Progressive, yet drunken, Mayor of Duluth

If you live within driving distance of Duluth, it makes a great weekend getaway destination. Canal Park is a quaint neighborhood containing restaurants, bars, boutiques and parks. Downtown is a short jaunt up the hill. Mansions line the road to the north, lakeshore properties along the largest lake in the world.

Duluth is a relatively small populous, ranking 137 in the Nelson Media Market index, but their politics are quite progressive. Case in point: it was the first city in Minnesota to ban indoor smoking in bars and restaurants.

Herb Bergson has been the mayor of Duluth since he was elected in 2003. He made headlines this summer when he became the first mayor of Duluth to walk in the city’s gay pride parade. Many of us in the Minneapolis area took note of our smaller city sibling to the north – looking up at them with pride.

Then came the firing of the city’s top administrator, Mark Winson. Bergson taped a pink slip to Winson’s door and then left town. Winson had served the city for many years. The dismissal was made public shortly afterwards and many believed Bergson had exercised poor form.

Bergson is most recently in the news for personal reasons – a drunk driving accident in which he crashed his vehicle into a a highway median barrier. His blood alcohol content was measured 30 minutes later and registered at 0.16.

He claims that he was headed to Eau Claire for the night on his way to Chicago. Driving from Duluth to Eau Claire is a 154 mile drive, estimated at 4 hours by Google.

Bergson has publicly apologized for his behavior and vowed to never drink again. He denies that he has a problem with alcohol.

This makes me sad. Sad that a guy who’s had the courage to stand up for us gays, when other politicians avoid the subject, or take the (current) popular right-wing viewpoint, doesn’t have the courage to admit that he’s got a problem with alcohol.

Herb Bergson, Mayor of Duluth
I’ve been there. I thought that it would be weak of me to admit I had a problem. Little did I know that the real courageous thing to do was admit my problem and accept help from others. That’s the hard thing to do.

Would a non-alcoholic attempt to drive for four hours with a BAC level that’s twice the legal limit? Would a non-alcoholic, former police officer attempt it when they’ve seen the results of drunk driving time and time again? Does a non-alcoholic look like this?

Please, Mr. Bergson, do the courageous thing and accept some help.

Read more at the Startribune. And, because the Strib’s stories eventually expire, I’ve copied it into the extended entry below.

Can Duluth mayor pull himself out of his recent tailspin?

Successful careers as a cop and mayor of Superior, Wis., have been eclipsed by erratic behavior and, earlier this month, a DWI.

Larry Oakes, Star Tribune, December 17, 2005

DULUTH — He’s made enemies, as any aggressive cop or ambitious politician will, and he’s been both.

But until recently, Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson’s worst enemy was never himself.

In 2003, the 49-year-old Bergson became the first person to have been elected mayor in both Duluth and neighboring Superior, Wis. (in 1986).

Since taking office, he’s pressed slumlords to clean up their act, celebrated with Duluth’s gay community and vowed to put a roof over the head of every homeless citizen within 10 years.

But suddenly the biggest challenge of his life may be salvaging his own reputation.

Last week, Bergson made an emotional apology for driving so drunk that his blood-alcohol level registered at 0.16 — twice the legal limit — a half-hour after a single-vehicle accident that led to his arrest Dec. 9.

Some city leaders say they had hoped he would announce he was going into treatment for alcohol abuse, because at least then some of his recent behavior would make sense.

“Some questions have clouded his history, and not just on this incident,” Council Member Jim Stauber said.

Instead, Bergson, his face still stitched from hitting the windshield, did another puzzling thing: He denied having an alcohol problem but vowed never to drink again.

“I feel very humiliated, very ashamed and stripped of my dignity,” Bergson said. His wife, Jacqui, stood by his side.

‘Officer Friendly’

Bergson was born in Duluth but moved with his mother to Superior at age 3, when his parents divorced. He’s said he was a shy kid with a club foot, though you’d know neither from watching him now.

When he was 13, his uncle, a part-time deputy sheriff, was murdered by the estranged husband of a woman he’d tried to help. Bergson later said it was a defining event that helped lead him to a job in the Superior Police Department when he was 20.

He became the police liaison to schools and hosted an annual Halloween party for kids. They called him “Officer Friendly.”

