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Bergson runs again after all

Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson on Tuesday officially entered a crowded 12-person primary race for his $78,000-a-year job, ending several weeks of rampant speculation about his political future.

Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson on Tuesday officially entered a crowded 12-person primary race for his $78,000-a-year job, ending several weeks of rampant speculation about his political future.

"I've been waiting for a candidate to prove that they are a person of the people," he told reporters. "Nobody's sticking up for the people. The city checkbook is getting thinner and thinner, and nobody seems to care."

Bergson said he hadn't planned another run but had been contacted by a number of people over the past couple of days who are concerned that no one in this field of candidates will hold the unions' and SMDC Health System's feet to the fire. Bergson said he was heartened Tuesday afternoon to meet with about 30 members of the Duluth Heights Community Garden Club, and almost everyone there encouraged him to run.

During two terms as Superior's mayor, Bergson was surrounded by controversy. Former finance director Tim Nelson contended Bergson vastly increased Superior's debt. He rankled environmentalists for supporting a plan to deposit St. Louis River dredge spoils in the municipal forest, only changing his mind at the last moment. And Bergson was criticized by development leaders for playing just a minor role in the process to obtain permits to allow Wal-Mart to build on wetlands -- a project that helped ignite South Tower Avenue retail development.

He also was plagued by an arson fire at his home that prompted a whisper campaign about possible suspects but no formal charges. The crime was never solved.

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He quickly established a Duluth residence when his Superior mayoral term concluded, ran unsuccessfully for Duluth mayor but rebounded with a city council victory before becoming the city's chief executive.

His first term as Duluth mayor has been a combination of success, controversy and unpredictability.

Bergson has shown a strong-willed soft spot for the disadvantaged, tackled retiree liability, increased low-income housing, supported local business expansion, extricated the city from its commitment to the defunct Northwest Airlines maintenance base, trimmed city employees and most recently put the municipal golf courses under private management.

But he's also clashed personally with city councilors, despite pledging better relations with the council when he came into office. The city faces a $6.7 million budget shortfall for 2008. Bergson's record also was blemished, many say irrevocably, two years ago when fired his chief administrative officer by posting a note on his office door. He also was arrested for drunken driving.

Subsequently, Bergson promised he was finished with public life. In June 2006 and again this March, Bergson declared that he was not seeking re-election, insisting he needed to take the election politics out of his position to resolve the $309 million retiree health-care liability.

When asked whether people might not trust his intentions after he announced twice that he wouldn't run again, Bergson said: "I think they know they can trust me. They also know that I can change my mind."

Regarding labor negotiations, Bergson would have become a lame-duck mayor. He said if he's not in office, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 66 will wait and negotiate with his successor (which the union denies.). The Duluth police union also is without a contract, but is in binding arbitration with the state.

"We know that Mayor Herb Bergson's combative style has not helped Duluth move forward," said AFSCME spokeswoman Mary Theuer. Many in the business community share that view.

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SMDC Health System and the city have been unable to reach agreement on the amount SMDC will pay to lease parking spaces in a new city ramp built in part for its use. Bergson said it was other candidates' criticism of his hard-line stance about a week ago that pushed him into the race.

SMDC spokeswoman Kim Kaiser said "We are just as interested in resolving this issue now or in the future, no matter who is at the helm."

Others who have filed to run for mayor include Charlie Bell, Meg Bye, Joanne Fay, Greg Gilbert, Todd Gremmels, Sunny Helbacka, Reiner Nelson, Don Ness, Jim Pratt, John Socha and Robert Wagner.

"I'm disappointed that Herb did not keep his word to the public," Bye said.

"When someone is in a position of leadership and authority, their word is the most important thing they've got."

Gilbert, the 2nd District city councilor, said last weekend he bet someone a Coke that Bergson would run.

"It doesn't surprise me. I've been saying for months that he was going to run," said Eli Miletich, a retired Duluth police chief, former union leader and city retiree organizer.

None of the major candidates said they'd change their campaign strategies because of the mayor, but Ness admitted that it will alter the race's dynamics.

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Bergson said he will not raise a lot of money or be beholden to special interests, relying on volunteers and knocking on doors.

Bye, a former city councilor and city human rights officer, said from her campaigning she knows many Duluthians have the impression that city government is dysfunctional. Bergson's presence in the race certainly won't change those ideas, she said.

"We are committed to our positive campaign, and I think Herb's actions speak for themselves," said At Large councilor Ness. "Unfortunately, I think it becomes a campaign that's morebackwards-looking than forward-looking to a greater extent because it becomes about the incumbent's record. Of course, that can be both pro and con for the incumbent."

Bell, the race's early top donation-raiser, dismissed Bergson's claims.

"I'm going to say it doesn't matter to me whoever is going to run because I always felt I have to run to stop what's happening to Duluth," said the business owner and community activist who lost to Bergson in 2003. "I'm not a politician, and the city needs a business approach and financial and fiscal responsibility."

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