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Duluth mayor looks to future beyond politics

DULUTH, Minn. -- In less than a month, Duluth Mayor Don Ness will be out of a job, and he's still not sure where he'll land next. After 18 years of public service, Ness feels like he's starting over. "A big part of my struggle has been that I'm e...

In less than a month - after eight years as Duluth mayor and 18 years total of public service - Don Ness will be out of a job. He said he's still not sure where he'll land next. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)


DULUTH, Minn. -- In less than a month, Duluth Mayor Don Ness will be out of a job, and he's still not sure where he'll land next.

After 18 years of public service, Ness feels like he's starting over.

"A big part of my struggle has been that I'm essentially starting something new at age 41," he said.


Ness said his eight years as mayor have equipped him with unique skills, which he breaks into three key categories.

First, there's the administrative part of the job, overseeing an organization with about 850 employees and a general fund budget of nearly $80 million.

Second, a mayor can take on projects.

"It's about seeing opportunity. It's about thinking creatively to solve a problem or to take advantage of an opportunity," Ness said.

And third, he said: "There's the politics, whether that's working with the City Council to move an agenda forward or dealing with community dynamics. And that's the piece where, while I understand those politics and I think that over time I've been successful within that world, it's also the piece that I want to move away from."

For emphasis, Ness said, "I don't want to lobby. I don't want to work on campaigns of any sort."

Two paths


After choosing not to seek a third term as mayor, Ness is weighing his options and sees two distinctly different paths he could travel.

"When I think about career opportunities going forward, they're kind of in these two camps of plugging into a larger organization and taking on an administrative or managerial role, or something more entrepreneurial and more project-based that makes use of my problem-solving and involves exploring opportunities in an environment that might be more dynamic and nimble and faster-paced than large institutions like government or large businesses," he said.

Ness said he's currently leaning toward the latter option.

"It's certainly my inclination to move to more of that entrepreneurial side of things. There's certainly more risk in that approach, and yet our family lives very simply, and we don't have a lot of overhead in terms of expenses," he said.

Ness and his wife, Laura, are the parents of three children: Owen, age 4; James, 8; and Eleanor, 10. He is the primary breadwinner, although Laura works part-time at the Montessori School of Duluth.

Ness approaches his job search with a sense of urgency.

"Ideally I'd be able to have several months to decompress and think more broadly about my professional life going forward. Then, I could make a decision when the timing was right. But we can't afford that. Also, I'm excited about taking on that next challenge, and I want to get started on that," Ness said.


Sense of place

The kinds of jobs that hold long-term interest for Ness are often few and far between, making it a challenge for him to find one on demand, especially while dutifully serving out his final days as mayor.

Ness' initial efforts to find post-mayoral employment have centered on his hometown.

"We certainly want to be in Duluth. This is the city that we love. It means so much to both Laura and me," he said.

"That is definitely a priority, and yet we can't afford to close that door completely. There have been some really interesting and attractive opportunities in the Twin Cities, and we have been kind of resisting those because of our loyalty to Duluth. But we also can't dismiss those opportunities fully," he said.

Ness described his challenge, saying: "Especially when thinking about a transition at a higher level and looking for the opportunities that will build upon the experience I've had as mayor and wanting to be in a role to make a positive difference and to add value at a high level, I don't think there's any question that you're going to find more of those opportunities in a larger market. And yet there are a lot of really exciting things taking place in Duluth that can offer those same types of opportunities. You just have to work a little harder to find them."

Farewell to politics?

Ness said he remains committed to making a clean break from politics, at least for a while.

"I want to make a full commitment to my next career and to do that for a lengthy amount of time," he said.

"I don't want political speculation or even that inkling of thinking about a future political office impacting my decision-making or my commitment to that next career. By closing that door and saying I'm not going to run at least in the next 10 to 15 years, I think allows for me to focus on my next career," Ness explained.

At least until his children reach about college age, Ness said he will be content to eschew political office.

"That feels like the right amount of time to fully commit to a different life and a different career. At that point, I would be in my mid-50s, and I think I would take assessment. As I've mentioned before -- if I were to guess, I think it's most likely that I won't be interested in political life at that point -- but I wouldn't close the door to it," he said.

Ness said people have often projected greater political ambitions upon him, even though he felt his highest calling was as mayor.

"The role of mayor is one that I have loved, and I think it is the political job that best aligns with my skill set. While there might be pressures or expectations to move up the ladder, that has never been my motivation," he said.

"By running for other offices, I would be moving further away from my personal strengths and consuming more of my time with things that I really despise, like more partisan politics and more fundraising and more of the politics of personal destruction, which I just have no patience for," Ness said.

While Ness has often been asked about potential congressional aspirations, at this time he professes to have none.

"It's not worth it, at least not for me," he said.

Winding down

Ness has approached his final days in office in what he considers a thoughtful fashion.

"It has been such a long process to wrap things up," said Ness, noting that it has been more than a year since he announced he would not seek re-election.

"That has allowed me enough time to prioritize issues. I've also had to come to terms with the projects that haven't been completed, and I'm looking to hand those off. Thinking about the transition and having (Mayor-elect) Emily Larson ready to step into this role makes that so much easier," he said.

"I honestly can't think of a better situation to transition because I have tremendous respect for Emily and what she'll bring to this job. She's going to bring skills and energy to this role that I don't have and will hopefully be able to better address those projects that still need a solution," Ness said.

Sometimes, handing over control has nevertheless been difficult.

"There are times when that feels like a loss, and yet because I have so much confidence in Emily it certainly has made the process of letting go so much easier," Ness said.

Ness said he expects his impending departure will be bittersweet.

"As I prepare to transition out of this role, the thing I'm recognizing I'm going to miss the most is my co-workers here in City Hall," he said.

Ness described his colleagues as "a team that is really passionate about challenging the status quo and coming up with creative solutions." He said they have demonstrated "a willingness to make the tough decisions that will hopefully translate into positive change in Duluth."

"In thinking about leaving this office, that's the piece that feels like a real loss. I don't get to be part of that team any more," he said.

But Ness dreams of the future in a non-governmental setting, too.

"I'd love to find an environment that would allow me to be part of a similar type of team that has that passion to create positive change," he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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