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At Hennepin County candidate forum, a lot of fire about ICE

The event, hosted by ISAIAH, aimed to spotlight injustices against immigrants and people of color in Hennepin County’s criminal-justice system, while allowing candidates for county attorney, sheriff and commissioner to explain their ideas for fixing them. 

Hennepin County Board candidate Angela Conley looks on as Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin speaks at Sunday's forum.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

The majority of people running for Hennepin County’s elected offices agree: Federal immigration officials enforcing Donald Trump’s deportation policies have no place here.

But at a forum inside a north Minneapolis church Sunday, the candidates gave varying perspectives on how — and to what extent — the county can limit the presence of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if voters elect them Nov. 6.

“The county has to take immediate steps right now this is a crisis,” said Angela Conley, who is running for Hennepin County Board’s District 4 seat, which represents the eastern half of Minneapolis.

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Her opponent, current county commissioner and 27-year incumbent Peter McLaughlin, put it like this: “We need a new sheriff.”

Commissioners vs. the Sheriff

The event, hosted by ISAIAH, a coalition of faith-based groups, aimed to spotlight injustices against immigrants and people of color in Hennepin County’s criminal-justice system, while allowing candidates for county attorney, sheriff and commissioner to explain their ideas for fixing them. The District 4 county board race was the only one for which both candidates attended.

To the dozens of people in pews at New Creation Church, McLaughlin emphasized the creation of a new county fund to help immigrants facing deportation have legal representation, as well as the board’s work to define new standards for the ICE agents’ work — a piece of policy that would require the federal officials to identify themselves on county property. He said commissioners have directed staff to write that proposal’s language, and it’s unclear when they’ll formally consider the change.

“It is a baby step. It’s a beginning for the board to talk about this important issue,” said County Commissioner Marion Greene, who is running again to represent District 3, which covers parts of southwest Minneapolis and St. Louis Park. (Her opponent, LaDonna Redmond, has paused her campaign after the death of her son a few weeks ago.)

The push among county leaders aims to counteract the Trump administration’s hardline stance on immigration, which has led to the arrest of immigrants in courthouses and other county buildings, according to activists and local officials.

“We don’t participate with ICE in the departments that we control,” McLaughlin said, explaining how the board took disciplinary action against one probation officer who contacted the federal agency recently a measure he said was possible because that officer was under commissioners’ purview.

The core of the issue is that the board has a different approach to criminalization than the sheriff’s office, he said. The Trump administration once named Hennepin County on a “list of uncooperative jurisdictions” for not honoring ICE detainers, which are requests for holding inmates up to two days so ICE agents can take them into custody, the Star Tribune reported last year. Yet immigrant-rights activists and some elected officials have long criticized current sheriff Rich Stanek — who didn’t attend Sunday’s event — for practices they say go too far in helping ICE, such as alerting the federal agency when deputies book foreign-born people or release detainees.

“We need to find a way to get control of the sheriff, and that is possible, but it’s going to take a new sheriff to work with us,” McLaughlin said. He’d rather the position be appointed not elected by voters.

Come November, the sheriff is seeking re-election for a fourth term against Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson, a sergeant for Metro Transit. Stanek received about 49 percent of votes in August’s primary election, compared to Hutchinson’s almost 35 percent. (Stanek has spent about $135,000 on his campaign so far, while Hutchinson hasn’t documented any spending, Hennepin County campaign finance reports show.)

“We don’t need to ask country of origin,” Hutchinson said Sunday. “I don’t care what you look like … who your country of origin is, if you come to our jail, you have committed a crime in our county, and you’re going to, you know, face the consequences. But our job is to protect people. Our job is not to enforce federal law,” referring to immigration policies.

Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson, a sergeant with Metro Transit, spoke about his plans of “standing up to ICE” if elected Hennepin County sheriff.
On broader issues surrounding the treatment of immigrants or people of color, a group of vocal political activists is pushing Conley’s challenge to McLaughlin. Roughly 1,150 votes separated the two candidates in August’s primary election, in which McLaughlin finished first. (Conley has spent about $24,800 campaigning so far, while McLaughlin has spent almost $78,400, according to finance reports.)

“As county leaders, we have failed to own our own role in systematic racism, and until we do that, it’s not going to stop,” said Conley, who currently does job assistance for the county.

Opportunity for other candidates

Beyond Hutchinson, Sunday’s attendance gave other political newcomers an easy opportunity to push their campaign platforms without rebuttal. Minneapolis lawyer Mark Haase, who’s running for Hennepin County prosecutor against incumbent Mike Freeman, outlined his main goals for the position — including reforming the cash bail system; simplifying the sealing of records for nonviolent crimes; changing state law that requires public records for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with felonies; and copying a practice by Philadelphia’s newly-elected district attorney that makes minimum sentences the standard.

“That turns the whole system on its head,” he said.

Freeman has said that if he’s re-elected, he would advocate to reform Minnesota’s marijuana laws; conduct more reviews to understand racial disparities; and “with other criminal justice partners … figure out how to handle police-shooting cases better.”

An organizer of Sunday’s event said Freeman couldn’t attend due to a national county attorney conference. (Freeman has spent about $27,100 on his campaign so far, while Haase has spent less than half that amount, campaign finance reports show.)

Former Minneapolis Council Member Blong Yang, who is running for the open District 2 seat on the Hennepin County Board, also didn’t appear, giving challenger and community activist Irene Fernando an open opportunity to share her plans. She said there’s more commissioners can do to hold the sheriff’s office accountable, such as collect better data on arrests and make that information easy to find online.

District 2 covers parts of Minneapolis as well as Golden Valley and Plymouth. Fernando secured just over 33 percent of the vote in August’s primary, while Yang received about 26 percent.