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DULUTH — It was standing room only at the first major debate for Duluth's mayoral race, where incumbent Emily Larson and former lawmaker Roger Reinert labored to paint their differences during an often tense hour.

Both candidates are Democrats and have similar campaign platforms, making the non-partisan race the most competitive the city has seen in 16 years. Reinert, a commander with the U.S. Navy Reserve and a former Duluth city councilor who also served in both chambers of the Legislature, shocked many by capturing more than 60% of the vote in the five-person field in Duluth's August primary election. Larson, the two-term mayor, was at 35%.

On Wednesday, Reinert criticized Larson's reliance on local government aid in her 2024 budget proposal, the number of open positions on the police force and the city's reputation as a tough place to do business.

Larson questioned how Reinert would pay to bolster the core city services he's promised in his campaign and attacked his level of experience.

"You as a community are not hiring an interim mayor and you are not hiring an adjunct mayor," Larson said, referring to Reinert's short stint with the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and part-time teaching job with a local college. "You are hiring a long-term leader to be the CEO of your community."

In a forum hosted by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce and the Duluth News Tribune in Canal Park, Larson and Reinert agreed on several issues: the need for all types of housing, including as a way to boost downtown; the importance of workforce development and increasing the city's commercial tax base; investing in road improvements and city parks, and devising long-term solutions to the city's persistent problem with homelessness.

But they picked apart each other's records when it came to some of those, including the city's use of tax increment financing to help pave the way for major construction projects.

"When we do projects, we end up needing to use tools like tax abatement or TIF, which also don't contribute to our local property tax base," Reinert said. "And when commercial isn't contributing, residential pays more."

Duluth, a city of 87,000, has a dozen projects that are currently benefiting from tax abatement, including the NorShor Theatre, Bluestone Commons and the Maurices Tower.

While Reinert has criticized the state of the city's streets, he voted to cut street crews in 2006 when he was a member of the City Council, Larson said.

"The crew number we have now is the one that he made possible," she said, noting 2023 is the first year in decades the city has patched all primary and secondary roads.

They also disagreed on a public golf course in eastern Duluth, which the city closed when it could no longer afford to operate two. The city is seeking bids for a housing development. Reinert said he'd consider keeping nine holes of golf and less housing, while Larson said the city already explored that to no avail.

Larson, a social worker who has served on the City Council, received endorsements from the Duluth DFL and Gov. Tim Walz. Reinert has the support of the city's police and firefighter unions. (Reinert announced in May he would not seek the DFL endorsement, after initially pursuing it.)

Reinert led the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center on an interim basis in 2020-21. He teaches as an adjunct instructor at the College of St. Scholastica and is a licensed attorney.

Defending his experience, Reinert said that if "the only person qualified to serve in the office is the incumbent, we could just skip the election and save the taxpayers money and time."

Several times he pointed out work he did as a state legislator that impacted the city, leading Larson to criticize him for taking credit.

"I don't think it's false credit to just point to a tool that I wrote as a state senator and passed through the Legislature that gives us a food and beverage tax," Reinert said, referring to the city's tourism tax collections.

He said he's running because it's time for "something different."

The city right now is "sort of good, and we should be exceptional," Reinert said. "In the last Census we grew by 400 people ... That's not growth, it's stagnation. We have to challenge ourselves to do better."

Defending her record and her desire to finish the work she's started, Larson said there are "clear" differences between herself and Reinert.

"I am not going to shy away from ensuring that you are seeing distinction and choice and difference of vision, of tenacity, of strength, of experience, of qualification to continue to move this community forward," she said.

There will be a three hour-long forums for City Council candidates Thursday at The Garden in Canal Park.