Duluth's mayoral race heats up at first candidate forum

Two people sit at panel
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson (right) speaks while challenger Roger Reinert (left) takes notes at a candidate forum Wednesday.
Wyatt Buckner | Duluth News Tribune

This story is from Peter Passi with Duluth News Tribune in partnership with MPR News.

Two candidates vying for office in the city’s first competitive mayoral election in years drew a full house to the Garden Event Center in Canal Park, as they squared off at a public forum Wednesday afternoon hosted by the Duluth News Tribune and Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce.

Incumbent Mayor Emily Larson and her challenger, former state legislator Roger Reinert, wasted little time with pleasantries.

“I’m running because we haven’t had a truly meaningful election since 2007,” Reinert said, referencing the city’s last tight mayoral race between Don Ness and Charlie Bell.

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“Four years ago, two-thirds of Duluthians did not even vote in the mayoral election. That’s not healthy for democracy nor is it healthy for Duluth,” Reinert said.

Larson has handily beat competitors in back-to-back races, collecting at least 63 percent of the vote in both elections. But she faces a greater challenge this year, after finishing second to Reinert in the Aug. 8 primary. In that preliminary showdown, Reinert received 63 percent of the vote to Larson’s 35 percent.

Larson rattled through a list of accomplishments and talked of the progress the city has made under her leadership during the past seven-plus years.

“As mayor, I have created and led a streets program that has increased street reconstruction 850 percent since taking office. As mayor, I’ve added 1,700 new units of housing, which is more than has been created in that same time period for decades. We have decreased crime city-wide by 22 percent. We have decreased greenhouse gases 32 percent. And we are in our fourth straight record year of private investment in this community,” she said.

“You have a very clear choice in this election,” Larson said. “It is a choice between moving forward or risking losing ground.”

People sit at tables inside
Duluth residents packed the Garden Event Center to watch Duluth mayoral candidates Roger Reinert and incumbent Emily Larson speak to voter issues.
Wyatt Buckner | Duluth News Tribune

Meanwhile Reinert suggested there was significant room for improvement.

“It’s time that we expect more and do better with our core city services like streets, utilities, public safety, our neighborhood parks and community centers and engaging our residents,” he said.

Larson said that under her leadership, the city has gone from reconstructing 2 miles of road annually to 17 miles this year. She said the city is on track to replace 50 miles of road over the next three years and has patched the street system throughout.

Larson took a shot at Reinert’s slogan, saying, “This is where I actually find ‘Expect more. Do better,’ offensive to both city staff who work incredibly hard with the resources we have and a community who needs to know and understand: How do we do more with the resources we have?”

“We felt it last winter, when we weren’t plowing the streets well. We saw it in the spring with how tough the streets in Duluth were, from one end of the city to the other,” he said.

While Larson touted Duluth’s growth, Reinert suggested it was lackluster at best.

“In the last census, we grew by 400 people — .01 percent — while other regional centers in Minnesota grew by an average of 10 percent. That’s not growth. That’s stagnation,” he said. “We have to challenge ourselves to do better.”

Larson said Reinert offered little substance in the way of what “tangible and specific steps” he would take to move the city forward.

She stood by her track record of accomplishments, saying: “The fundamental question you get to answer for yourself is: Generally speaking, are we moving in the right direction? Not the perfect direction. Not the ‘I’m always going to deliver everything to everybody all the time’ direction, but generally the right direction. I believe we are. And I think you do, too,” she said.

Reinert said the state of Duluth’s streets continues to be a pressing concern nevertheless.