Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

In competitive Duluth primary race, Reinert defeats incumbent Mayor Larson

A woman wearing a magenta shirt and navy blazer
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson stands for a portrait outside the Duluth City Hall.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The race for mayor in Duluth shaping up to be one of the most competitive in years.

A challenger, no stranger to Minnesota politics, comfortably defeated Duluth’s two-term incumbent Mayor Emily Larson in a primary Tuesday night. Former DFL state Senator Roger Reinert earned 63 percent of the votes, and Mayor Larson secured the second spot on November’s ballot with 35 percent of the votes. They were among five candidates in the primary.

Larson ran with the governor’s backing and the DFL Party’s endorsement even though the office is technically nonpartisan.

Reinert served in the Legislature as a DFLer until 2017 but said he’d run without party backing in this race.

Larson is vying to be the city’s first three-term mayor in about two decades. She didn’t make public remarks to supporters after polls closed, but in a statement to the media said, “There are many challenges we still face in Duluth and over the next three months, our campaign will be working to build the coalition we need to win in November.”

For more analysis on the primary, MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with Cynthia Rugeley, an associate professor and head of the political science department at University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] INTERVIEWER: Our top story, the race for mayor in Duluth is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in years. A challenger, no stranger to Minnesota politics, comfortably defeated Duluth's two-term incumbent mayor, Emily Larson, in a primary last night. Former DFL State Senator Roger Reinert earned 63% of the vote. Mayor Larson secured the second spot on November's ballot with 35% of the vote. They are among five candidates in the primary.

Larson ran with the governor's backing, and the DFL party's endorsement, even though the office is technically nonpartisan. Reinert served in the legislature as a DFLer until 2017 but said he would run without party backing in this race.

ROGER REINERT: I'm willing to talk to anybody who's willing to talk to me, and I will work with anybody willing to work with me. I mean, I'm not an ideologue. I've never been. I'm a very practical public servant. And at the local level, that's a place where you can really be that.

INTERVIEWER: Larson is vying to be the city's first three-term mayor in about two decades. She did not make public remarks to supporters after the polls closed. But in a statement to the media, she said, "There are many challenges we still face in Duluth. And over the next three months, our campaign will be working to build the coalition we will need to win in November."

Joining us on the line right now is Cynthia Rugeley. She's an associate professor and head of the Political Science Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Welcome, Professor.

CYNTHIA RUGELEY: Thank you for having me.

INTERVIEWER: Good to have you on. Hey, how surprising are these results?

CYNTHIA RUGELEY: Well, I think it was well known that it was going to be close, and he'd possibly come out ahead of her. But I don't think anybody expected it to be by this tight margins.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, the margin was pretty impressive. How about the turnout, though? I heard it was pretty good.

CYNTHIA RUGELEY: It was big. I mean, I was just looking at that. I mean, preliminary figures-- looks like it was about 13,052 votes. That compares to about 8,400 when she first ran eight years ago and 8,000 votes when she ran four years ago, I mean, take a look at that. That was 8,000 votes. Reinert received 8,223 total in this election. So it tells you about the difference in turnout.

INTERVIEWER: A third term in any position is kind of tough. I mean, the last mayor in Duluth to serve three terms was the late Gary Doty. Why is it tough sledding for a politician to get that third term?

CYNTHIA RUGELEY: Well, when you look at any kind of executive position, whether it be the president or a mayor or a city leader, you see that everything they do makes them a little less popular, so it aggravates somebody. And so after about eight years serving in office, she's probably done things that aggravate-- or hasn't done things that aggravate a lot of people. I mean, and so to a certain extent, it's just kind of the old theory that, after a period of time, you start to wear out your welcome a little bit.

INTERVIEWER: Mmm. You know, Roger Reinert in that little clip said that he's not an ideologue. Does that mean that he thinks that Mayor Larson is?

CYNTHIA RUGELEY: Well, it would sound that way, and there's a little bit of revisionism going on about him selecting the-- not wanting the DFL endorsement. Initially, he said he would go for it. And then he said, well, he wouldn't go for it, because it was a nonpartisan race. Her supporters said that he wasn't going for it because he wasn't going to get it. And so both of them were right. [LAUGHS]

INTERVIEWER: You know Duluth real well. There's, of course, West Duluth and the East End, and there's just different parts of that city. Where do you think Reinert has his largest support? I mean, it sounds like he's got some pretty decent support across the city. But where is his pockets of strengths that might be a trouble spot for Mayor Larson?

