Herb Bergson's legacy

Herb Bergson
After a turbulent four years as mayor of Duluth, Herb Bergson will leave the office in January.
MPR photo/Bob Kelleher

Herb Bergson's career has had so many highs and lows, it is perfect fodder for the people at Duluth's Renegade Comedy Theatre.

Their current production parodies the outgoing mayor, poking musical fun at Bergson's occasional foibles in office.

Renegade show
Renegade Comedy Theatre performer Chris Nollet sings a song parody lampooning Herb Bergson's foibles in office.
MPR photo/Bob Kelleher

Brian Matuzak runs the comedy theater.

"We'll miss him, because he was actually a very good supporter of the arts. And he did a lot of things to help Renegade behind the scenes that folks don't know about," Matuzak says.

Herb Bergson made history the day he was sworn into office in 2004. He was the first Duluth mayor to have already served as mayor across the bay in Superior, Wisconsin.

From the beginning, Bergson's story has been rags to riches -- the little guy who topples the old political machine. He's blue collar all the way. Bergson was a cop in Superior before he took that first plunge into politics, and unseated the three-term Superior mayor in 1987.

By the time Bergson won the Duluth mayor's office in 2003, he'd already served half a term on the Duluth City Council.

After crash
Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson faced the press after he crashed his car and was charged with DUI. The accident left a visible bruise on Bergson's forehead.
MPR picture/Bob Kelleher

But even that may not have prepared him to be mayor, according to Brad Gangnon, who directs the Communications Department at Duluth's College of St. Scholastica. Gangnon is a former DFL Chair who once worked on a Bergson campaign. He says Bergson can be a little too hands-on.

"Many of the things that caused problems for him in the first couple of years as mayor of Duluth were trying to be that small-time mayor in a big city," Gangnon says.

Gangnon says Bergson got stretched pretty thin, trying to respond to individual citizens' concerns over things like snowplowing.

Then the big problems hit -- big problems that attracted a lot of attention. Two years into his term, Bergson fired the city's No. 2 guy, Duluth's administrative assistant, by taping a note on his door.

"That did hurt him, and I don't know that he's ever recovered all of his credibility with everybody in the community for that," Gangnon says. "Clearly his impetuous decision of how to do that -- to tack the note on the door and to leave town and to not be available -- wasn't effective."

"He has been such a committed mayor to the low and moderate-income people of Duluth ... to people who are homeless. To people who are struggling."

In retrospect, Herb Bergson agrees.

"It was a mistake to do it that way," Bergson says. "If I had to do it again I wouldn't do it that way, but I certainly don't regret the change."

Maybe the change worked. In his second two years, Bergson began scoring victories, and stanching the red ink bleeding from the city budget.

Duluth still faces a huge bill for retired employee health care, but Bergson arranged for the state investment board to handle some of that money for much better returns.

A new labor contract cuts the city's health plan administration costs, and newly hired employees won't get the old generous benefit that guaranteed health care coverage for life.

Bergson also managed to unload the city's potential $30 million debt for an empty airplane hangar once used by Northwest Airlines.

Bergson has had tough times personally. In December 2005, he was arrested in Wisconsin, after wrecking his car while driving drunk.

"It's the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life, but I'm a better person for it," Bergson says. "Sometimes you make mistakes and you learn from it. I learned from that one. It's not something that will ever happen again, and I'm grateful for that."

Bradley Gangnon heads the Communications Department at Duluth's College of St. Scholastica. He's a former DFL District Chair who once worked on a Bergson campaign. He's also Herb Bergson's cousin.
MPR photo/Bob Kelleher

But some will remember Bergson best for his social conscience. St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O'Neil says Bergson's heart and his actions have always been with the under-privileged.

"He has been such a committed mayor to the low and moderate-income people of Duluth. To people who are homeless. To people who are struggling," O'Neil says. "He kicked off the first plan to end homelessness in the state of Minnesota. He really cared for folks, and he really wanted to make a difference in their lives. That will be sorely missed."

Bergson leaves office in January with no clear job prospects, but several leads. He says he'll spend some time out west with his aging parents. He'll need a job, and he's hoping it's the kind that can make someone else's life better.

"The dream job for me would be working with troubled youth," Bergson says. "I did that a lot as a cop. You know, homeless kids on the street are where it's at. If you get a job helping kids, what better job could you have?"

As far as a future in politics, Bergson says he doesn't think so, but he's learned to never say never.

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