Timing may be the toughest opponent in the special election for the rare open seat on the Hennepin County Board.
Commissioner Gail Dorfman stepped down from her seat with more than six months left in her term, requiring an unusual spring election to replace her. Primary elections invariably have lower turnout than regular elections and by Friday, absentee ballot votes were low — only about 200 had been cast of the district’s 104,000 registered to vote.
In this contest, six candidates on the nonpartisan ballot try to elbow each other off for the May 13 special election. The two who get the most votes Tuesday will advance. Then the winner gets to run again for a four-year term in the regular fall election.
The candidates include two former legislators who lost their seats to redistricting, one St. Louis Park City Council member and an assistant Hennepin County attorney. The six candidates are Marion Greene, Ken Kelash, Anne Mavity, Ben Schweigert, and frequent candidates Bob Reuer and Bob “Again” Carney Jr.
The new commissioner isn’t likely to change the political leanings of the board. Dorfman was a liberal DFLer who championed the homeless. The top candidates in the race say they are eager to continue her legacy, not bring a sharp change to the seat.
The major candidates in this contest differ more in their backgrounds than their positions. The seat represents St. Louis Park as well as southwestern and downtown Minneapolis. The candidates embrace reliably DFL positions even though the primary is nonpartisan.
Greene and Kelash both served in the Legislature as DFLers from Minneapolis. Mavity briefly worked as an aide to Dorfman. Schweigert embraces being called a progressive. The candidates espouse social justice, equality and a social safety net.
A variety of experience levels
With diplomats for parents, Greene grew up in Brazil, Morocco, Pakistan and India. She now lives in Uptown. She has worked in health care finance. She wants to focus on four things: expanding early childhood services and community engagement, increasing partnerships in government and making sure the county’s health care system is operating well. She has the endorsement of Commissioner Linda Higgins.
There is space on the board for her “compassionate, smart activism,” Higgins said.
Like Greene, former state Sen. Kelash left the Legislature because of unfavorable redistricting lines that paired him with another Minneapolis legislator.
He is a lifelong Minneapolis resident who worked nearly four decades as a union carpenter before entering politics. He has numerous union endorsements.
Kelash lists four areas of concentration: upgrading transportation systems, promoting housing options across income levels, maintaining Hennepin County Medical Center as the best trauma center and increasing green space such as parks and trails. “And with state demographers expecting a substantial population growth in the Twin Cities over the next 40 years, we must strategically prepare the county to serve this infusion of new residents,” Kelash said in his announcement.
Mavity is on the St. Louis Park City Council. She’s worked as a consultant and community organizer on housing issues her entire career, she said. Mavity would bring that expertise to the county, she said, and “roll up my sleeves.” She cites pushing St. Louis Park toward organics recycling and the redirection of the Minnehaha Creek as examples of how she has led and collaborated.
She talks about three main areas: continuing Dorfman’s priority on affordable housing and ending homelessness, the importance of regional transit and Southwest Corridor light-rail transit, as well as economic stewardship and sustainable healthy communities. Mavity said she’s dedicated her personal and professional life to strengthening communities.
Schweigert, a Minneapolis resident, has not held elective office, but has been inspired by the legacy of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and embraces being called a progressive. He also cites sustainability, equity and prosperity for all. “I went to law school because I wanted to work in the public interest and work where I could fight for economic justice,” he said. In addition to affordable housing, health care and early childhood programs, Schweigert would push the board to adopt a living wage ordinance for all contractors, he said.
A look at the board
With 1.1 million residents, Hennepin County has the largest population in the state. The budget of $1.8 billion is second only to the state’s in size. Social services are at the core of the county’s mission, including oversight of the Hennepin County Medical Center, a safety-net hospital that helps everyone who comes through the doors regardless of ability to pay.
The board tends to be lower key than many offices — its members, who earn about $100,000 a year and serve full time, often serve long term without the scrutiny and criticism endured by city councils and the Legislature.
Dorfman, who left to run St. Stephen’s Human Services, took office after a special election in 1999.
Commissioner Randy Johnson has been on the board since 1979 despite criticism about his frequent out-of-state travel. Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who joined the board in 1991, has repeatedly voted for multimillion-dollar contracts without disclosing the ties to the law firm where his wife works. Board Chairman Mike Opat, elected in 1992, long ago abandoned his term-limit pledge. And Commissioner Jeff Johnson has been on the board since 2009 and is now running for governor as a Republican.