such a blatantly stupid thing. 
Maybe we need new groups sponsoring forums. All I know is, at the moment, candidate-vetting is inadequate, and Duluth’s political kingmakers are contributing to the shallowness and stagnation of the process. None of them want any true accountability, which tilts everything in favor of the power group most responsible for the mess in the boardroom: the DFL-endorsed. 

 Rainbows and roses 

I’ve been hearing from Facebook reports that the DFLers hate me, but I don’t hate them. As I’ve said repeatedly in this column, I like DFLers. A more earnest bunch of do-gooders have never lived. What amazes me about the DFL-endorsed club, however, is that they’ve been wrong about virtually everything since Keith Dixon came to this town, but they’re still convinced they’re right. 

Just follow us, and we will happy talk you all the way to paradise!
DFLers absolutely hate negativity. They want to take over the boardroom, paint rainbows on the walls and bring in big vases of flowers. They want to cheerlead and “thank” administration and all the rest of the hard-working staff and hand out more bountiful raises and benefits to keep their union brothers and sisters happy. 

They also want to keep holding their secret agenda meetings and make sure Rosie Loeffler-Kemp continues doubling down in her protection of the unions’ interest on the Quality Steering Committee. They want to make sure everyone’s nose is pointed “forward,” so no one ever looks at the mess they’ve made in the past.

The narrative the DFL is selling--the great fallacy of this campaign--is that the conversation should have nothing to do with the past, that what happened over the past decade is irrelevant. In fact, in the DFL’s narrative, any glance in the rear view mirror should expose only one villainous group--the powerless Board minority members, like Art Johnston and Harry Welty, who were speaking the truth. 

Blaming the people who had no power in the room is like blaming creditors who bring up the bills for a bankruptcy. 
As the dominant, majority voice, it was the DFL-endorsed who rubberstamped Keith Dixon’s spending spree. It was the DFL that blew a thirty million dollar reserve fund, jacked the tax levy by $19 million, concocted a debt payment plan that robs more than $3 million annually out of classrooms to pay for swimming pools, and left the district so broke it had to raid its already pathetically under-funded maintenance fund. 

In a district that had just narrowly averted officially declaring statutory debt, it was the DFL-endorsed majority members who decided to prioritize spending more than $200,000 of taxpayer money and an entire year on a loony mission of throwing a colleague off the Board. The DFL-endorsed majority also refused to sell any of the district’s vacated property, the reason they’re trying to drum up a fairy tale about a pending sale during this election season. The DFL-endorsed majority also gave the Superintendent a new three-year contract with a raise, when he’d already tried to run away three times. 

I don’t hate the DFL, but I do hate the way they’ve governed. If the Republicans had the DFL’s track record, I would be calling for their removal from power. Are you happy with the government you’ve had in the boardroom of ISD 709? If you are, by all means vote DFL. 
If you’re not happy, break up the DFL-endorsed party and show them the door.