Don Ness has crowd surfed with R.T. Rybak at a Trampled By Turtles show. He loves craft beer. He’s even danced “Gangnam Style” in a YouTube plug for Duluth’s Rubber Chicken Theater. None of this, however, explains the 39-year-old Duluth mayor’s unprecedented popularity. He ran unopposed for a second term in 2011 with an approval rating near 90 percent. And then, a year ago, flash floods devastated the North Shore. As tourists begin to return, we talked to Ness about the city he loves—that very much loves him back.
How does it feel to be Minnesota’s most popular mayor?
If Minnesota mayors were the Ghostbusters, R.T. would be Bill Murray, Chris [Coleman] would be Dan Aykroyd, and I’d be the tall dorky one with glasses that nobody remembers. I know the pecking order around here. I’m quite comfortable being the nerd from Duluth.
Those guys don’t run unopposed.
True. Our unofficial campaign slogan was “Keep Duluth Shark-Free—Vote Ness.” But really, it’s about what’s happening in Duluth. People are projecting their excitement about the city onto the mayor.
Your goal is to grow Duluth to 90,000 people. Give us your elevator pitch for making the move.
I don’t believe in making a hard sell. People either get Duluth or they don’t. So much of what we’re given these days in America is conformity and stasis. Life in the suburbs is way more comfortable. But for that 10 percent of people who want a more authentic and dynamic experience, who want outdoor recreation and an arts and music scene, I want them to think about living in Duluth.
You’ve got a lot of nerve declaring Duluth the Craft Beer Capital of Minnesota.
Don’t blame me for speaking the truth! We have everything you need to make great beer: the world’s best fresh water, entrepreneurial spirit, and a bunch of guys with big, impressive beards. Plus Duluth tends to attract the sort of person who’d rather have one really well-made, substantial beer than a six-pack of yellow, corporate rice beer. If you’re looking for conformity, don’t come to Duluth.
What’s in the mayoral mini-fridge?
Lake Superior Special Ale. Summit Saga. Surly Furious. When I really want to treat myself, I get a growler of Starfire Pale Ale from Fitger’s Brewhouse. Dave Hoops from the Brewhouse is brewing a new IPA that he named in my honor, so if folks make it up north this summer they can test it out.
What’s it called?
“The Mayor.” Dave is referring to it as “His Hoppi-Ness.” I’m hoping people who try it will exclaim, “The Mayor is awesome!”
In fact, you were having a beer when the floods began last year, right?
I was. I was downtown having a beer with friends thinking, “Oh, it’s just a hard rain.” It wasn’t until the next day that it hit me: we are on the verge of real disaster. I was driving down the hillside and seeing manhole covers get tossed in the air, big chunks of street tumbling down the avenues. And the rain continued to fall.
A year later, how’s the city looking?
We’re probably 30 percent through our recovery. Most of what we did last year was emergency repairs: assessment work, working through the red tape. The public infrastructure will be taken care of; that will be fixed. But I worry about those residents who are struggling with their own finances.
Private-property damage was estimated at $30 million—not good considering FEMA denied Duluthians individual homeowner assistance.
That was a devastating blow. I’m still angry about it. I’ve seen too many people struggling to rebuild their lives from the impact of a 24-hour storm. Fortunately, the state and private donations have picked up much of the slack.
And let’s not forget Feisty the Seal. How is the Lake Superior Zoo now?
No entity in Duluth was harder hit than the zoo. It will be a massive challenge to save it.
On a happier note, Duluth’s Homegrown Music Festival, which you used to run as festival director, is celebrating 15 years.
Homegrown is the embodiment of the cool ethic that’s happening in Duluth: 180 bands and they each get $50 to play. Trampled by Turtles and Charlie Parr get the same deal as the kid punk band.
Any undiscovered Duluth acts we should know about?
I could name 50, starting with Actual Wolf, Sarah Krueger, Coyote, Saint Anyway. And anyone who lived through the ’80s should check out Marc Gartman’s “Fever Dream” on YouTube. It’s brilliant.
What’s the story behind your own YouTube sensation?
I agreed to the video before I had any idea what “Gangnam Style” was. Fortunately, I had enough sense to refuse their idea that I should wear sequined hot pants. It could have been a lot worse.
We also saw the “official” Duluth “Harlem Shake” video. Any other memes you’re obsessed with?
There’s a funny one of me as Mr. Rogers—pretty appropriate.
Might be the funniest thing to come out of Duluth since comedian Maria Bamford. Did you know her?
When I was in my 20s, my grandma tried to set me up with Maria because Maria’s father was her dermatologist. We were talking about how she was starting to have some success out in California, and my grandma was convinced that Dr. Bamford’s daughter would be perfect for me. But I don’t take romantic advice from grandmas.
Gregory J. Scott is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Minnesota Monthly.