The strange polarities of politics

Loren Martell


Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

   I lost my fifth run for the school board, but am not weeping. The boardroom is no picnic.  One of my standing jokes throughout the campaign was: If you don’t like me, and want to make my life miserable, vote FOR me.  
    One reason I’ve run repeatedly for public office is the chance it gives me to look at things from the inside.  Behind the slogans and yards signs and disarming smiles of politicians, everything about politics distills down to a intricate, knotted coalition of people maneuvering to attain power.  

     When agendas overlap, people are allies, and even people who don’t like each other can coalesce for a time to get something in common they want.  The strangest phenomenon, however, is when an alliance splinters and people who have overlapping agendas — natural allies--suddenly become estranged and start battling each other for power.    

   We see it all the time on the State and Federal scene these days: Progressives battling old guard democrats, tea party conservatives battling Wall Street Journal republicans.
     One coalition that seemed impermeable to any such internal rancor locally was the political coalition between Labor and the DFL.  At the 2017 DFL endorsement convention, one DFL candidate actually declared, to considerable applause:  “We don‘t want people who support the unions; we want people who are the unions!”   

     Our public school district, however, is unpredictable, a strange political beast.  In my memoir recounting the true story of the Red Plan, I coined a new word by combining the words pedagogy and politics: “Pedagotics.”

Tug and pull

  In the last election, school board Chair, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, and former Chair, David Kirby, were on school board at-large candidate John Schwetman’s Campaign Committee.  Some of the Board’s DFL - endorsed allies appeared to be ganging up to throw at-large incumbent, Alanna Oswald (who is DFL, but not endorsed by the machine,) off the school board.  

     This conclusion was easy to reach, based on past patterns.  All dissenting voices in the boardroom over the past decade — Gary Glass, Art Johnston and Harry Welty — have been ganged up on and attacked by the DFL-endorsed majority members, and the pattern seemed to be continuing.  
      As I’ve watched these meetings over the past two years, it’s been very evident that some of the power players in the boardroom, such as Chair Loeffler-Kemp and Vice-Chair, Jill Lofald, don’t care for Oswald’s audacious tendency to succinctly question Administration.  Loeffler-Kemp was a past PTA president, and like previous PTA presidents (there have been three on the school board over the past decade,) she wants the Board to be an adjunct PTA — nothing but a booster club and a rubberstamping machine.  Lofald, like every other teacher I’ve observed on the Board, wants the same thing.  She refers to Administration in an almost reverential tone during meetings as: “Our leadership.”  

      So, it appeared the same old pattern I’ve watched unfold numerous times in the past was unfolding once again, but this little bit of school board melodrama turned out to have an unusual twist. 
Power move

    Chair Loeffler-Kemp is a power player in the local union scene.  Contemplating the upcoming contest, Rosie L-K (a very deft political operative) appeared to be strategizing a plan to make her life more pleasant, and enhance her influence and power.  She started pushing the candidacy of two loyal union players, to replace two of the most persistent Board questioners.         

    The inner-workings of our school district have long been guided by a Devil’s Bargain and that bargain distills down to this: As long as Administration gives the union everything it wants (a pattern that began, and has persisted, since Keith Dixon entered the scene,) the union people will rubberstamp whatever Administration wants.  

      Before union muscle could be enhanced in the boardroom, however, the DFL had to dump Mr. Glen Jackson, its initially-endorsed candidate. The political machine’s insistence on holding its endorsement convention before the sign-up period for the candidates is over backfired big this time.  At the time of the convention, only one candidate had gone through the DFL screening committee’s infamously ludicrous (100% budget unrelated) vetting process: Glen.  

      I was in the convention hall when the DFL officially endorsed its candidate for the district 3 school board position.  I kept looking around and asking people: “Where the heck’s Glen?”  Mr. Jackson’s endorsement was the most muted public affair I’ve ever witnessed: no acceptance speech, nothing.  Embarrassed uncertainty hung palpably over the hall.  “I’m not sure about what just happened.”  I kept commenting to people around me.  “Did they endorse Glen or not?”

