Duluth refuses to give incumbent mayor a third term

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DULUTH, Minn. — Roger Reinert will be the city’s next mayor after defeating the incumbent officeholder, Emily Larson, on Tuesday night.

The two longtime DFLers squared off against each other in the tightest mayoral race since Don Ness faced Charlie Bell in 2007.

Despite running against an incumbent, Reinert emerged as the political favorite in the race, after a strong primary performance, garnering 60% of the vote to Larson’s 40% in final but unofficial returns.

Larson managed to narrow that gap slightly in the general election, shrinking the margin as Reinert received just 60% of the vote to her 40%, according to unofficial results released Tuesday.

As far as the keys to the race, Reinert said: “I think it really was a couple things. It was how we approached it and being really thoughtful about getting out on the front end and meeting with people to have those conversations that really informed the five big issues that we just kept talking about.

“And I think it was about staying the course of being positive, forward-looking and focused on the issues,” he said.

Larson did not return calls from the Duluth News Tribune on Tuesday night.

She did issue a statement: “Duluth is better today because of the work we’ve done together these past eight years. Thank you to everyone who joined me in this work and to everyone who worked on my campaign to continue this progress. Together, 265 campaign volunteers door-knocked 18,000 homes and called more than 8,000 more.

“Most importantly, thank you to residents across the community for engaging in and with local government. Regardless of outcome and election result, we live in a community where people spent time to listen, learn, share, volunteer and vote,” Larson said.

The incumbent mayor received her party’s endorsement, while Reinert decided not to seek it, noting that local races need not be partisan contests.

This mayoral race will go down as Duluth’s most expensive campaign to date, with spending through late October topping $466,000, and political action committees in support of both candidates contributing significant sums of money in support of each camp.

Some of those advertisements took a negative turn, criticizing Reinert for his record and referring to him as “Risky Reinert.”

Reinert predicted the attack ads would backfire.

“What I think is we’re a big small town,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve previously, and people have seen my service over time. If they don’t know me, they know someone who does. As that negative campaigning kept coming, it just turned a lot of people off. And I think we continued to signal that we don’t need to do this. We all say we want better, and we can actually do that.

“We affirmed that you can win without going negative, and I know Minnesota was watching,” Reinert said.

Reinert, 53, has a political career that dates back to 2004, when he was appointed to the Duluth City Council to fill a vacancy left by newly elected Mayor Herb Bergson. His colleagues elected him to serve as council president in 2006 and 2008.

In 2008, he successfully ran for the Minnesota House of Representatives. In 2010, Reinert was elected to the Minnesota Senate, where he served two terms. Reinert is an attorney and commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

Larson, 50, was seeking her third term as mayor of Duluth. Her political career started in 2011, when she emerged as the top vote-getter in a Duluth City Council at large race. In 2015, she was elected mayor, succeeding Don Ness in the role.

Larson handily won two previous mayoral races, receiving 72% of the vote against opponent Chuck Horton in 2015 and receiving nearly 64% of the vote against David Nolle in 2019.

But a third term as mayor will elude Larson. She delivered a concession speech to her opponent at Bent Paddle Brewing Co. shortly after 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.

“This is a very difficult job and although we ran against one another and competed fiercely about our ideas, I truly wish him well,” Larson said.

Reinert has pledged to bring a new leadership team to City Hall, and said the people have spoken.

“The closing argument was very simple. If people thought we were moving in the right direction, they were going to vote for a third term. But if they had concerns and they wanted to see something different, this was the first meaningful race for mayor they had in 20 years,” he said.

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