Irene Fernando and Blong Yang, the two candidates vying for the Hennepin County Board’s only open seat this November, are both children of immigrants from Southeast Asia.
Both were raised in California and live in north Minneapolis. Both identify as Democrats, with Fernando having received the DFL endorsement earlier this year.
But that is where the similarities stop. The two candidates say they bring different professional and leadership experiences in the race to represent District 2, which covers northern Minneapolis and its neighboring suburbs. The incumbent commissioner, Linda Higgins, is retiring.
Fernando, 32, is a political newcomer. She moved to Minneapolis in 2003 to study business at the University of Minnesota, co-founding a now-dissolved youth leadership nonprofit.
She is now in talent management for Thrivent Financial, and speaks about her campaign with a business vernacular. “I just really wanted this job,” she said earlier this week of the election. “It just required this 18-month interview process.”
She said the most important thing for the board to do is invest in the county’s workforce, private and public. The board needs to reform how it hires and promotes in order to diversify leadership positions, she said.
The board also needs to contract with more diverse businesses for county projects, she said. She’d like to encourage more businesses to start, grow and stay in an equitable way, and praised the recent opening of Thor Cos.’ new headquarters at Plymouth and Penn avenues.
Aside from the DFL nod, Fernando has the support of Higgins and Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene.
Yang, 42, is in his second campaign for County Board. A child of Hmong refugees, Yang moved to Minnesota to get his law degree and ran his own law practice for about a decade.
After an unsuccessful bid for a board seat in 2012, Yang was elected to the Minneapolis City Council the following year. He served one term on the council, heading its public safety committee, but was unseated last year by Jeremiah Ellison as part of the progressive wave that also defeated Council President Barb Johnson, with whom Yang frequently voted.
He was also the sole no vote on the City Council’s decision last year to adopt a $15 minimum wage citywide.
Yang wasn’t expecting to run again for office, but he filed at the last minute. Now, he is looking to bridge gaps between the district’s urban core and its suburbs, such as Plymouth and St. Anthony.
His priorities for the office include improving access to county services, and having employees help people who have never used those services with “navigating the bureaucracy.”
He’d also like to focus on the county’s transportation system, laying out a solid timeline for the construction of Southwest light-rail and singling out roads that need bike infrastructure or safety improvements.
Yang has received the endorsement of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Deputies Association. While other board candidates have expressed their desire to have greater control of the sheriff’s office, he said the board should only focus on what is under its purview.
In the August primary, Fernando finished first, with 33 percent of the vote, to Yang’s 26 percent, according to Hennepin County records.
The other two elections for the board involve incumbents. Commissioner Peter McLaughlin is in a spirited battle with Angela Conley to keep his seat. Greene is running with no active opposition after challenger LaDonna Redmond suspended her campaign last month following the sudden death of her son.