See more of the story

DULUTH — The Duluth mayoral race is a nail-biter, with the city's first female leader, two-term Mayor Emily Larson, facing an on-again, off-again politician, college instructor and jack-of-a-lot-of-trades in Roger Reinert.

Reinert grabbed the upper hand in a stunning primary victory, in which he captured 63% of the vote to Larson's 35% in the five-person race. Both are longtime DFLers, and both are runners. But differences abound.

Larson hopes a third term allows her to tackle progress interrupted by the tumult of the pandemic. Reinert takes a back-to-basics approach.

The nonpartisan race is so competitive that a local political action committee has formed to support Reinert's election efforts. And the Minnesota DFL has injected itself, sending mailers attacking Reinert's voting record as a city council member and state senator, claiming he is "risky."

Larson's detractors say she's too ambitious and too focused on niche projects and societal problems at the expense of basic city services and lower property taxes.

Reinert has been criticized for being nomadic professionally, including brief stints with the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation and Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, and he's been called out for citing grievances without offering solutions.

The Star Tribune spent time with both over the past several weeks.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and Superior, Wis., Mayor Jim Paine spoke during a community block party held by Duluth Grill owner Tom Hanson in Lincoln Park last month.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and Superior, Wis., Mayor Jim Paine spoke during a community block party held by Duluth Grill owner Tom Hanson in Lincoln Park last month.

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

An ambitious agenda

Out door-knocking on a September night, Larson bounced up the steps to an East Hillside home.

A smiling woman came to the door, and the strangers hugged like old friends before she brought out her cat to meet the mayor.

It was a scene repeated often that night: Residents thrilled to see the mayor on their stoop shared bits of their lives and complained or complimented. Larson embraced it, her eagerness to chat one of her trademark traits.

"I love seeing if you can make a connection," she said. "It's like putting a puzzle together."

Her knack for making that connection and building relationships is her "superpower," said her husband, Doug Zaun. "That's what makes [her] so good at this work. Because it's not for everyone."

Larson downplays the primary results, calling it a "snapshot." But they did translate into changes on the campaign trail, she said. Larson and her team have hit more than 9,000 doors this year.

Supporters call her a leader who shepherded the city through the pandemic, has made progress in tough areas like streets, housing and economic development, and is forward-thinking in her prioritization of climate resiliency as extreme weather batters the city.

Larson, 50, is a social worker who earned her master's degree to tackle the policy side of social services. The St. Paul native discovered Duluth as a 6-year-old on a family trip and loved it so much she went to college in the city and raised her two sons on the hillside with Zaun.

Her agenda is ambitious, said former Mayor Don Ness, who served from 2008 to 2015. But, he said, it's necessary to address the city's biggest challenges and recapture its pre-pandemic momentum.

She's "done an outstanding job in the face of extraordinarily difficult circumstances," said Ness, who endorses Larson.

The Duluth firefighter's union declined for a third time to endorse Larson. She hasn't prioritized spending on public safety or city employees enough, said union president Adam Casillas. He pointed to the city's efforts to build up city fund reserves rather than invest in more staff and wage increases.

"All of the departments are understaffed," he said. "All of the departments are underfunded."

Larson has said it's "irresponsible" to draw down reserves and cities that did during the pandemic are now facing a fiscal cliff. She also stands by the city's climate efforts, citing it as a major piece of her tenure. But she's most proud of a dedicated fund for street repairs and navigating the city through a global pandemic, she said.

Her progressive agenda has often made her a target, and throughout her eight years as mayor, she's faced threats to her safety and misogynistic attacks on social media about her body, her hair and what she wears.

"Being the first female mayor of our city, there is a lot more that she has to rise above that counterparts who aren't first don't see," said state Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth. "That is real."

Larson said she is struck by the need for women to "explain, prove and justify their existence as qualified leaders."

"To have to balance cultural modesty — don't brag too much — with owning your and your community's success," she said. "It's exhausting, entertaining, infuriating and motivating all at once."

But it doesn't deter her. One of her favorite things to do is welcome young girls to sit at her desk when families stop by City Hall, so they can envision a future where they can also lead.

Duluth mayoral candidate Roger Reinert.
Duluth mayoral candidate Roger Reinert.

Jana Hollingsworth, Star Tribune

'Erosion of trust'

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Reinert found himself in Italy.

As a commander with the U.S. Navy Reserves, he headed to what was then a coronavirus hotspot, where he led a crisis response team for three months before returning to the U.S., taking a short, interim job leading the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center as it struggled through the pandemic.

Reinert, 53, said he feels lucky to have a flexible life that's allowed him to "respond to the call of service."

"I'm mission oriented," he said, a trait that he said would serve him well leading the city.

Reinert's campaign continues to press what he calls the "five big issues," including streets and property taxes.

Referencing an "erosion of trust" in the city, he said he's talked to residents who don't want to have conversations about climate change and social justice issues before issues such as streets are addressed. Reinert said that if elected, improvements to infrastructure would be his priority.

"I know the community is going to want to see action on a number of items immediately," Reinert said.

He'd also evaluate the city's leadership team.

"I think that is one of the benefits of change," he said. "You have an opportunity to come in with fresh eyes."

Reinert, who is a licensed pilot, grew up in a small southern Minnesota town on the border of South Dakota. The oldest of seven kids, he has a brother and five adopted sisters.

He moved to Duluth 25 years ago, operating a consulting business and selling real estate. He's been in the Navy Reserve and taught at local colleges for nearly two decades, teaching business classes at the College of St. Scholastica as an adjunct this year. He's served on Duluth's City Council and both chambers of the state Legislature, and earned his law degree in recent years.

Reinert said he began seeing a therapist after returning from the war in Afghanistan, a relationship he keeps today. He said he's troubled by the ugliness he's seen on social media about the mayoral race.

"The whole 'Oh, you gotta have thick skin.' Nope. Don't have it," Reinert said. "As we get older, we learn the things that hopefully help set us up for success. And one of those is I don't spend a lot of time online right now."

Former state Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, was Senate majority leader during Reinert's final Senate term. He hasn't endorsed a Duluth mayoral candidate, but he called Reinert "a good, solid member" of the Senate whose emphasis now is rightly on public safety and infrastructure.

"I think that's where a mayor's emphasis should be," he said. "I see too many of these larger city mayors who want to be involved in social engineering and take on all kinds of policy issues at the local level that really belong at the state Legislature and in federal government."

Reinert said he sees offering voters a "meaningful choice" as part of the mission he took on when he announced his candidacy.

"I know that has been uncomfortable for some, but I think it is valuable in democracy," he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Roger Reinert's role with the College of St. Scholastica. He is an adjunct instructor.