Martell’s Heartbreak

I met Loren Martell’s wife briefly once or twice at her back door when I delivered things to Loren a few years back. We didn’t talk to speak of. She seemed a quiet woman who, it appeared to me, did not interfere with Loren’s unexpected crusade against the Red Planners. I did do a fair amount of talking with Loren in those early years for him, but did it as a man in the process of absenting myself from the madness. I’d hit my head against the wall for better than three years and was at my wits end. Even some of my folks in Let Duluth Vote were put out with me convinced that my tell-all approach to blogging was hurting the cause.

I’d started my crusade against the red planners with a column pointing out that 1. a plan being justified as a long overdue closing of one too many high schools was God-awful expensive and that 2. it was being done without a public referendum. I had written the column under protest because I didn’t want to get into a fight over something I’d paid little attention to after leaving the Board three years before. After that I found myself in the middle of a fight and one of its chief spokesmen. Over the next four years the organization I named, Let Duluth Vote, went from failed tactic to failed tactic in a vain search for compromise. Attempting to convince the School Board to put the plan up for a referendum went nowhere. When that became a non-starter I ran for the Board again confident that I could change the Board’s majority to make a referendum possible. Ralph Doty put an abrupt end to that.

Next I started a petition calling for a referendum which though signed by thousands did not have the force of law. The School Board ignored it. My crowd at Let Duluth Vote then pushed a Plan B despite my considerable misgivings. I worked on it as a servant of our group’s majority from a sense of duty more than confidence that it would get us anywhere. I knew that we were ill prepared and too few to attempt to rival an army of Red Plan architects. Furthermore, it was only a matter of time before our plan drew fire as inferior. Ironically the Red Planners said our stripped-down plan would cost more than theirs and managed to convince the editors of the Trib and large portions of the public. Then we moved on to our last resort – a law suit for which I volunteered to be one of five plaintiffs. That required finding a lawyer, finding a case, raising money to pay the attorney. Once in court we were required raise $100,000 to post a bond in case the delay of the construction cost the Red Planners (and thus the taxpayers) money. Finally, at the conclusion of three and a half years fighting we had our attorney removed a month into our court proceedings. A lot of Let Duluth Vote blamed me for this and with some cause.

My final act was a double project. We tried to elect a new school board and figure out how to collect the $100,000 bond from the court without surrendering too much to the defendants Johnson Controls and ISD 709. It was about at this time when things looked black that I met Loren Martell.

I’ve often joked that I’ve written a million words about this fight in my blog. Without going back and rereading them I’m a little fuzzy on some details. I was burnt out but Loren had become a glowing ember. We talked him into running against Judy Seliga-Punyko when he really wanted to run an at-large campaign. He stepped aside and Tom Kasper was elected at large only to become a great disappointment to the Let Duluth Vote crowd. Loren meanwhile faced an East Duluth juggernaut hellbent on getting a new high school with their own football stadium “for equity’s sake.” This was four years after Judy had beaten me in the 2007 election, with the help of Doty’s last minute smear, so the Red Plan still had the benefit of many people’s doubt while it was also two years away from making drastic cuts in the teaching corps necessary to pay for a plan that had grown by tens of millions of dollars.

I understood that the Red Plan would maintain its benefit of the doubt until such time as it began to disappoint the community but I was too stressed out to continue a fight that was already lost. If you hit the search button for the word ”sleep” you will find that it becomes a great preoccupation of posts starting in 2009. If I don’t live to be one hundred I’ll blame it on the Red Plan fight.

There was no guarantee that the Red Plan would disappoint but I was pretty confident that it had been too good to be true from the beginning. From my retirement, I continued to point fingers at the disconcerting consequences of the Red Plan. I also applauded Loren Martell would remain a lonesome fighter in these years. The soft-spoken Martell would frequently have his microphone turned off under the pretext that he had been uncivil or out of order. Once, during the School Board’s most highhanded years, he was handcuffed by a policeman when the microphone had been turned off on him but didn’t back away from it. He’s had to live with the accusation that he had behaved badly ever since when it was a thin-skinned School Board that had really been at fault.

I helped Loren raise money for two campaigns. During that time Loren became an expert, of sorts, about the District’s finances. I say “of a sort” because the District didn’t really share its finances candidly with outsiders and lied through their teeth repeatedly sucking in such as the editors of the News Tribune with nonsense. This was during a seven-year period in which the Administration got used to the Board not asking questions and even actively denying its minority access to routine public information.

It is all of these things Chair Miernicki refers to in his riposte to Martell in his Duluth Reader rebuttal, “I understand that Loren Martell is angry with the outcome of the audit. He has spent a great deal of personal money and time fighting the Red Plan. The State Auditor’s Office found that the District had done nothing wrong.”

