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New Duluth mayor's challenges: Build bridges, keep economy on track

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Emily Larson
Emily Larson, mayor-elect of Duluth, poses for a portrait.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Emily Larson first won election to the Duluth City Council in 2012, and it didn't take her long to discover Duluthians like their politics and politicians up close.

"You can't go anywhere, to the grocery store, the YMCA, wherever I'm at, people have something they want to tell me," she said. "I actually love it, because it means that people are invested."

The city is investing heavily now in Larson, 42. Voters in November chose her overwhelmingly to be Duluth's next mayor. The former council president takes the reins today from Don Ness, who did not seek re-election. 

Duluth's enjoyed something of a renaissance under Ness, including strong job growth and a burgeoning national reputation as a place for outdoor fun and quality of life. Observers say Larson's challenge is to build on that momentum and expand it into Duluth's still-struggling neighborhoods.

They believe she's up to the task.

Larson and other leaders say there's a new sense of optimism in Duluth. City budget deficits have been eliminated. Companies, including clothing retailer Maurices and airplane manufacturer Cirrus are expanding. New apartment buildings and hotels are going up. The city in 2014 won Outside Magazine's Best Towns contest

Larson says her job is to make sure the prosperity extends citywide "so that every single neighborhood has the same kind of opportunities that other neighborhoods have."

Originally from St. Paul, Larson said she started to fall in love with her adopted city on a family trip when she was 5 and that her appreciation grew when she moved here 25 years ago to attend the College of St. Scholastica. 

"You don't really choose where you're born, or where you're raised, but you do choose your home," Larson said. "You choose where you're going to dig in and where you're going to raise kids and where you're going to make a contribution, and for me, it was Duluth."

Emily Larson
Emily Larson, mayor-elect of Duluth, talks about the challenges, issues and roles she'll take on.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Married with two sons, she worked with homeless families and as a consultant with nonprofit groups before being elected to the Duluth City Council.

"She is one of the most impressive people I know," said Ness. "Emily is much more of a people person. She connects well, and has the energy and vitality to do that well in a way that wasn't a strength of mine."

Plenty of challenges linger from the Ness years.

Some Duluth neighborhoods are lagging behind, with lower incomes, shorter lifespans and racial disparities, Larson acknowledged. The city's population has remained stubbornly flat. Streets are badly in need of repair. 

Larson said in an interview with MPR News that she needs to mend the city's relationship with the nearby Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The city and the band have battled in court for several years over disputed revenues from the tribe's downtown Fond du Luth casino.

But Ness, who remains extremely popular in Duluth, said the city remains on an upswing. The city is no longer in a crisis mode, dealing with huge budget deficits and other major issues he faced when he took office, including a retiree health care benefits crisis and a federal EPA order to stop sewage overflows into Lake Superior.

"We have to make sure that we continue to stay focused on what has created this prosperity, because quite frankly, it's not strong enough yet, it's still tenuous, this prosperity needs to find a grounding so that it's sustainable in the long term. And that's not an easy task," he said.

Larson begins her term with overwhelming support, winning 72 percent of the vote in November, including winning every city precinct.

"I'm optimistic that she will be effective from the start, because of her tenure on the City Council, because she's served as council president this past year, and because Mayor Ness has been such a strong advocate for her, and has been helping her with the transition," said Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President David Ross.

Ross and others tout Larson's positive energy and warmth. But outgoing council member Sharla Gardner says there's a lot more to Larson than meets the eye.

"She's a very pleasant and positive person, all those things are very true. But underneath that is a strength that I don't think a lot of people realize, but I think they will realize it," Gardner said. "There's a firmness and there's a purpose."

Larson will be the first woman to hold the mayor's post in Duluth. She didn't make a big deal of breaking the glass ceiling during her campaign, but she said she understands the significance. 

Door knocking during the election, Larson said she met women in their 80s who had "amazing stories" to tell and were energized by the promise of female mayor. "One woman said to me, 'Honey, I've been waiting to vote for you my whole life.'"