He and Jacqui surrounded themselves with children at home, too. They’ve had more than 25 foster kids over the years and adopted two boys, now 18 and 16.

In 1986 he parlayed his popularity and strong union backing into a stunning upset of three-term Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen by 137 votes. Bergson was 30.

He served two terms. During that time, the gritty port town got a new library, senior center and ice arena. He was praised for those but blamed for spending down the city’s reserve fund and hurting its bond rating.

In 1992, arson destroyed the mayor’s house after a series of break-ins and other frightening incidents. A criminal that Bergson had pursued both as a cop and as mayor was suspected but never charged.

The next year, a wiretap was discovered on Bergson’s private office telephone. Police couldn’t determine who tapped the line or why.

After failing to generate enough statewide support for a planned run for lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, Bergson announced he was dropping out of politics to spend more time with his family.

That lasted a year.

Crossing the bay

In 1995, Bergson moved his family to Duluth and began running for mayor.

Some saw him as a carpetbagger, but in industrial west Duluth, which has more in common with Superior than Duluth’s wealthier eastern neighborhoods, Bergson already was well liked.

His real-estate-agent father, Herb Sr., was active in the DFL and ran for the Duluth City Council in the 1970s.

Bergson the younger lost to two-term Mayor Gary Doty in fall 1995. Undaunted, he worked as a Superior police detective but kept living in Duluth and got elected to the City Council in 2001.

From that platform he ran again for mayor in 2003. This time, with Doty not running, Bergson beat conservative business owner Charlie Bell by a large margin.

“We finally found a job in Duluth,” he joked in his victory speech, to cheers.

He began with big public flourishes, launching an initiative to make Duluth a wireless “e-City of the North,” and spending every Friday touring neighborhoods with department heads and news cameras in tow.

And he drew attention, both in praise and derision.

  • He became Duluth’s first mayor to welcome and support the city’s gay community and its annual pride festival.
  • Warning that retiree health care would eventually bankrupt the city, he drew a hard line, instituting a hiring freeze and advocating a hefty tax increase.
  • Critics began complaining that he was too often missing in action — out of town or unavailable during key events.
  • Finally, in September, Bergson did something that embarrassed the city. He fired Mark Winson, the city’s top administrator, by taping a letter to his office door one night, then leaving for a nonessential trip to San Diego.

Winson had been the City Council’s go-to man on the city’s most pressing issue in decades — the crushing debt from skyrocketing retiree health-care costs.

Bergson answered critics by saying on TV that he’d defend the firing “to the death.”

He later explained that Winson had disregarded too many of his instructions.

But even those who buy his explanation say Bergson shot himself in the foot with the note on the door. On Dec. 7, comedian Al Franken ribbed Bergson about it when the mayor was a guest on Franken’s nationwide Air America talk show.

The drunken-driving arrest came two days later.

Locally, the police mug shot of his battered face eclipsed a flattering image of him that appeared in the New York Times the same day, with a story about local officials tackling the health-care issue.

Even Bergson’s detractors on the City Council say they need his leadership on that issue and are ready to follow him, despite his recent behavior. They hope he can conquer whatever is making him stumble. They note that his history is on his side.

“Herb can be pretty incredible at pulling himself up by the bootstraps,” Councilmember Stauber said. “I think he can do it.”

Duluth’s Mayor

Name: Herbert William Bergson Jr.

Home: Riverside neighborhood in west Duluth.

Family: Married since 1986 to Jacqui Bergson. Two sons, many foster children.

Early Life: Born in Superior, Wis., Sept. 16, 1956. Raised in Duluth and Superior.

Education: Superior Senior High, class of 1974. Attended University of Wisconsin-Superior but didn’t earn degree.

Work: Stint as a railroad worker. Superior police officer, 1977-1987, and 1995-2004.

Politics: Two terms as Superior mayor, 1987-1995. DFL-endorsed Duluth City Council member, 2002- 2004. DFL-endorsed mayor of Duluth since 2004.

4 thoughts on “Progressive, yet drunken, Mayor of Duluth

  1. Wow! There but for the grace of God! Hey Dan. Just wanted to stop by and say hello. I hope you have a great holiday season! PEACE! David D.

  2. It’s almost like, with every bit of good, there’s always a little bad… makes me think of another silver-haired politician…

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