Not only is Emily Larson the first woman to be elected Mayor of Duluth in its 150-year history, she’s also the first to be llama-certified. The 39th individual to be elected to the post, she is almost certainly the most outdoorsy, most athletic, warmest, and may even prove to be the most engaging and approachable of the bunch. During a recent visit she left me with one of the most favorable first impressions of anybody I’ve ever met.
Observe that I am not ranking her among her predecessors in terms of potential effectiveness in office. She brings an entirely different skill set to the table than any we’ve witnessed thus far. My conversation with her, recounted here in part, continues a quest to meet people doing exactly what they were built to do at exactly the right time. Previously I described this as a goal of interviewing artists, but now I can see that these people are artists of life.
The llamas, requiring the aforementioned certification, joined Emily and family on a five-day hiking trip through Wyoming’s backcountry. Not only did they provide interesting companionship, the pack animals assisted by carrying much of the family of four’s gear.
This is not Don Ness with lipstick. Most of us agree that Don was the right man at the right time. Similarly, Emily comes along at a unique moment in history where I believe we’ll find her to be not only the right woman, but literally the only logical choice to succeed the man who some have referred to as “America’s most popular mayor.”
Ever on the lookout to meet interesting people, I reached out to Emily a few days before the election by attempting to invite myself over for dinner with the family. To sweeten the deal, I offered to assist with meal prep and do the dishes. Wishing to protect the privacy of her two boys, she declined my generous offer. She did, however, carve out nearly two hours from her busy schedule for the sake of an unconventional interview. In the process, I acquired a friend.
I was struck by many things at the very moment of arriving at Emily’s house. First off, my car temporarily became stuck on a horrific patch of ice on her street, which some might call one of the worst roads in Duluth. Not only is it pockmarked with potholes, but it’s an actual dirt road right in Duluth’s hillside. Who knew these still existed in the city? I actually relished the thought of being stuck right in front of the new Mayor’s home, and having her rush out to give me a push. As fun as that would have been, the car unfortunately found purchase on some gravel and wriggled free.
You can see the horrible drainage in front of her home by observing the sheet of glare ice that covered the street. She has awoken more than once to discover that their old pickup truck has slid down the hill from her driveway and come to a rest right in the middle of the street, which makes her laugh. She loves this anachronistic little road, and has no plans to get it paved under her watch.
A casual observer of the election, I assumed Emily was rich. Being so well-spoken and connected in local politics, I suspect many of you assumed the same.
Emily, and her husband Doug, are normal folks like you or me. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it immediately put me at ease. They live in a typical century-old home in Duluth’s Hillside neighborhood. While charming and boasting a commanding view high above the Lake, it’s certainly not a mansion. Many of your friends live in similar dwellings. I once rented a college house—a real dive—just a block away. Emily and company are not insulated from the hardscrabble grittiness that makes up much of Duluth.
Here she is in her living room. You’ll notice that much of the home’s original character remains intact (from woodwork to windows).
Many Duluthians will recognize the work of Adam Swanson in the painting behind her. A strong piece, the penguins, bike, and hot air balloons are vintage Swanson. I enjoyed an engaging visit with this artist several months ago, which you can read here. Our next Mayor, like her predecessor, is an ambassador and lover of local culture. I also appreciate the ever-so-slight mess represented by the single magazine on the couch. This is a subtle clue that Emily isn’t concerned about putting on airs or conveying an unrealistic image of perfection.
Her home is tidy, functional, and lived in. Though my time there amounted to only a few minutes, there was a strong sense of family, love, and shared experiences being valued over any gaudy possessions. In fact, some might say that the original hardwood floors could use refinishing. I prefer them the way they are.
Here’s the stunning view from Emily’s front yard:
We met on a brisk and invigorating Saturday morning. At only 15 degrees, and coming just two days after an unseasonable afternoon in the low 60s, it felt chilly. We walked for the better part of an hour, and Larson never complained about the cold or the ice. Rather, she exuded gratitude for a beautiful morning, and is clearly very comfortable outside regardless of the conditions. As an outdoorsman myself, I readily appreciate this kind of attitude in others. It tends to be along the leading edge of numerous favorable traits. For one thing, she clearly isn’t one to sit down and complain.
