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Another write-in candidate fills Ward 3 picture

As a 23-year educational interpreter working at Cloquet High School, it's normal to find Iris Keller standing with the teacher at the front of the classroom. Keller delivers in sign language what the teacher is saying to a student Keller has worked with since he was in fifth grade.

"There I am, looking out at this whole class," Keller said. "I go with the student to all his classes - college government, calculus, physics, German 4. He's really smart."

Like the student, she carries a backpack and has four minutes between classes. She has had a bird's eye-view of the school experience, following the student into his senior year across elementary, middle and high schools.

"It's a unique perspective," Keller, 59, said. "I'm watching these kids grow up. I started with them when they were little; their voices hadn't changed. Now, they'll be going to prom."

Keller likes unique vantage points, and has always followed politics. The time was right, she announced this week, to conduct a write-in campaign for the Cloquet Ward 3 city council seat.

Incumbent Chris Swanson resigned from the council in August, having moved out of the ward to another part of town. However, it was too late to remove his name from the Nov. 8 ballot. So, while he campaigns for voters to not vote for him, Keller joined Pete Erickson in conducting write-in campaigns for the Ward 3 seat.

"Chris moved out of the ward and I moved into the ward," Keller said, having moved from within the city to her home on 13th Street.

"City council or school board, I'd always wanted to get involved in those spaces," she added. "I like how things operate, the behind-the-scenes kind of things, where decisions are made and why they're made. Sometimes you wonder, but you don't have the full picture."

In addition to getting her name out there, Keller has a few immediate priorities as a candidate.

She wants to bring landlords and tenants closer together. She said she knows people from both sides, and that there's a "disconnect" in that part of the housing sector.

"There's a lot of landlords upset with their renters, and there's a lot of renters with landlords who don't take care of things or do what they're supposed to do," Keller said. "One of the things I'm interested in is seeing if there are things that can be done."

Keller also wants to further develop Cloquet Avenue. When she moved to town in 1988, Keller found a place downtown, behind Ed's Bakery. She was a self-described poor, single mother. She sought public assistance, but was also fortunate everything she needed was within walking distance.

"Now, it's a food desert," Keller said. "That concerns me. I wish there were more opportunities to get fresh food."

She also wants Cloquet to support the return of an animal shelter.

"I would like to see if that can get some traction," she said. "There are a lot of stray animals."

Finally, she wants the city to tap further into its tourist attractions, mentioning places such as Gordy's Hi-Hat, the Frank Lloyd Wright full-service station, and Pine Valley as places that could become more than a side trip, with more investment.

"There isn't a place where you can buy 'Cloquet' magnets," she said. "I love Cloquet. It's a great town."

Come election day, if the write-in candidacies aren't effective and Swanson gets the most votes, city administrator Tim Peterson has said the council would have to appoint an interim Ward 3 councilor until a special election is held, likely in November 2022.

Cloquet's Ward 3 basically lies between 14th Street and Highway 33 from east to west, and Doddridge Avenue to Avenue B from south to north.

For Keller, the timing for a write-in campaign felt right. Her four daughters are all adults. She's spent the past two years as the high school's musical director and taken part in 26 productions throughout her career. But November's production of "The Wizard of Oz" will be her final act.

"I have thought about this for a long time," Keller said. "I've always wanted to do this, but I've always been involved with the play. But this is my last show."

For Keller or Erickson to win, voters will have to actually write one of their names, and not fill in the box next to the listed candidate's name. Keller figures that knowing generations of students and parents helps. She's also talking to others, and trying to network a campaign. She'll attend the Cloquet Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum at City Hall on Oct. 25 too, she said.

"I'm going to give it my best shot," Keller said. "I don't have an agenda besides wanting to make things better."