Mayor Emily Larson of Duluth, who is a snowboarder and ice climber, likes pushing herself to try new things and “being a little bit afraid.” It’s this approach that got her into politics to make a difference in her community. “People may not like my decisions, and they may not like me, but they will know I stand for something, and they will know that I stand with values,” she says.
A port city located at the westernmost tip of Lake Superior, Duluth is one of Minnesota’s top tourist destinations in the summertime (the city’s tourism industry has had a rough year, but otherwise it attracts about 6.7 million tourists every year).
It’s also worth noting that politics in Minnesota is different. The Democratic Party does not exist in Minnesota as it does throughout the rest of the country. In 1944, Minnesota’s Democratic Party merged with its left-wing Farmer-Labor Party to become the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
Originally from St. Paul, Larson attended the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, the city that has become her home. For 12 years, she worked as a social worker helping those who had experienced homelessness, as well as people with low to no income. “I loved that work. It was value-driven and was really focused on the collective good. I became acutely aware that there were underlying root causes of the families standing in front of me,” she recalls. While obtaining her master’s degree, Larson wanted to further explore and examine, with more intensity, the root causes and policy solutions, which eventually led her to work on and manage political and issue-based campaigns.
In 2011, there was an open city-council seat in Duluth. Larson did not see any candidates in the race who she thought represented the experience that she had or the experience that many women in her community needed. Seeing a void in the candidate pool, she decided to try her hand at politics. “Stepping into the decision to run, it was not natural for me,” she shares. “When I sought to recruit someone for the seat, I was challenged by people in my life asking, ‘Why are you thinking about someone else when you are capable of doing?’ Instead of asking myself why I should run, I started asking myself, ‘Why shouldn’t I run?’ I am grateful that I had the courage to run, be myself, and serve with both dignity and authenticity.”
A member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, she won an at-large seat as the top vote-getter on the city council, a campaign that launched her political career. She served as the president of the Duluth City Council, and in 2016, became the first female mayor in the city’s history, winning with nearly 72% of the vote. She was then re-elected in 2019, securing roughly 64% of the vote. To say that she is a popular mayor would be an understatement. “I took a sideways path into politics, I never set out to run for office,” Larson asserts. “I was raised in a household that was very active. We participated in boycotts and marches, and as I became an adult, it became clear to me that participating in my democracy wasn’t really a choice – it was a question of how I would do it and where I wanted to have impact.”
This past year has been a challenge for her as a mayor, and she feels strongly about enforcing the public-health guidance put out by the state of Minnesota. “I’ve made a lot of choices that are very difficult for me personally, as a parent, as a daughter, as a wife, as a community member, and all of those roles blend together this year. You cannot decouple your experience outside of the job from your experience in it,” explains Larson, who, in April, penned a column in the Duluth News Tribune titled “Duluth’s spirit isn’t canceled for COVID-19,” which inspired residents to help one another and get through these troubling times together. They listened – they stayed home and practiced social distancing as the community took the virus seriously. For a while, Minnesota had the nation’s lowest per-capita infection rate, and then on September 30th, President Trump held a campaign rally in Duluth, where between 2,500 and 3,000 people showed up – they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, many without masks. A month later, the Minnesota Department of Health reported three COVID-19 outbreaks related to the campaign events held in the state in September.
However, Larson’s focus on community-building through the pandemic continues to unify people. “This year has been extremely strenuous and is a year that has pushed me to my limits in terms of capacity and strength of focus and vision. On one hand, it is the hardest I have ever worked, and it is just non-stop, 7 days a week, and it is all day long. On the other hand, it has a very clear focus and vision. The vision is very clear on what we need to do, what our objectives are, what we need to accomplish, and what I don’t have clarity on yet is the path through COVID, the full path through this intersection of racial awareness and racial reckoning, this intersection through financial insecurity and high unemployment,” she contends. “A crisis makes everything abundantly clear – you go into your mode, and you get into your rhythm and habit of doing things, and your team does the same. There are variables you can impact to make lives better, and decisions that can be made that lift people up and bring them together.”
In January 2020, Senator Tina Smith – who had praised Larson for her good work, particularly her commitment to increasing affordable housing in Duluth – invited her to the State of the Union as her guest. Larson’s dedication and approach inspired the senator to conduct a statewide listening tour to address and tackle disparities in housing and homelessness. “I admire Senator Smith, and what I have learned from her is to pick the right work that matters,” Larson says. “There can always be quick wins that a community can see, but the lasting work is the work that makes a difference in people’s lives. If you are doing good work, the people that need to know will know. You do not have to be out there tooting your own horn. Do good work, and if you are doing good work and making a difference, people notice.”
Writer: Matt Anthes
Photographer & Videographer: Erin Wakefield
Editor: Eiko Watanabe
Special thanks to EPK Media (@myepk & @epkmedia - epkmedia.com)