The Hennepin County Board, responsible for a $2.5 billion budget and critical social services, is about to get a rare and significant makeover in November’s election.
The board is losing Jan Callison, Jeff Johnson and Mike Opat, three longtime commissioners with a total of more than five decades of experience who decided not to seek re-election. Commissioner Marion Greene, elected in 2014, will be the board’s senior member when it meets for the first time in 2021.
“There is no question Hennepin County is in the midst of a once-in-a-generation leadership moment,” said Sixth District candidate Chris LaTondresse.
Last year’s election brought historic change to the board, when Angela Conley and Irene Fernando became the first two Hennepin commissioners of color. They have become advocates on disparity issues and co-sponsored a controversial resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.
In the only race involving an incumbent, Commissioner Debbie Goettel is being challenged in the Fifth District by Boni Njenga, a community leader and advocate for evidence-based policymaking.
The candidates agree that the turnover offers the potential for fresh perspectives on policies and issues.
Lunde vs. Pittman
The candidates running for Opat’s seat are Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde and De’Vonna Pittman, disparity reduction coordinator for Hennepin County. Both have long working relationships with county officials and the board.
The foreclosure crisis had hit Brooklyn Park hard when Lunde became mayor in 2011. Since then, he said, housing has stabilized, business has grown along Hwy. 610 and crime has shrunk to a 40-year low.
Because Brooklyn Park has the largest Liberian population in the United States, Lunde took a trip to Liberia in 2012 on his own dime to gain a better understanding of the culture. The city has a diverse population and each community requires special treatment, he said.
As mayor, Lunde said, he has tried to be a collaborator because “today’s enemy is next week’s friend. … I ultimately want to see results. Is a politician acting to do something good or make themselves feel better by making a statement and having nothing to show for it?”
Pittman has worked for Hennepin County for 18 years, starting as a committee clerk for the County Board. That was followed by managing community engagement for a study on disability access at Target Field and working with inmates on a construction training program.
She cofounded the Minnesota Black Authors Expo, which she said proved to her that things could get done on a grassroots level. She wanted to influence disparity policies on the county level but saw only white people on the board and at first couldn’t imagine herself running.
“The county continues to have the worst disparities in the state, and District 1 was missing critical perspective,” Pittman said. “I respect Mike Opat. I want the board to be approachable to the community and feel like they have a connection.”
Anselmo vs. LaTondresse
LaTondresse, vice chairman of the Hopkins school board, will face Dario Anselmo, a former legislator from Edina and former owner of the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District.
Part of LaTondresse’s motivation for running was his realization that many challenges faced by students and families happen long before they walk through school doors.
“There’s hunger, health care, housing and transit problems. All of these affect a student’s success,” he said. “We can’t tax our way out of these things. At the county, we can make smart choices. Prevention is less costly and takes less of a human toll.”
The Hopkins school board became the first in the U.S. with a program that identifies students at risk for homelessness, LaTondresse said.
“My top priority as commissioner would be affordable housing,” he said. “We need a Minnesota Marshall Plan for this, and the county can be a prime mover to get this done.”
Anselmo said he plans to apply his 30 years of community service to work on crime, homelessness, mental health and education.
“You see the best and worst of humanity in front of the Fine Line, but it helped me understand and try to solve many issues,” he said. “With my experience and relationships at the local, state and federal level, I needed to step up.”
Anselmo said he didn’t seek endorsements — he likes the fact that the board is nonpartisan, unlike the highly politicized Legislature — but said a lot of people he knows came forward to offer them.
“You need to be innovative, creative, inspirational and really energizing,” he said. “I want to take the county’s delivery system and make it a bridge to a better life for residents.”
Anderson vs. Nadeau
Danny Nadeau, who has worked for Johnson for 10 years, is squaring off against technical architect Kevin Anderson in the Seventh District race.
Nadeau said he was Johnson’s “policy guy” who built relationships and worked with business, “much to the chagrin of the administration.”
“I want to know the barriers,” he said. “The board has become very metrocentric. There are many people struggling with poverty issues in the suburbs.”
The district, the largest in the county stretching from Champlin to St. Bonifacius, kicks in 15% of the county’s property tax but doesn’t see nearly that much coming back in services, Nadeau said. With more people moving to the suburbs, he said, there will be more requests for public investment in the district’s rural areas with declining tax capacity to fund it.
“People want to trust government, and officials need to spend more time in neighborhoods instead of just inviting people to their table,” Nadeau said.
Anderson said he plans to focus on disparities in transportation, mental health services and affordable housing.
“I did volunteer work with advocacy groups and my church, which has given me a deeper understanding of what people are going through,” he said. “This is definitely an opportunity for fresh eyes to look at current programs.”
Anderson said he would like more collaboration with schools and public libraries to expand mental health resources. He learned the county has only two social workers as a library resource.
“With pandemic issues, there is distance learning, people losing jobs,” he said. “People are stressed. We need to give people the tools to help them.”