      Later I received an email from an inside player: “Everyone is worried Glen will lose.  They are even more worried he will win.”  
   I discovered what the News Tribune called a candidate “switcheroo” when I went to the Administration building to sign up to run at the eleventh hour and found someone named Paul Sandholm had signed in, instead of Glen Jackson.  
       Mr. Sandholm is a retired teacher and a solid union man.  Board member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp will breath much more comfortably when Mr. Sandholm replaces the departing Member Sandstad on the school board.  A new four-letter syllable attached to the root word “Sand” is going to make a big difference in restoring a natural rosy outlook to Rosie’s life.  Nora Sandstad has shown rare independence of thought in the DFL ranks over her tenure.  Dissatisfied by Chair Loeffer-Kemp’s job performance, she called twice (publicly, and in no uncertain terms) for L-K to step down from her position of power. 

Three family fights 
   A long-held fallacy of Duluth’s establishment is that the problems in the boardroom of ISD 709 have all been instigated by bad actors.  The good people in the room are the majority — DFL and/or Union-endorsed — Board members.  These citizens all wear pure white hats.  They are the resident saints, living and breathing only for the little children.   Occasionally, however, the ignorant and uninformed populace votes in some ne’er-do-well wearing a black hat. The guy (they’ve all been guys) is an irascible villain, a troublemaker who disrupts everything and makes life tough for the holy do-gooders for no good reason at all.  He is awful and incorrigible: anti-district, anti-children, anti-education, anti-everything-good-holy-and-sacred.  

      During the League of Women Voters’ forum in the past election, my opponent in the district 3 race said the lack of school board transparency was “mostly just a matter or perception.”  He pointed out that the Board’s committee meetings are now on YouTube for anyone to view.  The availability of those meetings for viewing anytime has been a significant stride towards district transparency, but it was the persistence of Harry Welty, aided by Art Johnston, that made them more accessible.  

       For as long as I’ve gone into the boardroom, the “troublemakers” have fought relentlessly for transparency.  The Board members fighting tooth-and-nail against openness--the guardians of the closed-shop status quo--have invariably been former teachers and PTA Presidents.  
       Both Johnston and Welty left the boardroom two years ago.  Our school board now consists entirely of one political family, but nothing has changed.  Internecine skirmishes in the boardroom over transparency and information sharing (between Administration/the school board, within the Board itself, and with the public) have continued among Board members universally accepted by the establishment of Duluth as the town’s superior, model citizens.  

      One of those model citizens is now-former Board member, Josh Gorham.  Mr. Gorham was the quintessential DFL/union candidate — good and earnest to his core, but completely clueless about what he was walking into.  He spent a large part of his campaign for the Board describing himself as a “servant leader” and repeating a sentimental story about a bowl of soup.  Like many candidates from the DFL/union world (except for relentless — almost certifiable — optimists, like Annie Harala, Rosie Loeffler - Kemp and Mike Miernicki) Gorham quickly grew chagrined about the way the Board actually operated and the suffocation of his daydreams by budget realities.   

     In the middle of the campaign, Gorham surprised everyone by declaring he’d had enough of the whole show.  He abruptly quit, blaming district leadership’s “dismissive, maintain the status-quo approach.” 
      Member Sandstad  pointed a finger of blame at Chair Loeffler-Kemp’s heavy-handed, exclusive reign for the discontent in the boardroom.  Sandstad called for Rosie L-K to step down, saying the Board needed “new leadership that is transparent, forward-looking and inclusive.”  
      More complaints made headlines in the media, when it was revealed that another Board Chair (David Kirby, at the time) withheld background information from the full school board during the hiring process for the assistant Superintendent.  To add to the drama, the long-time Denfeld High Principal filed a lawsuit against the school district in order to, in her words, “stand up to the injustices of the status quo in policies and practices.” 

