Since the state of Minnesota established Hennepin County in 1852, voters have never elected a commissioner of color to the County Board. But that may change in 2018.
Three of the board’s seven seats are up for grabs in November, and each race has a nonwhite candidate. That’s why some are calling this year’s election a historic moment in county politics.
“Although it wasn’t my initial goal in running, I bring an underrepresented voice to the board,” said Kim Ellison, a Minneapolis school board member running for the District 2 seat representing north and northeast Minneapolis, Plymouth and St. Anthony. “There have been qualified candidates, but few have tried.”
District 2 is the only seat without an incumbent, following Linda Higgins’ decision to retire. Besides Ellison and Irene Fernando, a Filipino-American with a résumé full of community activism, former board commissioner Mark Stenglein is also a candidate. He suffered a brain injury last month from a fall in his driveway, and his family has declined to comment further about his injuries or his intent to stay in the race.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, a friend of Stenglein, said this week that his recovery is going quite well.
The official filing date to run for office starts May 22 and ends June 5.
Angela Conley, an African-American candidate who does job assistance for Hennepin County, said she spent the last two years thinking about taking on 27-year board incumbent Peter McLaughlin for the District 4 seat that includes east and downtown portions of the city. Many people told her to wait until he retired, but Conley said she doesn’t want to do that.
“I was shocked to learn the board has always been all-white,” said Conley, 40, who lives in south Minneapolis. “The final spark to run came when I learned this board held a retreat on racial disparity in Hennepin County. Why not ask me?”
Conley, who has a master’s degree in public administration, has worked in state and county government for 20 years. She has experienced being on public assistance and has worked at a homeless shelter, which shaped her approach to helping people who rely on county services.
“I’m in health and human services, but we work with child protection, corrections, public health and other areas,” Conley said. “We can make a large impact across the entire system.”
McLaughlin, 68 and a Minneapolis resident, acknowledged the lack of diversity on the board but defended his leadership role in reducing the county’s equity gaps. He had a hand in expanding transportation options like light rail, reducing juvenile jail populations, creating job programs for low-income residents and redeveloping the intersection of Penn and Plymouth avenues in north Minneapolis.
“We didn’t do affordable housing investment before I was on the board,” he said. “We know people are hurting out there, and we need to be a counter to other forces out there, like a hostile federal government.”
McLaughlin’s other challenger is Megan Kuhl-Stennes, who is white and said she understands she won’t see racial disparities the same as a person of color. But she said her overall political philosophy is to treat all county residents with humanity and equality. She works as an advocate for zero waste and climate change and is an urban farmer in south Minneapolis. Kuhl-Stennes, 34, is the endorsed Green Party candidate.
“Creating more durable products creates more jobs. People need to live in an environment with clean air, water and soil,” she said. “The county needs to constantly balance its vision and resources.”
Stenglein served on the board from 1997 to 2012 and was an early supporter of the county’s plan to subsidize construction of Target Field. He has been a political consultant in recent years.
Ellison, 53, was formerly married to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, and their son Jeremiah is a Minneapolis City Council member.
Building coalitions is a skill she said she can bring to the board. For instance, when there was a drive-by shooting outside an elementary school last year, she brought together community leaders and elected officials to discuss school safety.
Fernando, 32, also running in District 2, is a newcomer to politics. At 17, she co-founded a nonprofit youth leadership program at the University of Minnesota. More than 22,000 students went through the program during her 11 years working there, she said. She studied shared leadership and succession planning as a Bush Foundation fellow, learning to create a vision “that outlives any one leader and best serves the community.” She currently works at Thrivent Financial leading a division in organizational design, culture and talent.
Diversifying the board is an important aspect of her campaign, but Fernando said that she will bring visibility, transparency and accountability to the job as well. Many people don’t know how the board works, and they aren’t engaged by their commissioners, she said.
“It’s possible to be very imaginative working at the county level,” said Fernando, who lives in north Minneapolis.
In District 3, which covers the lakes area in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, incumbent Marion Greene so far has one challenger. LaDonna Redmond works as a diversity manager for the Seward Community Co-op and describes herself as food justice activist. She created one the first farmers markets in Illinois, and studied food and agriculture as a Kellogg Foundation fellow. “Communities of color, particularly African-American, have resources to make a difference,” said Redmond, who lives in south Minneapolis. “How do we capture that and make something of it?”
Her run for office was triggered by the current political climate, in particular, she said, the Trump administration’s attitude toward the poor.
“It’s a question that is now being taken to the voters,” Redmond said. “Do they support diversity and value it?”
Greene worked in health care finance and was a representative in the Legislature for a term before she won a special election for her seat in 2014. She was re-elected and has championed causes such as a county-funded immigration legal defense fund and youth survivors of trafficking.
“The work of the board involving equity has taken hold,” said Greene, 47, who lives in south Minneapolis. “I’m glad to see representatives of our community wanting to run for the board and shape the conversation.”