Chapter 5 Mary Mary Mars

The weight of the opposition pressed hard against the old board majority. The union point of view had dominated the letters-to-the-editor column for two years and rarely been rebutted. The public employee unions had recruited candidates to fill all five seats up for election. They were pouring money into these campaigns despite the fact that the 3rd district race already assured them of gaining a majority.  

A month before MMM was formed I made up a simple flyer to promote all three candidates which I passed out at the Spirit Valley Days Parade. Ironically, one of the people I handed my flyer to (hyperlink) was a DFL activist who told me the entire DFL nominating committee had gotten a laugh out of the letter I had sent them. This was before the endorsement. I had written a light hearted letter with the hope that they might not endorse my opponent. in fact, it seemed I had succeeded as my opponent was not recommended for endorsement. I was not surprised when Pauline was endorsed. I was shocked however to learn that Mary Cameron was not endorsed. I gather that the DFL didn't find my subsequent letter to the editor to be quite so amusing.

It was the air of triumph from one of my board colleagues and the mean-spirited letters-to-the-editor from her allies which shook me from my somnambulance. When one of Eileen Zeitz's allies wrote a letter summing up my contribution as that of an embarrassing nincompoop I was roused to reply in kind. By the time Eileen's former campaign manager ripped the hide off my friend Mary Cameron my resolve was stiffening. The opposition was formidable perhaps unstoppable but perhaps overconfident. During a closed meeting one of my board colleagues fairly dripped with contempt for me in anticipation of my imminent defeat. I couldn't help but reciprocate. I was not without resources of my own. 

While my colleague's was certain that I would be defeated I had no doubt that I would be reelected. This confidence freed me to spend my time campaigning for my allies. As a house husband, I had ample time to direct to the campaign. Few people in Duluth have had as much experience campaigning as I have had and I knew how to make the most of meager resources. I did not, however, intend to run an impoverished campaign. I would raise money and I would find volunteers.

I was counting on Edison parents. Although they were utterly unorganized I was certain they would be highly motivated. I was also certain that I could find friends in the business community and that older citizens on fixed incomes would look kindly on my fiscally prudent candidates. My challenge was to pull these groups together.

The first person I went to see was Bob Heimbach. Bob had been a former President of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. I knew he was sympathetic to the policies of the old board because I had met him for coffee on two occasions and filled him in on school board politics. I told him that the biggest threat to the district was the low morale of our teachers. I made it plain that we could not restore that morale by bankrupting the school district. I had been afraid that my reputation as an eccentric would scare Bob away. To my delight Bob seemed to trust my judgment and was not put off by my quirky reputation. 

I told Bob that our most important task was to elect the three at-large candidates: Mary Glass-Leblanc, Mary Cameron and Bob Mars; Mary Mary Mars for short. I explained that it was unnecessary to campaign for me and that my inclusion would simply confuse things. I also wanted to avoid the Mary Mary Harry rhyme because one of our opponents, Gary Krause, shared our rhyme. 

Bob agreed to Chair the Mary Mary Mars Committee. In doing so he was agreeing to be a lightening rod for criticism as the campaign ground on. He took many unfair punches without complaint. 

There was a poetic symmetry to our 3Ms.  Thirty years before Bob Mars had been elected in a campaign in which featured three candidates whose names all began with the letter M. The three candidates - Mundt, Mars and McKeon had all been joined together in the public's imagination and they all won. I liked the memorable alliteration of Mary Mary Mars and the reference to history. 

We had to take care in setting our committee. Although I had mentioned a coalition to the two Mary's early in the Spring when I expected Tim Grover to run I had let the idea drop when he announced his plans to retire. I had not spoken to anyone about joining together for a long time and none of these candidates had authorized me to start a campaign for them. There was even the strong possibility that they might strongly object to a committee. Every at-large candidate is a soloist running against every other at-large candidate, even allies. Our support might win votes for one of our three candidates by pulling votes away from the other two. 

