He was chosen as the 2013 Person of the Year by Twin Cities Business magazine, was behind the efforts that shut down the Last Place on Earth and is praised for humbly turning down a 25 percent pay raise this past November.
But, what many citizens don’t know about Duluth’s mayor, Don Ness, is that he likes to read A Game of Thrones in his down time, his childhood baseball card collection still sits in his mom’s basement and his favorite hike with his wife, Laura, and three young kids, Eleanor, James and Owen, is from the top of Chester Bowl to Burrito Union.
It would appear there’s a lot more to the man behind our city than firm handshakes and building budgets. But, ask Ness’ friends, and they’ll tell you that whether Ness is wearing a suit and tie or jeans and a sweater, he’s the same guy inside and out.
“He’s a real person,” Don’s childhood friend Jeff Udd said. “I’ve never really seen him change himself to please somebody else. He is who he is and he does what he thinks is right.”
Don Ness outside of the office
Don was born in Duluth on Jan. 9, 1974, and grew up in the East Hillside neighborhood with his parents, Don and Mary, and his three younger brothers.
He and his second-youngest brother, Patrick, shared a room in their three-bedroom house – Don on the bottom bunk and Patrick on the top.
Although Don was not a “tyrant” and the brothers got along fine as roommates, according to Patrick, Don was a night owl and the late bedroom light would wake Patrick at odd hours.
The late nights started in junior high school. Don would stay up to either study for an exam or prep for a student council campaign.
One night, Patrick woke to Don crafting signs for his first campaign; he was running for student body president at the old Washington Junior High School.
“He was like hand-tracing 75 pieces of paper – hand-tracing a picture of Donald Duck,” Patrick said.
Don’s campaign slogan was “Vote for a Duck,” Patrick said – a play on the Duck's and Don's shared first name.
When election results came out, Don wasn't selected.
“It was his first and only loss,” Patrick said. “I don’t think they got the duck thing.”
It was also the last year he wasn't holding some sort of group leadership or government role – from student government and high school sports to Duluth's Homegrown Music Festival committee and city council. Friends and family say Don’s always been a leader.
“Don is a prototype of a first born child,” Patrick said. “A leader, lots of responsibility growing up, very rule oriented, responsible – you know, all of those things first born children often are, he always has been.”
This desire to lead and serve the community is not unique to Don, however. All three of his brothers work in community service and social activism, too, either through local government, music or campaigns.
Why so similar?
Patrick and Don said it’s because of the way they were raised.
"I think that we learned powerful lessons from our parents about what community means, and that we are all pursuing our own way to build community," Patrick said.
Growing up, their mom worked at the Safe Haven women’s shelter and their dad was the pastor of Community Christian Fellowship, the small Christian church he and partnering pastor, Gerry Cheney, started. The boys were immersed in these two communities.
In fact, their childhood home served as both a home for the Ness family and their dad’s church. After school, the Ness brothers often came home to find the church community singing or praying in their living room. Their dad would be at the dining room table counseling a troubled church member.
These experiences deeply impacted and shaped the Ness brothers.
To this day, Don considers a second grade church experience in his home to be one of the most “indelible images” in his memory. He had just gotten home from school and walked in on his dad counseling a “pillar” of their church. This “big, strong, burly guy” had just lost his job and didn’t know how he was going to support his family, so he came to the Ness house looking for help.
“He was crying in our living room,” Don said. “And that, you know, is a shocking thing for a second grader to see first hand because it’s so different from what your expectations are.”
Don said it was childhood memories like this one that showed him how public policy directly affects lives.
“Our community’s inability at that point to deliver jobs directly affected – in this very personal and emotional way – this guy crying in our living room because he was worried and upset and loves his family and didn't see a way to support them,” Don said.
Growing up in a church not only influenced his views on public policy, but also helped shape his spirituality.
As a kid, he attended his dad's joyful and boisterous services, but in the early '90s, the two pastors split ways and the church ended. Don's dad moved on to focus on his role as chaplain at Northwood Children's Services and Cheney started the Vineyard Church.
These times were hard on the Ness family. It "marked the end of an era," Don said in an email.
"The church was a central focus of our family throughout my childhood and then, in a blink, it no longer existed," he wrote in an email. "As a teenager, I had a very hard time reconciling this."
Years later, Don and his wife and kids go to the Vineyard. Although it reminds him of the warm, charismatic church community he grew up in, Don said that attending church isn't his way of connecting with God. His spirituality flourishes in quiet, intellectual contemplation.
“Every person interacts with their faith in different ways,” Don said. “I connect with God through intellectual stimulation.”
“When I'm reading – whether it's reading the Bible or reading books about the Bible or books that have spirituality at (their) core and faith at (their) core, but are exploring bigger issues – that's when I really feel connected and when I'm kind of open to the spirit moving or getting a broader understanding of my own faith and spirituality.”
Reading these kinds of books allows him to explore "massive ideas," and dig "deeper and deeper into the complexity of Bible passages," he said in an email.
