DULUTH — Spending on the Duluth mayoral race has climbed to new heights, thanks to big-ticket donations from political action committees, a rarity in the city of 86,000.
Both Mayor Emily Larson and challenger Roger Reinert are supported by independent interests and, in Larson's case, the state DFL. Combined with their own fundraising, nearly $500,000 has been funneled into mailers, signs and social media, among other spending.
That's more than double what was spent in the last competitive mayoral race in 2007.
The amount raised this year is startling for a city the size of Duluth, where both candidates are from the same political party, said a local political science professor.
"The two campaigns are not terribly far off in the amount they have individually raised," said Kathryn Haglin, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "That huge boost is coming from these outside sources. And that's something we haven't seen as much in the past."
The latest campaign finance reports show Larson has raised about $116,000 overall, with Reinert at nearly $102,000. Forever Duluth, a political action committee formed to support his efforts, raised more than $130,000, the bulk from a Duluth hotelier and a retired businessman. Both also have given heavily to Republican politicians, including former President Donald Trump and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson.
A climate-focused PAC supporting Larson poured $65,000 into the race, with money from the League of Conservation Voters. The Minnesota DFL spent about $50,000, although some went toward other Duluth candidates, said DFL Chair Ken Martin.
Reinert said Friday that he's a nonpartisan candidate in the race and that most of the donations to his campaign have been small and local.
"I think the more interesting question is, 'Why is Emily Larson getting so much money from outside the community?'" he said, noting he wouldn't feel beholden to those who donated to Forever Duluth.
"I'm grateful to have people out there saying positive things and supporting us," Reinert said.
Larson said she's not surprised by the interest in the race, but there is a "major distinction between a known entity standing and investing in their endorsed candidate and a group of individuals single-handedly writing enormous checks."
She said her campaign has been focused on direct contact with residents, knocking on 15,000 doors.
Both candidates said they have not worked with the PACs supporting them.
Martin characterized some of the donors to the Forever Duluth PAC as "extremist" Republicans, and noted a limited liability company that gave $20,000 but isn't registered with the state.
"You don't typically see that type of stuff in local races," Martin said. "PACs pop up all the time that support candidates. What is unusual is the real imbalance you're seeing in terms of the ideological donors. ..."
Reinert, a former lawmaker, was a founder of the "Purple Caucus" during his Senate days, which was a group of DFL and GOP legislators willing to work together on issues and build relationships.
Minnesota law allows up to $600 in contributions to a candidate for a single year in cities with populations less than 100,000. That doesn't apply to political action committees.
Former Duluth Mayor Don Ness said there was some outside spending in his 2007 race against Charlie Bell, but it was minimal.
Large amounts of independent money funding local elections seems more like "politics from a distance," he said, rather than the exchange of ideas with your neighbors.
"When big, dumb money comes in and just kind of sloshes around, everything gets simplified into taglines and billboards. There's a lot of heat but no light," said Ness, who for a decade was campaign manager for the late U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat.
Former St. Louis County Commissioner Frank Jewell filed a complaint this week with the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings regarding Forever Duluth's unregistered limited liability company donor.
"Many people who are invested in good government really oppose and want to see, at the very least, if we allow PACs, that we can tell who it is that's giving the money," he said.
Pat Mullen, an Essentia Health executive, started the PAC. He said the entity in question was legitimate, but wouldn't disclose who was behind it.