More than 166 years of history dating back to Hennepin County’s earliest days were blown out of the water on Monday as Angela Conley and Irene Fernando became the county’s first commissioners of color.
Fernando, whose new district stretches from Plymouth through the North Side and northeast Minneapolis to St. Anthony, said winning the election has been surreal, powerful and humbling.
“1.2 million people live in this county, and only seven people get to be commissioners,” she said. “I’m here to work.”
A short time later, County Attorney Mike Freeman and brand-new Sheriff Dave Hutchinson took the oath of office. Freeman gave Hutchinson a bear hug before swearing him in; in a surprising upset, Hutchinson defeated 12-year incumbent Rich Stanek by less than 2,300 votes.
The 24th-floor County Board chamber was packed Monday with relatives, campaign workers, constituents and well-wishers for the swearing-in ceremonies. They cheered loudly after each took office.
Conley, who represents downtown and the eastern half of south Minneapolis, talked about receiving public assistance from the county 20 years ago — the experience she cites as the springboard for a career in public service.
She was sworn in by retired Hennepin County District Judge Pamela Alexander, who became the county’s first black judge when she took the oath in the same room 35 years ago. Conley, who also is black, was sworn in with her hand on the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
While campaigning, Conley met thousands who shared their stories, debated the issues and “trusted me with their vote,” she said.
“We fought hard and did it with joy,” she said. “This seat belongs to the people who look like me and have traditionally been shut out of this room.”
Incumbent Commissioner Marion Greene, who also was sworn in Monday, said she was energized sharing the oath ceremony with the first two commissioners of color.
“This is a historic moment and an inspiration to us all,” she said.
The Sheriff’s Office Color Guard brought in three flags to kick off the ceremony for Freeman and Hutchinson. Freeman, who choked up while repeating the final words of the oath, boasted that the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is the best public law office in the state — the best trained, most diverse and with the toughest caseload.
“We try and do the right thing every day for justice,” said Freeman. “We aren’t just trying to get notches on our belt for victories.”
He said he plans to push an aggressive agenda during his next term. He said he wants to restore voting rights for inmates, promote meaningful gun control legislation, lower penalties for possession or selling of small amounts of marijuana, and make it easier to expunge criminal records.
“Thanks very much for giving me the chance to do it again,” said Freeman, who in November faced his first challenger in 12 years.
Hutchinson talked about protecting the residents of the county and making sure “they can chase their dreams.” He still appeared a bit stunned as he mentioned his upset election victory and how his campaign knew he was the underdog.
“But ladies and gentlemen,” he added, “there’s a new sheriff in town.”