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Duluth council president apologizes for foul language in mining skirmish

Justin Perpich Submitted photo1 / 2
Joel Sipress Forum News Service file photo2 / 2

DULUTH, Minn.—A recent dustup between Duluth City Council President Joel Sipress and DFL Congressional District 8 Chairman Justin Perpich illustrates deep party divisions over the prospect of copper-nickel mining in Northeastern Minnesota and has prompted a call to censure Sipress.

The conflict arose from comments Perpich posted on Claire Kirch's Facebook page Saturday. Kirch, who is married to Sipress, was critical of efforts by PolyMet to meddle in local elections and encourage Duluth voters to support pro-mining candidates running for City Council.

"I responded on that post that if you're upset with what PolyMet is doing in the elections, then you need to be upset with what the Duluth for Clean Water group is doing, because they're essentially a dark-money nonprofit political organization that has not filed any reports with the city, or at that time had not. I don't know if they have since, but I called that out," Perpich said.

In a Facebook private message exchange late that night, Sipress took exception with Perpich's characterization of the group.

"Go f--- yourself. I mean it," Sipress wrote to Perpich, who he considered a former political ally. "I respect your right to shill for PolyMet, but when you start lying about hard-working local Duluth volunteers who are really good people, then we are done. So take a moment and examine your soul. Then, cut this sh-- out. And if you don't, we are done. Got it?"

Perpich said that in the absence of any documentation, it was impossible to know the source of funding for the group's campaign efforts.

"It's very frustrating because I get along with all these people. We're on the same side of 95 percent of the issues. But if I can call out a group for not being transparent I'm going to do it, whether it's a right-wing group or a left-wing group. I'm upset with the Citizens United decision, and I would think these guys should understand that," he said.

John Doberstein, a Duluth for Clean Water organizer, said Perpich seized on a simple oversight as an opportunity to smear the group.

But Perpich maintained: "It's not an oversight on their end. It's a lack of following the rules or not doing the research to understand the rules."

"Get on their case for a missing report — fair game. Accuse them of being a front group for Twin Cities interests? Screw you," Sipress wrote to Perpich

Perpich said he decided to make the private text exchange public because he thought Sipress should be held to account for his actions.

"I thought he crossed a line that shouldn't be crossed for a city councilor, let alone for a Duluth City Council president," he said.

"I figured I'd draw attention to the cyberbullying that Councilor Sipress and quite frankly other folks in that Duluth clean water group do when you speak in opposition to them," Perpich said.

In retrospect, Sipress expressed remorse for the way he handled the situation.

"I used inappropriate language that I regret and that I apologize for," he said, adding that he had not yet spoken directly to Perpich since the exchange but intends to reach out to him.

Looking back, Sipress said: "I was frustrated that someone who I have known for many years was crossing a line and making public accusations against a local grassroots organization and accusing them of being some sort of corrupt dark-money organization. I was frustrated that someone who I've known a long time was crossing a pretty important political line — that we fight hard and we compete, but we don't spread falsehoods about each other. So, what I was thinking was the importance of holding him accountable for crossing that line."

But Sipress continues to suffer political fallout from his testy exchange with Perpich. A subsequent online petition calling on the Duluth City Council to censure Sipress had garnered more than 360 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Duluth For Clean Water filed its overdue campaign financial report Wednesday. Greg Gilbert, an attorney for the group, said he had been out of town, assisting his elderly parents in Michigan for the past week. That report disclosed $284 in campaign spending since June 10.

From March 1 to June 9, Duluth for Clean Water also reported spending $760 on local campaign efforts, including contributions to At Large City Council candidates Rich Updegrove and Janet Kennedy of $300 each. However, a copy of that June report is not on file with the city, according to Duluth City Clerk Jeff Cox.

Many of the contributions the group received came in below the $100 threshold that requires donor disclosure. But larger donors were all listed as having Duluth addresses, with the exception of Thom and Diane Haines, an Eden Prairie couple who are the parents of T.J. Haines, one of the local organizers of Duluth for Clean Water.

Doberstein said he hopes the filings "put to rest the disingenuous attacks" the group has endured recently.

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