      No fair-minded person could still point a finger and blame those problems on some dastardly villains wearing black hats. 

Then again, there’s the paper of record

    After (to the surprise of many) endorsing me for the school district 3 race, the Duluth News Tribune packaged me with Harry Welty and piled on my defeat, claiming the results were a “clear” indicator the people of Duluth were ready to “put behind…all the angst, pain and controversy stemming from the long-range facilities plan…”

      The paper’s editorial page editor is a stalwart community presence with a unique, tautological writing style.  One of his favorite techniques is to group a few nasty troublemakers together and do a package take-down.  
      The election results from school board districts 2 and 3 are not simply explained away as civic fatigue towards the Red Plan.  The campaigns run by Mr. Welty and myself were very different.  I lost in the primary two years ago, but made a strong showing in the general election this time.  I received 2214 votes and my opponent received 2590.  What really undermined my chances was another low voter turnout.  With only a 38% turnout, in a town dominated by one political machine, all a machine candidate has to do is activate and mobilize his/her base to win.       

    I was out every moment I could spare from the day I signed up.  I knocked on nearly every door in the large third district.  I gave it everything I had for the fifth straight time in a row.  It was a rainy year and I went out there with a raincoat and rubbers on and my campaign lit in a plastic bag.  Many times I came home after dark, even in the middle of the summer, when after dark meant after 10:00 pm.  I hiked up streets in Piedmont Heights and up staircases across the hillside and found overwhelming support.  

      If a bare minimum of a majority — 51% — had shown up to vote, I believe I would have won.  
       Even David Kirby’s big win in the second district only amounted to 25% of the eligible vote.  How could anyone reach a truly “clear” conclusion from that? 
      The real headline of this election is that the public has grown so disillusioned it has stopped voting.  Time and again, I heard: “It doesn’t matter if I vote.  What are you going to do, if you get in there?  The same group will control the Board and they never listen to anyone.  They’ll just do whatever they want, the way they always have.” 

      I pleaded and pleaded until I was sometimes literally hoarse that not voting was an act of self-sabotage and a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

Our new Board
    Two new people will now replace Gorham and Sandstad on the school board.  Both are good citizens who care about education.  Both also know absolutely nothing about the district’s complicated budget and are perfect clay for administration to mold to its desires.  
      Throughout our school district’s last budget process the CFO repeatedly complained that ISD 709 “could use a lot more money if we wanted to meet all of our need.”  A large increase in the local levy and a lot more revenue pouring in from the State balanced the budget.  Without this additional revenue, district 709 would have hit a wall and collapsed into statutory operating debt status.       

     What will our new school board do to address this fiscal problem, as well as its tarnished relationship with the public?  Will we continue to watch a Board that acts as though it’s been elected into power by the teachers’ union and district administration?  Will our public representatives continue to ignore the festering wounds in the city, especially in the central corridor?  A good start towards rapprochement would be finally opening up the agenda meetings, something those of us seeking better government have fought long and hard for.  

        But would that, alone, be enough to allay some of the mistrust?  Or will a public institution still be viewed as operating in an insulated bubble--playing a shell game with its budget, scapegoating State funding and signing off on union contracts it can’t afford, while cavalierly regarding the town’s citizenry as nothing but an ATM machine. 

       Last fall, walking into Old Central with David Kirby (who served two consecutive years as Chair of the Board,)  I asked if he’d ever looked at the district’s levy history.  He shrugged and said, “No.”  I said, “The Red Plan’s claims of $122 million of efficiency savings and big money from sales of property all vanished like smoke.  The levy has spiked from $11.9 to nearly $40 million in a dozen years.  Doesn’t that bother you?”

      Mr. Kirby shrugged again and said: “Somebody’s gotta pay.” 

   The district’s Chief Financial Officer, who lives in Two Harbors, has already been preaching about under-assessed property values and increased tax capacity in Duluth.

   A big screw-up has happened in this town, and somebody’s gotta pay.