Mern couldn’t have been more wrong about the last half of this claim. The Auditor didn’t expose anything illegal but she did not in any way vindicate the District. To the contrary she found that the District operated under a set of assumptions that had no basis in reality. As for the condescending remark that Loren is angry because he wasted his money Mern is clueless. The treasure Loren used wasn’t monetary. It wasn’t even the hours and days and weeks he spent in research, petitioning and campaigning. For Loren, this was but a call to public service. It wasn’t even the assault on Loren’s dignity by having him handcuffed and scolded in letters to the editor although I understand what this meant from personal experience.

I know my family winced at unflattering stories about my public service. My daughter, who had lived through three of my unsuccessful school board campaigns joked that she could finally go to school without wearing a paper bag when I finally got elected on my fourth try. I can only imagine what Loren’s wife, a school teacher herself, thought about her husband’s unflagging opposition to the District’s stonewalling. The heartbreaking price Loren was to pay for all his dedication was yet to be exacted.

Loren’s Hail Mary pass was the petition to audit the District. He started three years ago and singlehandedly got the audit in motion. Or so he thought. I’ll simply leave it to Loren here and here to explain how poorly the State Auditor fulfilled her role vis-a-vis the Red Plan. (BTW – the first of these Duluth Trib columns by Loren had a headline written by the Trib’s editors. It was they, not Loren Martell, who described Duluth as being “hustled and bilked.” I take their words as a sign of grudging respect for Loren by editors who have not always been kind to him.

I discovered during my school board campaign last summer that Loren’s wife, the quiet woman who had taken materials from me to give to her husband, had died suddenly and unexpectedly because of a lethal cancer. I didn’t even know her name as all my dealings had been with Loren while she remained tucked out of sight. My old pastor who now teaches at Marshall School told me that her death came as a shock to everyone. Loren’s wife had been an art teacher.

Loren’s family was a twosome with no children. They were best of friends. She proof read his columns. Little did Loren know that while he was insuring that the people of Duluth would finally get an honest accounting from the State Auditor about the Red Plan his wife was dying of cancer which overwhelmed her mercilessly and swiftly. Loren was left in shock. When I saw him last fall he was a lost soul. He was wracked by the guilt for having spent his wife’s last six months immersed in the Red Plan and the Audit which was supposedly being conducted. “We could have spent that time together,” he told me, and gone on walks like we used to before the Red Plan took him door to door for signatures on petitions.

Loren called me up a couple weeks ago on a very tough Friday after the Auditor’s fiasco of a report. He had just been at work up in Silver Bay the last scenic place he had been with his wife before her death. Not only was Loren preoccupied with those memories but now his Father was dying as well. He had come home to Duluth with little to look forward to but the letter he had written to defend himself from Chair Meirnicki’s complaint that Loren had lied about him cutting the school board meeting off with questions left hanging. It was a kick in the teeth for him to discover that his publisher, the Duluth Reader, had not put his reply and defense in the paper. (It turned out to be an oversight)

Although I had company I knew Loren needed someone to talk to and I met him and we talked for a couple hours. I told my family that I had to “talk someone off the ledge.” In some ways it wasn’t far from the truth.

I believe people need purpose for life. Loren Martell’s purpose has been to expose the dark underbelly of the Red Plan in hopes of excising its shortcomings if not its evil. Today, he can’t bring himself to quit despite the terrible suffering its caused him. In fact, quitting would probably make his suffering worse, like quitting a battle with buddies still behind enemy lines. And yet he has managed to write a great many sage and witty columns about the School Board that has only vexed him for the last four years. His knowledge has come at a great and terrible, personal expense.

One reader of an early version of this blog post put it very well:

Thank you. That was a lovely blog post you wrote about Loren Martell. Kelly. I believe his wife’s name was Kelly. I’m sure she was — and is, if you believe in an afterlife — very proud of him.

Loren is exactly what a citizen in a healthy democracy should be. If it seems otherwise, it’s only because he’s up against such an unhealthy, undemocratic situation.

The most pernicious way he’s been treated is to portray his persistence as unbalanced. Acting like he’s a crackpot is particularly mean-spirited, dismissive, and condescending. (Dare I call it “bullying”?)

I don’t wish to plead for any special sentiment for Loren. Ann Wasson suffered from a cancer in her last years on the Board and I’ve seen other school board members grieve. What I do wish to testify to is that Loren Martell has been unselfish in the extreme. Yes, like Art Johnston and me, he has been a little too driven for his own good. Nonetheless, I am grateful for those who work with this kind of public spirit despite derision and against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Any city with a Loren Martell in it has at least one beating heart.