Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin and challenger Angela Conley debated the Hiawatha homeless camp, child protection and law enforcement in a head-to-head discussion Thursday.

Dozens gathered in the auditorium of Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis for the debate, hosted by voter engagement initiative Black Votes Matter MN. Just over a month remains in what has proved to be one of McLaughlin’s toughest re-election bids after 27 years on the County Board.

McLaughlin, 69, a former state representative who was first elected to the County Board in 1990, is facing spirited competition from first-time candidate Conley, 41, who works in job assistance for the county.

He failed to get the DFL endorsement during the party convention back in May, the first time ever as commissioner. In the August primary, he won 45 percent of the vote, while Conley received 42 percent.

Conley has touted her 20 years working in state and county government, and has emphasized the need for racial diversity in county leadership. If elected, she would become the first black commissioner in the board’s 166-year history.

Moderator Lea Hargett, vice president of Thor Consulting, queried the candidates, who would be in charge of managing the second largest government budget in Minnesota.

Encampment adds to stakes

One of the most pressing issues leading up to the election has been the county’s response to the homeless encampment along Hiawatha Avenue, which lies within the district’s Minneapolis boundaries.

McLaughlin said county staff has been meeting regularly with Minneapolis city staff and has worked to connect residents with shelter and resources.

“This notion that somehow we’re not working on the encampment is nonsense,” he told the audience.

He pointed to the county’s recent $214,000 allocation to move a dozen camp residents to a fourplex in south Minneapolis, adding that the long-term solution to the homelessness crisis is to open permanent affordable-housing units like it across the county.

Conley, who has worked at a homeless shelter, said the county had failed to expand its own system. “We have been calling on the county to make investments to our shelter system and it has gone ignored,” she said.

She said she would invest in transitional housing that provides services to deal with mental illness or addiction, as well as support cooperative housing models.

McLaughlin responded by saying that he recently pushed to increase the 2019 property tax levy for the Housing and Redevelopment Authority to create more affordable housing. He said the county is ready to help financially when the Hiawatha encampment is relocated in December.

Big criminal justice goals

The candidates shared many similarities in their desires to see reform in the county’s criminal justice system.

McLaughlin said he’d like the position of Hennepin County sheriff be appointed rather than elected so the sheriff’s office is in sync with the goals of the board. He had recently called for a new sheriff to replace Rich Stanek, who is running for re-election against challenger Dave Hutchinson in November.

Conley responded that it would take changes in state law for that to occur. “I would love to see that happen, too,” she said.

She praised the board’s recent efforts to provide legal support for undocumented residents who cannot afford attorneys, but that “we also have to call out other injustices,” such as when Minneapolis officers mainly arrested black people during a marijuana sting earlier this year.

McLaughlin said he’d like to see marijuana be decriminalized, and that he would seek easier expungement of criminal records for people arrested for low-level drug violations.

Conley said she would like to end cash bail in an overcrowded jail, which is “another way that we perpetuate poverty and we perpetuate disparities.” McLaughlin, who said that he had worked on reforms in the past, said “nobody should be in jail for being poor.”

Addressing racial disparity

Hennepin County’s Child Protection Services, which showed improvements following a massive overhaul, continues to disproportionately place black and American Indian families into the system, according to a report released last month.

Both Conley and McLaughlin said they would push the Legislature to pass the African-American Family Preservation Act, which would prevent unnecessary removal of children from their parents.

They both said there are deep racial inequities in the county, including in employment and education.

When asked why they would be the best person to address those disparities, Conley said she had “a lived experience that is unmatched.”

“We need to be at every decisionmaking table in order to see a decrease in race inequity,” she said to applause. “There is nothing like the voice of that person guiding the policy.”

McLaughlin said that in order to decrease inequities, the board needs to take on housing, criminal justice, development and other issues. “I bring a wealth of experience ... that is going to be necessary to move us forward,” he said.

Almost 4,000 Minneapolis residents had turned in absentee ballots as of Monday, according to Hennepin County.