CYNTHIA RUGELEY: Well, if you look at the results, I believe she only won 7 of the 35 precincts, and so it's almost-- and again, it's a primary, and things will change probably during the general election. But it's almost like a donut, where she won the central city area, and he won everything else around it.

And you look at it, and he did particularly well in what I would say is the far west area, the Spirit Mountain area, in that area. And he also did well in the east. And fundamentally, he did well everywhere, and that's just another sign she's got her work cut out for her in the general election.

INTERVIEWER: What are the biggest issues that are on voters' minds in Duluth?

CYNTHIA RUGELEY: It's a little bit of everything for everyone. It was kind of a-- it was just everybody had their own issues. And after two terms, you would kind of suspect that-- I mean, things like we had a problem funding two golf courses, so one of them closed. And so that half of the city is really mad that their golf course closed and not the other one.

There's a lot of homeless people who panhandle. So I'm sure people are unhappy about that. Then you have groups of people that we had a very bitter winter, as you know, and there's lots of potholes. And so they blame the mayor for the potholes, and it just-- and, I mean, there's very little a mayor can do about a potholes. I mean, she did pass money to fix them, but they just happened.

And so it's a lot of little things, and that's where it kind of gets interesting in the general election, in that there weren't really many issues discussed during the primary. And I think there's going to be some questions about where he stands on these issues, what he's talked about-- he met with thousands of supporters. Well, and they told him what was on their minds.

And so now comes the question, OK, what are you going to do about those? And I suspect there's going to be some questions of him about what he's been doing the last few years and why he's running, if that makes any sense, what his goals are for the city. And so a lot of that will be coming on.

But I think some of it with her was-- I mean, there's also issues about when people look at city leaders-- and, I mean, there's been entire books written about this that they tend to count city leaders or hold them responsible for economic development. And it's been good in the city.

But again, there's always some dissatisfaction that they're for this or against that, or they feel like they're too liberal or not liberal enough. And so that comes into play too. And so again, I can't say that this one issue is what is causing her problems. It generally goes back to your first question, and that's the two-term term factor, and each person's got their own individual issues.

Now, I will say that there is a common theme when you talk to people that perhaps the entire city is not being represented by the city council or by her. I mean, you hear people make jokes saying that the attitude of the city is it begins at the 21st Avenue on the east side and ends in Lincoln Park somewhere, and everybody else is left out. And so that kind of is another issue out there, and that's common in a lot of cities that large groups of people feel like they're not getting the attention that they believe they deserve.

INTERVIEWER: I thought that Mayor Larson's statement was kind of interesting from her campaign that, in the next three months, they will work hard to build the coalitions needed to win in November. Building a coalition's-- that's tough. That takes a lot of work. What will she have to do in order to make up this large gap between Reinert and-- this gap that we've seen here with these primary results?

CYNTHIA RUGELEY: Well, when you look at it, she won 5,000-something, 5,000-plus a little bit in each of her previous elections. This time, 4,560. So she actually lost votes from over the course of the last eight years since she's been in office.

When you look at it-- I mean, like I say, 13,052 votes were cast this time-- generally, on average, 22,000 to 23,000 during a general election. She would have to either change the minds of some people that voted for him in the primary or win about 70% to 75% of the new vote in the general election. So she's got to build a pretty big coalition.

And again, she has a lot of challenges before, and she has a lot of decisions to make. Like, how is she going to conduct the election? How is this going to be run? It'll be interesting to see. She had the governor come in and support her, but that was last minute and so probably didn't have much of an effect.

And you can ask, well, what's going to happen? I mean, she's had-- Senator Klobuchar came to an event, hasn't endorsed her. I mean, are other Democrats going to get behind her in order to try to help her along? I mean, how? There's a lot of tough decisions, but she really does have a tough road ahead of her.

INTERVIEWER: I wonder how expensive this race is going to get.

CYNTHIA RUGELEY: They've got lots of money now. I think that one of them has raised $47,000; the other, $54,000. And again, those are just top of my mind. So they've got plenty of money, and I suspect they're going to get a bunch more.

INTERVIEWER: All right. Professor, it's always good talking to you. Thank you so much.

CYNTHIA RUGELEY: Thank you for having me, and you have a good day.

INTERVIEWER: You too. Professor Cynthia Rugeley is an associate professor and the head of the Political Science Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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