Duluth City Councilwoman Renee Van Nett has died

DULUTH — Renee Van Nett, the first Native American woman elected to Duluth City Council, died Friday morning — just weeks after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“It is with heavy hearts that we share the news today that Renee Van Nett, mother, sister, daughter, friend, second-term councilor and former council chair, and [Leech Lake] A member of the group died surrounded by his family,” the family announced on social media.

Van Nett, 52, was first elected in 2017 to represent Duluth’s 4th District and was re-elected in 2021. She served as council chair last year and served as commissioner for the Duluth Economic Development Authority, President of Public Safety and founding member of the Citizens Review Commission. She worked as Director of Impact at Head of the Lakes United Way.

Van Nett was on the most racially diverse council in the city’s history. While that was a good thing, it carried a burden, she told the Star Tribune in 2021.

“Opening the way for others is difficult,” she said. “It’s a difficult path.”

In March, Van Nett launched a campaign in the District 8 state Senate race, describing himself as pro-jobs, “pro-economy, pro-environment and regulated protections for land, water, air and all living beings”. His catchphrase was “Not me, we”. She dropped out in mid-May, apparently around the time she learned her cancer had returned.

Van Nett had gone through cancer during his first term on city council, according to close friend Annie Harala. His mission this time was clear.

“[Renee] literally told her doctors, “I don’t want to know any milestones, I just want to know what I can do to fight to be with my daughters,” Harala said, referring to Van Nett’s teenage daughters Tia and Nevy , who were often at his side at city council meetings or in the state capitol during the days of Duluth and St. Louis County.

Harala and Van Nett have built a friendship based on the fact that they’re both “politics nerds,” Harala said. The relationship evolved into sharing belly laughs over phone calls.

“She was the friend who introduced herself,” Harala said. “The friend who followed. The friend who kept people together and the friend who made things happen.”

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson described Van Nett as a “versatile truth-teller” and credited her for her “revolutionary leadership.”

“Renee Van Nett was an incredibly powerful woman who lived her life with clarity and determination,” Larson said in a statement. “A frank outspoken who knew her values, she also knew her voice. And the importance of using it.”

City Council Speaker Arik Forsman said Van Nett was the bravest person he had ever met.

“She had a backbone of steel and was instrumental in many actions taken by the board during her tenure,” Forsman said in a statement. “Including its landmark resolution acknowledging the traumatic history of Native American boarding schools in our state and supporting reconciliation efforts.”

A GoFundMe has been launched for funeral and medical expenses. Details of his memorial service will be released later, according to the family.

As mandated by the city charter, the council will determine a process for appointing someone to the Van Nett council seat, according to a city press release. No specific date has been set.

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