"I don't look to my faith as a source of simple answers, but rather as a source of challenging questions." These questions help him to better understand the big picture.
Friends say it's not uncommon to find Don with a book or newspaper in his lap.
"He's always sitting on his chair with a book reading something," Don's friend Andrea Peterson said. "Just a serious guy. He's always been that way."
His favorite books are nonfiction, history and “big idea” books about politics, religion and finance. And every once in a while he'll commit to some fiction like A Game of Thrones.
“That's kind of the way I like to wind down: at the end of the day, spend an hour or two after the kids go to bed and find a good book,” he said.
With all this time spent reading and thinking to himself, it's no wonder Don considers himself a natural introvert. As far as his personable skills and public speaking abilities as mayor go, Don said he's a learned extrovert.
"They don't believe me when I say I'm an introvert," Don said. "And I'm a shy person that has just kind of learned these extrovert skills and has, over a long course of time, kind of developed a greater sense of comfort. But, it doesn't come naturally to me."
Don was the most awkward and shy when he was a pre-teen, Patrick said. It was hard for him to talk with people he wasn't already close to.
"He would give me a dollar to call Collector's Connection baseball card shop," Patrick said. "He was too shy to make that anonymous phone call."
Patrick added Don is not longer shy, but "now he's just awkward," and laughed.
Experiences that first got Don out of his shell included high school basketball, football, track and field, and student government at the old Central High School. But it wasn't until he met Laura, now his wife, that Don "loosened up" and fully revealed his true colors, Patrick said.
"In some ways, he softened up quite a bit when he met Laura. He's become more of a Teddy Bear since then," Patrick said.
Along came Laura Ness
Don first met Laura when she came to Duluth working on the 2002 campaign for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. The two were co-workers, Laura with Wellstone and Don with the former Rep. James Oberstar on his re-election campaign. They grew to be close friends, especially after Wellstone passed away in a plane crash just short of the 2002 election.
"Going through that really brought everybody that was working in that office much closer together," Don said.
It wasn't until Laura left Duluth when the campaign was over that they both realized their feelings for each other.
"We didn't want that to just end," Don said.
They married in 2004, and had their first baby, Eleanor, nine months afterward. Since then, they've been a busy family. Don became mayor in 2008 and they had two more kids, James and Owen.
"For a while there, it was just one thing right after another," he said.
Although hectic, Don considers this time of his life and his relationship with Laura to be "by far the most rewarding and successful thing" he's done.
"I feel very fortunate to have that sort of partner through all of this and somebody that I have a tremendous amount of respect for and love deeply and can share this experience of raising these kids together," he said.
The Family Man
Whether he's "rough housing" with his brothers or wrestling around with his kids on the floor, Patrick said Don's at his happiest when he's spending time with family ... and possibly wrestling.
So, when the first advice Don got as new mayor was to spend his nights and weekends going to every Duluth event instead of being with his family, Don decided to make his own path and discarded the advice.
"I just said,'I can't do that to my family,'" he said. "And, in order for me to do this job the way that I think it needs to be done, really focusing on the big challenges and big issues facing the city, I can't be distracted by all the socializing."
"There are so many good causes and so many good events out there ... you could spend every night going out and doing something really spectacular and really fun. And that would be a great way to be mayor, but it's just not our reality because we do have little kids right now," Don said.
Music and Friends
The one Duluth event he'll never skip out on, however, is the Homegrown Music Festival (he was festival director for two years). During the festival, he and his wife and their close friends ride around on the Homegrown Trolley and stop to listen to as many local bands as they can.
"Donny kind of leads the way through Homegrown," Peterson said. "He's got his papers, got his notes, he's got all his bands that he wants to see. We show up somewhere. We order a beer. We're halfway through the beer and he's like, 'C'mon, we've got to get the Trolley' ... He's just so excited about Homegrown and so intense about seeing all the bands he wants to see."
Peterson met Don a few years after she moved to Duluth in 1997 with her husband. She was new mom and having a hard time making friends in Duluth. "I hated Duluth. I absolutely hated it. I cried and asked my husband to help me get out of here as soon as possible when I moved here," she said.
But, then Don brought her into his friend group and turned her around, showing her all there is to love about Duluth.
"I was really isolated as a new mom and Donny just got me out there meeting people, making friends, becoming active politically or just anything," she said.
Homegrown was one of those parts of Duluth that Don and friends have taught her to love.
The music festival was especially meaningful to Peterson in 2011, when her brother died. Don and Laura created a plan to cheer Peterson up and give her a fun night out at Homegrown, leaving her grief at home.
"My husband was at home taking care of the kids. Laura stayed and took care of her kids. And Donny took me out that whole night and just kind of took care of me and let me have a really good time when I really, really needed it," she said.
When it comes to friends and family, Don is there.
"There's never been a time where I've called to do something and just talk ... (and) he said, 'No, it's not really a good time for me.' He always takes time out to just be a friend," Udd said. "That's what I appreciate the most."