I immediately made note of her agility and confidence while charging straight down a steep and slippery hill. Later, scrambling up a rock, she continued a blistering pace. The outdoors is clearly her natural habitat, and is quite likely where she’s most comfortable. Her navigation of the terrain—like a mountain goat—immediately proved her mettle as a trail runner.
I’ve never encountered a faster walker in my entire life. Her husband can’t keep up with her, and it can even be a point of contention! Prior to a stroll together, they need to set clear expectations for the kind of walk they’ll be enjoying. Emily overflows with energy. When channeling it in the forward direction, she really moves!
She regularly runs or walks a seven-mile loop through Chester, Bagley, and Hartley. This is how she processes difficult problems or plans out the writing of speeches and whatnot. When asked about her marathon experience her eyes lit up as she said, “I used to be good!” Indeed, a personal best in the 3:20s is laudable. Today she just runs and walks for enjoyment. Physically fit, a youthful 42, and outdoorsy, she’s sure to be a hit among Duluth’s large crowd of outdoor fanatics.
Emily’s spiritedness is infectious and inspiring. Since our meeting I have stepped up my own training regimen considerably. Due to my practice of delivering books by bike and handling most errands on two wheels, running and simply being in the woods for enjoyment has taken a back seat. Larson is far busier than most of us, and it’s easy to see how this priority is grounding for her. I also possess what is perhaps an unhealthy fear of being dusted by certain classes of people on the race course.
Since Roger Reinert defeated me by a few seconds in a 5k during the Fall trail series a couple years back, I have a strong aversion to being passed by politicians. There’s also a certain pastor in my church, both younger and better looking than me, who threatens to charge past me one day. Even lapsed runners do not wish to be beaten by men of the cloth or politicians. Like-minded runners of Duluth, you’ve been warned! On the positive side, I reckon these people push us to live up to more of our potential.
At last our meandering journey brought us to The Snooty Fox Tea Shop, which Emily appears to frequent with some regularity. The bright sun was most refreshing as we relaxed in these chairs while waiting for it to open. Inside, Emily treated us to “tea for two,” which was fantastic.
Emily is an amazing human being. I am very proud that we as a city have elected her as Mayor. When it comes to connecting with other people—even someone as lowly and unimportant as me (this is not hyperbole)—Larson is at her best. I’m not sure that I have ever met anyone else who exuded such warmth and authenticity right from the get-go. I recognize that I am gushing here—I’m smitten, in fact— but our next leader is someone whom you’ll find easy to love. Larson represents the best of all of us.
In many ways the health of a community can be seen in its attitude toward its elected leaders. Something changed in how we view our mayor under Don Ness. Even more than his many accomplishments, I think it comes down to our positive attitude with what’s happening in Duluth these days. We feel offended when people make disparaging remarks of him, as well we should. This doesn’t mean you should agree with 100% of the Mayor’s agenda. Just remember that he, and soon to be she, represents the very best of us. Be involved in the political process. Attend policy meetings. Let your voice be heard. But remember that they have a bigger picture to keep in mind. Love them in spite of their flaws. Delight in their humanity. Be thankful for their sacrifices.
This Fall I set out my books for sale at the Lester River Rendezvous. I had the following review from Perfect Duluth Day printed out for people to peruse. It features my humble offering alongside Mayor Ness’s new book. Within a few minutes of taping the pages down, a huge cloud of negativity hung over the table for the better part of an hour. I don’t know how it summoned him from out of the woodwork, but a gentleman proceeded to rail against Don over parking issues on a particular street. It was crazy! The guy really hates Ness. It wasn’t until that moment that I fully grasped the negativity that even the most popular mayor in history must grapple with. I commented on this to Emily Larson, and she confirmed that 89% approval rating often can mean an intense hatred from the remaining 11%.
