DULUTH — Duluth Mayor Emily Larson conceded to challenger Roger Reinert on Tuesday night, before any results were reported.
"For eight years we have faced tough city challenges together and we faced a global pandemic," Larson said to a room full of supporters at a Lincoln Park brewery, standing with her family. "We never, ever let those challenges stop us."
A half-hour later, Reinert spoke to a crowd of his supporters a mile away, saying he had just spoken to Larson.
She was kind in her concession, he said, and he wants to proceed in the same vein.
"We want to move forward from a challenging election and bring our community back together," he said. "Whether you supported me or whether you didn't, I am still a mayor for this entire community."
Voters in Duluth decided an intense race over the next leader of the city of 86,000: the two-term incumbent or a former state lawmaker.
Reinert won by a 60- to 40-percent margin, with all precincts reporting. About half of Duluth's registered voters cast a ballot in the mayoral race.
Each candidate had the support of political action committees. Nearly $500,000 has been spent on the nonpartisan race, in which both candidates are longtime DFLers.
Supporters called Larson a leader who shepherded the city through the COVID-19 pandemic, made progress in tough areas such as streets, housing and economic development, and was forward-thinking in her prioritization of climate resiliency as extreme weather batters the city.
Her detractors said she was too ambitious and too focused on niche projects and societal problems at the expense of basic city services.
Reinert supporters said they wanted someone new in the leadership role after eight years, with Reinert offering a new direction and a sharper focus on core city services.
He has been criticized for making unrealistic promises to voters, such as improving services without raising taxes.
Voters Tuesday said a lot of Larson's work to improve roads and other infrastructure has gone unnoticed, and they appreciated her steady hand. A few questioned Reinert's ability to lead.
East Hillside retiree Tammy Wait voted for Larson, largely for her climate resiliency efforts.
"She understands the mechanics of government," Wait said. "It's looking at the big picture. Not just one person's vague idea of what … our city should be."
Several voters talked about wanting change, seeing Reinert as a fresh face with useful experience gained at the State Capitol.
In the Central Hillside neighborhood, 80-year-old Evelyn Ferraro said she voted for Reinert because she trusted him to lower her taxes and he ran a positive campaign.
"He didn't bash anybody," she said.
In West Duluth, Sandy Salmonson chose Reinert, citing the vacant Kmart and bad roads.
"We feel like West Duluth has been ignored," she said.
Reinert said his campaign took on forces from Washington, D.C., and from St. Paul, "and we won."
"But regardless of how this evening went, I knew we had done a public good," he said because of the high number of voters. "But I have to be honest, winning is better."
The rapid pace of voting led one eastern polling place to request more ballots.
"It's been out of control," head election judge Deb Landon said, at the Duluth Congregational Church. "Even more than the last presidential election."
Larson, 50, is a social worker who started her career with Chum, a homeless shelter, and earned her master's degree to tackle the policy side of social services. She served on Duluth's City Council and is endorsed by former Mayor Don Ness, the local and state DFL and several labor unions.
Reinert, 53, is a licensed attorney and commander with the U.S. Naval Reserve and an adjunct instructor at the College of St. Scholastica. He's served on Duluth's City Council and in both chambers of the state Legislature. His endorsements include the city's police and fire unions.
Elsewhere on the ballot
Residents also elected six City Council members: Incumbent Arik Forsman and Lynn Nephew to the two at-large seats; Wendy Durrwachter to the First District seat, Tara Swanson the Fourth District and incumbent Janet Kennedy to the Fifth District. Incumbent Roz Randorf ran unopposed for the Third District.
The three new school board members are Stephanie Williams, Sarah Mikesell and Henry Banks. Voters also appear to have approved one of two school district's property tax increase requests - the second was too close to call.
Approval of the first question allows the district to refinance existing debt. The second asked voters to fund a technology program. Together, they would offer an annual increase of $7.9 million for Duluth Public Schools for the next decade, totaling nearly $80 million.
Many voters supported the extra funding on Tuesday, with several citing it as their top issue.
"I went through that whole district system, and I think giving students funding for the resources they need is really important," University of Minnesota Duluth student Lydia Rich said.
Others said their taxes were already too high.
Staff writer Christa Lawler contributed to this story.