Ness reminisces, challenges; Former Duluth mayor urges Elyites to find routes to consensus

by Tom Coombe -

Don Ness hailed the passion he sees in Ely, offered some perspective on leadership and challenged local business leaders to build bridges.
Those were among the themes of the former Duluth mayor’s keynote address Wednesday night at the Ely Chamber of Commerce’s 26th annual “Smile, You’re in Ely,” event.
Over 100 people attended and listened to Ness, who served two terms as Duluth mayor, winning election in 2007 and 2011 before opting against a third term and taking employment in the private sector.
Ness lauded Chamber members and Ely business owners and residents and said he was a fan of the community’s passion and entrepreneurial spirit.
“I look around this room and hear the stories and there are like 100 people choosing to live in Ely not because it’s easy, but because you love this place,” said Ness. “That fuels the passion and the sense of entrepreneurship.”
Ness stressed the importance of community leadership and cited the late U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar as an example.
Shortly after graduating college, Ness took a job on the campaign staff of Oberstar, and one of his initial duties was shuttling the Congressmen to several Range communities for July 4 parades.
In a span of 24 hours, Ness overslept, was stopped for speeding, caused Oberstar to be late for parade stops and even locked his vehicle keys in the trunk.
Oberstar’s reaction spoke volumes, according to Ness.
“I couldn’t believe how many things had gone wrong,” said Ness. “I apologized and he said ‘Donny, the day didn’t go as you planned but I’m proud of you because you didn’t lose your head.’ Here was somebody who was one of the most powerful members of Congress and I had ruined his day. He was going out of his way to make me feel better about it. What he did was he earned a lifetime of loyalty and instead of working for him for two years I ended up working for him for 10.”
Ness used his memories of Oberstar to challenge Ely leaders, particularly when it comes to conflict.
“There’s a broader challenge in society, a sense of finding a common narrative in a community,” said Ness.
Ness said social media has helped change communities and leadership where instead of “creating consent,” “there’s value in the public sphere of gaining conflict points and gaining one idea to the detriment of another idea.”
The better option, according to Ness, is to “counter the convention.” and find opportunities to build consensus.
To do that, leaders must go outside of their comfort zone, Ness said.
“Instead of (listening to differing opinions) we are in our bubbles and with a whole bunch of very like minded people in our bubbles,” said Ness. “What that results in is being very difficult to work with outside of our bubble. We’ve lost the ability to listen to dissenting opinions. The challenge is to find coalitions and be OK with conversations that work through messy differences.”
Ness pointed to his own administration’s efforts to tackle a massive unfunded retiree health care liability. Rather than cast blame, Ness said he called for the city to take ownership of the problem and take steps to fix it.
He said the lesson can be transferred to any community, including Ely.
“If you take the same sense of entrepreneurship and apply it to some of the biggest challenges and the problems that tend to hold communities back you will succeed,” he said.
That requires acknowledging conflict areas head on and agreeing to talk about divisive issues, according to Ness.
Since leaving office, Ness has written a book, worked in an administrative role at Duluth’s Lake Superior College and most recently was hired as executive director of the Ordean Foundation.
During a brief question-and-answer session, Ness said he had no interest in returning to politics and questioned whether his style of leadership could work at the state or federal level.