Recently I donned a seldom-used sweatshirt that still had that small, red, I Voted sticker affixed to it. Dressed in work clothes for hard labor outdoors, I tore it off with some annoyance. The simple act of voting isn’t something that we should sit around and be proud of. Rather, we should strive to improve and beautify our neighborhoods and city. Voting is just a small part of that. The best thing you have to offer your community is friendship. Be a good neighbor. Start with your literal neighbors, local shopkeepers, and push out from there. Perhaps seek out a friendship with your city council reps or even the Mayor if you so desire. It’s hard to be angry with a friend or someone you care for from a distance, even when an occasional decision might disappoint you.
Here’s Emily giving a toast at The Red Herring Lounge as part of Cornucopia. She appeared on stage after Teague Alexy. The crowd was mesmerized. It set a remarkable tone for Don Ness, Charlie Parr, and Tin Can Gin, who came after her.
At the event, I was impressed by her ability to connect with people from all walks of life. She came into politics through an unusual channel, at least when considering all the attorneys and businessmen normally in charge. I believe it makes her well-suited for this line of work.
Emily has spent her entire adult life in Duluth, having arrived at the age of 17 to study social work at St. Scholastica, where she received a generous financial aid package. She later obtained a master’s degree in social work at UMD. I never did get to ask why one would need an M.A. in social work, but I think it’s indicative of the uncommon level of empathy she possesses. Don’t mistake this as a tendency to feel sorry for others. What Emily brings to the table—unique among all her predecessors—is a rare ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In short, she connects. Her ability to make connections will almost certainly be her greatest asset, and our’s by extension.
She worked for 12 years at CHUM’s drop-in center, where she worked with adults and families in crisis. She developed strong listening skills in this role, which enabled her to identify problems, develop plans to solve them, and worked to empower people to create change in their lives. In a sense her job hasn’t changed, only the client. Emily spoke with some eloquence on the topic:
Everybody has a story. If you just slow down and listen to it you can find yourself in that story. Once you’ve slowed down and connected with that story you can’t undo that. You’ll have a loyalty to that story forever.
She even commented that she can find herself in my story, while listing some of the specific reasons why. Can you, dear reader, understand how validating it is when somebody as important as Emily Larson says something like this to somebody like me,”one of the least of these?”
My wife urged me to rewrite this post, observing that it’s too long and gushy. As usual, she is almost certainly correct. However, she wasn’t there. Due to a past that was often bereft of simple kindnesses, I am blessed with an utter susceptibility that allows an uncommon ability to revel in it now. I do not apologize for this. The annoyed reader can feel free to schedule their own interview and write more critically. As for me, I could end up disagreeing with Emily 60% of the time. I might even do so publicly. But I will never, EVER, lose this sense of loyalty and admiration. It will remain steadfast. The world needs more of this. Not less. One short visit, combined with mutual interest and respect, was all it took. Furthermore, I am no sycophant of the DFL. Though I now consider myself to be an independent, not many years have elapsed since I’ve written publicly about leaning Republican.
Emily ran as a strong candidate without playing the gender card. I arrived at our meeting completely uninterested in the topic. And yet, after meeting her I encountered the very real value that her femininity brings to the table. I’m hesitant to even bring up this issue. I believe my sentiments are fairly common, however. I’d like to refer to Larson as a New Feminist. She doesn’t carry the chip on her shoulder that some of the trailblazers who have preceded her seem to possess, though Emily makes a good point by stating that she is the beneficiary of their hard work. Larson possesses strong feminine qualities that we can benefit from as a society. I think there have been certain feminists over the years who come off as, shall we say, oh, what’s that word…..? Bitchy. Yeah, that’s it.
There. I said it. Emily will govern as Emily. She hasn’t spent her career trying to prove that she’s as strong as a man. It doesn’t even matter. She brings an entirely different skill set to the table than what most men have to offer. Her ability to connect with people from different backgrounds— and build trust—will enable her to forge agreements and make compromises that might seem impossible at the outset. Mark my words here.
