Bob Mars Jr. died yesterday.
I served with Bob for six years on the Duluth School Board. I first met him forty years ago when it was suggested I introduce myself to him for my first legislative campaign in 1976. I left that meeting at his offices in W. P. & R.S. Mars Co with a one hundred dollar check for my campaign. Bob surely knew I couldn’t beat Mike Jaros but for him it was almost certainly an investment. Who knew what the bright, political naif might become in the future. For a man like Bob, who had his fingers in every political corner of Duluth, it was a pittance. For me that hundred dollar check was an eye opener. I don’t recall getting any other check that size from an individual in that campaign.
I was on my best behavior back then. I had just lost my teaching job in Proctor and that campaign, lost though it was from the beginning, revived my spirits. I would come to understand that Bob Mars Jr. was the leading fixer in Duluth but more in terms of civic than political fixing. Oh he was a businessman and that inclined him towards the Republicans of that era than Democrats but he was a pragmatist and party affiliation for him was only nominal.
I doubt that Bob gave me much thought until I began running for the school board in the early 1990’s. By my third defeat (fifth counting legislative runs) he no doubt had lost all interest in me. When I finally won on my fourth attempt he was sitting on the Board of Directors of Minnesota Power where my wife Claudia was employed. And Bob Mars was also sitting on the Duluth School Board when I finally got elected. By that time I was well aware that Claudia was as vulnerable as me to any political missteps I might make. An influential and no nonsense Bob Mars might suggest that the wife of a troublesome School Board member might be given the heave ho should an annoying colleague on the school board with him begin misbehaving. Bob told me that a troublesome member of the Duluth School board was removed twenty years earlier when the School Board offered the troublemaker’s precinct, holding Duluth’s Bayview Elementary School, to the Proctor Schools. I don’t think Bob was hinting but then again.
Desperate to prove I was more than just a lucky perennial candidate for office I set out to redeem my reputation by being a sober-minded school board member. That worked for me for two years and four months. Then it didn’t.
In 1999 Bob decided not to run for the School Board for medical reasons. It was in this election that DFT President Frank Wanner intended to have me defeated. My old pal and ally Tim Grover made a decision not to run without telling anyone about it leaving no time to recruit a sympathizer. It was apparent that Frank Wanner would take control over the School Board so I kicked myself into high gear and talked Bob into letting me run a write-in campaign for him. He assented and folks came out of the woodwork to put up his lawnsigns. But it was a write in campaign. He did well but not well enough to win.
Two years later I turned things around. Bob ran again and I copied the campaign that first got him elected in the sixties. I put up lawnsigns echoing the campaign that first got him and two other candidates elected whose names began with the letter M. “Mars, Mundt and McKeon.” This 1999 campaign supported two incumbent School Board members whose names began with Mary and I put up lawnsigns that read: Mary, Mary Mars. It caught flak for a tough but honest letter I had sent out spelling out what was at stake.
Only Mary Glass got reelected. Bob would run again in 2001 along with Mary Cameron and both would find vindication for their losses in 99.
Bob fell afoul of East Hockey fraternity in 2003 and told me he planned to run a campaign against me but changes his mind when the hockey crowd fielded a candidate to run against me. It was a pretty stark vote of no confidence in me and put me in a short lived mood of defiance. I hadn’t planned to run for a third term until then but that put me into a month long jag to prevent the Hockey crowd from forcing me out. A few weeks after it was too late for me to pull out of the race I thought better of it and told the Trib and others that my opponent, Tom Hustad, was a good guy and because I only disagreed with him about the East High Hockey program I would end my campaign. I stopped campaigning although still on the ballot. Both Bob and I lost.
Bob had shot himself in the foot twice before that election. First he let a tiff with the East High coach over whether to play the Marshall School Hockey team get out of hand when he was later asked to uphold the decision not to rehire the coach. Second he was too candid when he told Denfeld high school supporters that he might very well vote to close their school in west Duluth if he was asked to reduce our facilites from three high schools to two. The furor this caused out west helps explain Bob’s plan to run against me in my eastern district where Denfeld parents could not weigh in.
I have only mentioned Bob a few times in my blog. We were mostly allies but not birds of a feather. I bumped into Bob a few times since getting reelected. One of the last times was not long after my ridiculous, but intense, attempt to expose the Kangaroo Court convened to remove Art Johnston. Bob smiled at me and shook his head not quite able to believe that I was still practicing my own special brand of voodoo.