Park Board member Annie Young is an unlikely politician to earn the status of the longest-serving municipal elected official in Minneapolis.
She skinny-dipped in Brownie Lake and swam across Cedar Lake — both violations of Park Board ordinances — before winning a board seat in 1989. She hitchhiked with her infant son across southwestern Minnesota in the 1970s to attend gatherings of food co-op activists. She was there in 1968 when Bobby Kennedy, for whom she'd canvassed, won the California primary — but outside the hotel smoking marijuana when he was gunned down.
In her 26th year as a citywide Park Board commissioner, Young will become the third-longest-serving park commissioner in history this summer. This achievement comes despite a shoestring campaign budget and growing health problems that increasingly curb her attendance at board meetings and park events.
At 73, Young has a severe case of chronic pulmonary obstructive disease that is raising doubts about her ability to run in 2017 for an eighth term — and a record 32 years. Not everybody is doubtful, however.
"She'll run again until she can't move, until she's underground," said Kathleen Anderson, Young's first campaign coordinator.
Young's imprint on the city's parkscape is indelible, and always conservation-minded. She fought to reduce how much parkland is mowed, particularly on hillsides and shores. Her lawn-mowing crusade coincided nicely with the board's cost-cutting goals and was adopted in 1995. She's championed lake quality, integrated pest management, and promoted cleaning park buildings with green products. Her latest crusade is against the use of ground rubber fill in artificial-turf fields. She's also negotiated a dramatic reduction in use of herbicides with park operations staff.
"She forced us to think about where it was used and how often it was used," said Mike Schmidt, a retired assistant parks superintendent.
She still wants to ban it. "Some of the things she brings up that we all pooh-poohed — in 10 years it's on the cutting edge," Commissioner John Erwin said.
Life of rebellion
Young was raised in Colorado and California in what she describes as pampered white privilege as the adopted only child of conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans. Over the years, she's long been perceived as a person of color. She recalls being tagged with a racial epithet in a Denver schoolyard. She has described herself as a "Heinz 57" mixture. But recent genetic testing discovered that she's dominantly German and Welsh.
She rebelled against her religious upbringing by refusing to attend chapel at the Baptist women's college she attended for a year. These days she puts her faith in pantheism, a belief that everything is part of an all-encompassing, immanent God, and Mother Nature. Erwin recalls Young prodding him to schedule board meetings around equinoxes and solstices.
Young was elected in 1989 as a DFLer, drawing on years of experience as a North and South Side community activist. In her first run, Young edged Barb Johnson, then a metro parks commissioner and now president of the City Council, by four votes for the last DFL at-large endorsement.
"Never did I think she would win," said Anderson, her campaign coordinator.
Johnson and fellow Commissioner Scott Vreeland attribute some of Young's electoral appeal to her using her nickname on the ballot rather than her given name, Martha Anne. "It gets you votes," Johnson said. "People feel more familiarity with you."
Young ran for a third term after promising she'd stop at two. "Really a dumb thing to say," she says now.
That year's DFL endorsing convention broke up after endorsing just one at-large Park Board candidate, a political maneuver that denied her party backing. Irate, she ran as a Green Party candidate, topping a field of six. She's adapted her campaigning to her health since. She sometimes stations herself on a bench at one end of the Stone Arch Bridge trying to woo voters.
Before serving on the Park Board, Young built a reputation as an environmental activist, a food and cancer educator, a neighborhood leader, and an outspoken opponent of Hennepin County's plans to route garbage through an East Phillips industrial area.
Fellow commissioners say they treasure Young for her institutional memory, for her representation of people in the city's poorer neighborhoods, for her insistence on sustainability, and her green agenda. Despite her reputation as a sometimes quirky ideologue, those who have worked with her suggest she's pragmatic as well.
"At once she can be obstreperous and frustrating but, on the other hand, she had a great sense of humor and she wasn't afraid of anything," said Robert Miller, who directed neighborhood revitalization programs in Minneapolis. "She knew what she didn't know."
She's also charmed sometime opponents, like Walt Dziedzic, the mowing policy's foremost critic as a council member. He later joined her on the board.
"How could anybody not love Annie Young?" he asked, recalling their policy debates fondly. "I think she could run for anything and win. She really loves the parks. And I hope she stays there forever."
The health insurance her job brings is probably a bigger benefit than her annual pay of $12,438. She'd like to break the 30-year tenure record set by the board's first woman, Maude Armatage. She pondered a question about whether she'll run in an interview in which her oxygen machine puffed in the corner.
"Most days, no I won't. But I love to campaign. I love the Park Board. I'm passionate about the system and its place in Minneapolis," she said. "I'm there for the long haul."