Book Review: Mayor’s Book Is For Politicians Looking For Change

Duluth Mayor Don Ness’ new book “Hillsider” is, in places, a memoir. Elsewhere, it is appears to be a college yearbook, full of pictures that often are not very mayoral. Then there are pages that present the history of the Don and Laura Ness family, beginning with their very first hug shortly after U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died in an airplane crash. It definitely is a Duluth booster book. And there are words and visuals that are nothing short of art.

But to a politico, more than anything, his manuscript is a textbook that every American politician should read, or at least politicians who want things to change.

A few sentences at the book’s end well explain the Ness political philosophy:

“Politicians and pundits too often claim ownership of the truth. … If we believe we’re the ones with the truth, we no longer seek, we simply defend. We built fortresses. Rhetorical attack and defense become the only ways we know how to discuss issues. We’re always fighting or preparing to fight.”

Through the pages of Ness’ book, his own political truth evolved, starting with his first run for City Council 16 years ago: “I figured if I had any chance of expressing my strengths, I couldn’t be afraid of exposing my weaknesses.”

A politician willing to expose weaknesses? From that comment on Page 16, it is obvious even to someone who had never met Ness that he is a different politician.

The book is a compilation of short essays, some only a few lines long. None ever stretches beyond two facing pages. This book has hundreds of photos, some just because they are pretty Duluth scenes.

The $24.95 book, subtitled “Snapshots of a Curious Political Journey,” will be available in some Duluth stores as well as www.donnessbook.com. In an interview, he said that he self-published the book and is distributing it, too, in order for it to be in people’s hands by the time he leaves office in January.

The mayor said he decided to write the book from notes he had taken over the years just last December and traditional publishing houses would need more lead time than if he did the work himself.

“This is, in many ways, a culmination of my time in public office and I wanted it to be kind of a book end, in essence, to help me end this chapter in my life,” he said.

Ness called the book a series of “snapshot essays … to essentially capture a different tone than your typical political books.”

The short story format “is a reflection of political life at the local level,” where elected officials blend official work with family and community.

“Each one kind of stands alone,” he said of the stories. “It is a good book in a waiting room.”

Time after time, Ness returns to politics:

“Politicians in campaign mode often subtly claim they can do magic. They don’t come right out and state it, but they strongly imply it by saying they can deliver significant public benefits without requiring people to contribute or sacrifice. Some even assure us they can increase and improve services while also cutting taxes. Incredible. Clearly magical.”

The book shows that Ness began his political career as an idealist running for Duluth City Council, not prepared for what would hit him during the eight years on the council and a similar time as mayor, a tenure ending in January. He said he has no plans to run again, at least until his youngest child (now 4) graduates.

Ness will be 41 when he leaves office early next year, the age many people get involved in politics.

In the interview, Ness said that he hopes young people will read his book and realize they, too, can get involved.

“It is a story that is coming to an end at a relatively young age,” Ness said. “It may be more relevant to the 20-somethings.”

Would-be politicians do not need to subscribe to the common partisan divisiveness, Ness said, adding that his experience proves that.

When Ness landed on the City Council, he was surprised that “there was no real thought in the system.

“It was almost entirely action and reaction,” he wrote. “I developed a real contempt for this type of traditional politics driven largely by personality conflicts and trivial grievances. Where was the system described in my seventh-grade civics class?”

At times, he succumbed to traditional politics, resulting with him upset with himself.

When he tossed and turned at night, did not eat well, stress took over (“I was a mess”) and his actions were not popular, Ness opted to do something politicians just don’t: “I acknowledged, expressed regret and remorse about and took ownership for how my choices were negatively affecting people.”