Voters in much of Hennepin County will get the chance to choose commissioners in about three weeks, with five of seven districts on the Nov. 6 ballot.
One of the most closely watched races has been in the Second District, where attorney and political newcomer Blong Yang is running for an open seat against veteran state Sen. Linda Higgins.
Longtime Commissioner Mark Stenglein resigned from that job in May to become president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.
Commissioners receive $97,080 in annual salaries and oversaw a $1.65 billion budget in 2012. The county employs 7,400 workers in dozens of areas that include health services, public safety, libraries, public works and environmental management.
New voice or greater experience
Yang said he wants to bring the diversity of his Hmong heritage and refugee experience to the board. He grew up in Oklahoma and California, moved to Minnesota for law school and has worked for 11 years as an attorney, most recently as an investigator for the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights.
He said the county's priorities are not in line with some of its greatest needs.
"If we have the will to build stadiums for the Vikings and the Twins, we should have the ability to do that for issues that are much more pressing," Yang said, citing homelessness, education and medical care.
Higgins said her 16 years of experience in the Minnesota Legislature dovetails nicely with the county's needs.
She served on the health and human services committee at the Capitol, and "half of the county budget is health and human services," she said.
Higgins said she wants to make sure that people are receiving relevant services and are being treated with dignity, but also that spending levels are appropriate.
"We also need to look carefully to see if there are ways to help people move on from county services to jobs that will pay a salary that can support a family," she said.
Higgins said she also is very familiar with county law enforcement issues because she chaired the Senate Public Safety Budget Division for four years.
The Second District, like other county races, is nonpartisan, meaning that party affiliations are not listed on the ballot, although some candidates may get party endorsements. The district stretches from Plymouth through parts of Golden Valley and northeast Minneapolis to St. Anthony. Because the seat is vacant, the winner will take office in mid-November, soon after the election, rather than waiting until January, and will serve two years before facing election for a regular four-year term in 2014.
Taxes and more taxes
In other races, challengers are opposing incumbents in three districts.
In all cases, the challengers have emphasized the need to reduce both county spending and property taxes.
Small business owner Chris Rains is challenging Board Chairman Mike Opat in the First District, which includes Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Robbinsdale, New Hope and Crystal.
Along the county's southern border in the Fifth District, incumbent Randy Johnson, who has been on the board since 1979, is facing Jim Koepke, who bills himself as a fiscal conservative. That area includes much of Eden Prairie, Bloomington and Richfield.
And incumbent Jan Callison is being challenged in the Sixth District by Dave Wahlstedt, an engineer and project manager for a medical device firm. That district includes the communities around Lake Minnetonka as well as Hopkins and Edina.
Commissioner Jeff Johnson is running unopposed in the Seventh District, which covers the county's western and northern communities.
All of this year's elections, except for the Second District, are for four-year terms to comply with state requirements for staggered terms.
Third District Commissioner Gail Dorfman and Fourth District Commissioner Peter McLaughlin will not be on the ballot until 2014.
Tom Meersman 612-673-7388