I didn't want to ask the candidate's blessing to campaign in their behalf in case they said no. But not asking them risked a public rebuke once they found out about the committee. I certainly did not want these candidates to be blamed for the actions of the MMM Committee. That meant that Mary Mary Mars had to keep an arm's length distance from the candidates.

Bob Heimbach enlisted Don Bleau, of Grandmas, to be our treasurer and we set about recruiting a long list of names of people to support the cause. Eventually 50 names were added to the letterhead. I was particularly concerned that we have lots of names because a letter with just a few names would make the individuals vulnerable to retribution. In fact, Frank Wanner toyed publicly with the idea of blacklisting some of our committee

We came up with a letter which spelled out the political situation that was developing and sent it out within a week. We had to act quickly because the primary election was looming. 

The letter had several immediate effects. It quickly raised money, eventually over four thousand dollars. It shaped the debate about the election to come and raised the issue of conflict of interest which would not go away. It also became a lightening rod for criticism from those who did not like the light being shone on them. Many letters followed criticizing Bob and calling his letter inaccurate, several from School Board members. None of these letters could point to any specific inaccuracy.

Because this letter was sure to make people mad. It had to be scrupulously fair but even within our small group the letter caused hard feelings. Don Bleau, our treasurer, who merely added his name to the letter had a chief assistant who's husband was a teacher. In short order she let him know she thought the letter was unfair

I had always been sensitive to this kind of ripple effect never more so than during Superintendent Myles tenure. I had a little mantra that went something like this: there are a thousand teachers they have a thousand spouses, several thousand children, several thousand parents, ten thousand students and all of these people have friends and neighbors who all like teachers.... By thinking about all these connections one could begin to appreciate how the ripple affect would generate community support.  

I called Don's assistant and explained that I had heard she was upset. She thought the letter was anti-teacher. I told her that after four years on the Board was convinced that openness and honesty were the keys to improving the Duluth school district even if that meant challenging the union. I confessed that I was largely responsible for the campaign organizing this challenge the union and that she was free to tell anyone about my role.

One of my chief reasons for organizing MMM  was to shore up Mary Cameron's flagging campaign. It was too late to start her campaign over. I was counting on Bob Mars's reputation to be the engine behind the two Mary's. Since the old Board members were being criticized for things beyond their control I wanted the public to understand how many good things had happened because of their leadership on the School Board. I had to let Bob Mars know what I was doing.

Although I had worked tirelessly to help Bob Mars in his failed write-in election two years earlier there was a real possibility he would disavow the Mary Mary Mars Committee.  I called him up and met him for coffee. I gave a general run down on the MMM campaign and warned him that the last thing he would want to suffer through was being part of a two person minority on a board determined to spend the district into the ground. Bob listened skeptically to my campaign ideas. I've always been much too flamboyant for Bob's taste but he didn't forbid us from campaigning for him. I was elated. Had Bob washed his hands of MMM that would have been the end of it. Now we could proceed full speed ahead.

I sent Mary Cameron a copy of the Mary Mary Mars letter and continued to email her regularly to let her know what was going on in Duluth. Although Mary Glass LeBlanc was extremely independent minded I suspected she was losing heart in the face of the opposition and might be glad for the reinforcement. I never did ask for her to bless the Committee but in the last week of the campaign she volunteered to put up a hundred MMM lawnsigns by herself.

The money that we raised allowed us to have 4,000 lawnsigns printed.  I was certain that they would go up like hotcakes just as Bob Mars signs had been put up two years earlier. If MMM could raise enough soft money it could help the other campaigns I was working on. Mary Mary Mars was going to be the centerpiece of the election but there were other campaigns that need to get rolling. I intended to shepherd them all. 

The primary election was showed how far behind our side was.  Bob Mars finished first but the two Mary's finished 4th and 5th. Tim Grover cautioned me that school primaries had historically set the candidates in concrete and hinted at the general election results.  We had less than two months to make our case and challenge our well organized and well financed challengers. We would have to be focused.