As the father of a precocious daughter, I don’t even want the notion of a potential inequity between the genders to enter her vernacular. My hope is that she’ll pursue her passions without the slightest concern of systemic hindrances or glass ceilings, and will see many of her dreams come true. She knows she’ll never play tackle football in the NFL, but Emma should feel free to go after anything her heart desires.
I remarked that political strategists might try to make Larson into some kind of political rock star. Major elections are on the horizon, after all, and she has already heard from some of the national campaigns. Things could change at some point, but right now she has no intention of getting involved in all that. Emily observes that it’s easy to stay grounded and humble when you have kids, a family life, and live in the Hillside neighborhood with that crazy road, have an old house, etc. Most of her life revolves around the same things as for you and me. Her kids need a ride some place. They want 10 bucks for something, or are asking if a friend can sleep over. She says, “You are reminded of who you are every day in that role.”
There’s plenty to do while getting ramped up for being Mayor. This week, for example, she is taking part in 20 separate meetings with city staff while developing her vision, integrating with city staff and what they’re already doing, etc. Now that’s a full plate!
Later this month, she and the family will retreat to a sunny locale for a week of rest and relaxation. They are keenly aware that life is about to change. Significantly.
Emily grew up in St. Paul. Her mother, Norita Dittberner-Jax, is a celebrated poet. A quick review of her work shows an obvious love for St. Paul. While growing up, she was exposed to many of the great cultural things that Minnesota’s capital city has to offer. So I asked, “Why Duluth.” After arriving at the age of 17, Emily has enjoyed 25 unbroken years of sinking roots in Duluth. This is her chosen home.
Amazingly, it dates back to a vacation she took with her family when she was just five years old. It left an indelible impression. They lived near the railroad tracks in St. Paul. With excitement they walked with their suitcases to catch a train bound for Duluth for a long weekend. If I heard her correctly, this was the only family vacation they ever took (her parents were later divorced). Duluth was all they could afford, and it was a big deal to arrive on the train. She recalls disembarking from the train at the Depot and all of them walking with their suitcases downtown to stay at the Holiday Inn. Larson still lights up when remembering this. “I just loved it!” As with most who choose to live here, Lake Superior looms large in her psyche. “It’s very humbling. I love looking at it, swimming in it, walking beside it.”
I’d say she can be placed squarely among the New Duluthians who, like me and hopefully you, are here because we love this place. This is not a place to be taken for granted.
Emily’s mother lays out this notion unusually well in poetry. Two excellent poems written by Norita Dittberner-Jax are included in an outstanding anthology, Amethyst and Agate, published this year by Holy Cow! Press. The one I chose not to include might even be superior, but I’ve chosen to share this one with you today:
LEVITATING TOWARD DULUTH
I watch for the first pine, a flag of the country ahead,
and listen for the knock of geography shifting gears,
land rising out of bedrock and farm field.
Everything around me appears ordinary,
but inside I am waiting to be conducted
through something grand.
We climb higher, a long string of cars
crossing the St. Louis River, cutting through
the last elevation, then on to the top.
Suddenly the lake, huge and primal,
hidden behind the hunched shoulders of the hills
and with it the ships, bridges, and railroads,
all the commerce of water and land.
For a split second, we shimmer like trout
in the great flow of it, each bay and pier,
then shoot downhill into the stone channels
of the freeway, all our climbing released,
and arrive on the other side
of the city and onto the North Shore
quiet now, we are inside geography,
we hum along, a string of cars
whose passengers turn naturally
to the thin line between water and sky
where all our hopes gather.
I’d like to thank Duluth’s poet laureate, Jim Johnson, for loaning his personal copy of Amethyst and Agate to me, which also features his own handiwork. Though we’ve never met, he entrusted it to me through the hands of mutual friends, for the simple love of poetry.
May we all be gifted with the vision, if only an inkling, of the poets in our midst.
Norita, I’d love to organize a groovy event that features you reading some of your works, appearances from other poets in the area, live music, and miscellaneous playfulness. The process of tracking down your work has sent me down a path of seeking more. I’ll be waiting eagerly beside my rotary phone for your call!