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Election leads to historic shake-up in Hennepin County

The push for fresh faces extended to Ramsey County, where voters elected Trista MatasCastillo over current Commissioner Janice Rettman for the county’s board of commissioners. 

Angela Conley
In the District 4 race, Angela Conley, above, and Peter McLaughlin both ran as progressives, though Conley was considered further to the left.
Conley for Commissioner

Hennepin County voters made history on Tuesday: for the first time ever, they picked people of color to serve on the county’s board of commissioners.

The new leaders, Angela Conley, in District 4, and Irene Fernando, in District 2, defeated opponents by tapping into voters’ frustrations over countywide racial disparities and a dissatisfaction with national politics to win seats on the seven-member board. For Conley, the result was a win over Peter McLaughlin, who had been in office for 27-years, and who has long been a leading political force behind the expansion of light-rail in the metro. Fernando, meanwhile, came out on top in an open race against former Minneapolis City Council Member Blong Yang.

Both Conley and Fernando neither of whom had ever run for office before won by landslide margins: Conley by more than 14 percent, Fernando by more than 15.

In the District 4 race, Conley and McLaughlin both ran as progressives, though Conley was considered further to the left. She rallied die-hard DFL activists early in the campaign season, and that support helped her successfully make the pitch in the general election: Let’s shake up county leadership with someone new. That messaging extended to the race for Hennepin County sheriff, too with first-time candidate Dave Hutch claiming a victory over incumbent Rich Stanek and a contest for the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners as well.

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“There’s a need now for these voices, these really progressive voices, to represent us,” Conley, 40, said in an interview. “I’m just excited at this opportunity that we all have now to see how our party changes into a more progressive, a more inclusive and more equitable party. And that’s exactly what leadership is looking like right now.”

Why Conley won

Conley herself was shocked by her win over McLaughlin. Early on Tuesday evening, she watched results stream in with her family at home. But it was not until later, as she got ready for an election night party, that reality sank in. “I was in disbelief. I really was on the edge of my seat,” she said. “Then the team called and was like, ‘It’s statistically impossible. You have this.’ And I just screamed.”

Conley supporters have said her experience  — as a black, single mother who once lived on government support — will bring a necessary perspective to the board. Born in South Minneapolis, Conley touts those personal experiences, as well as her work in activism, nonprofits and government as reasons why she’ll make a strong commissioner for her urban district.

She once worked as a case manager at Our Savior’s Housing, a Minneapolis homeless shelter, for example, which gave her a firsthand look into what factors help people achieve permanent housing. In her current job, she oversees contracts with community nonprofits that provide job assistance for low-income residents in the county’s health and human services department.

But her jump into politics did not come on a whim. She began preparing for the county race more than two years ago, when she started researching the lack of diversity in her department — and the rest of county government. “It was clear that I was the right choice now, in this moment, for this position,” Conley said.

McLaughlin, 68, knows his loss was about issues bigger than the county board. Voters’ frustrations over national politics fed into local races like his, where voters had the option of changing things up, McLaughlin said.

“People all over the country are ticked off about where the country is going,” he said. “That takes many forms. In the 8th [Congressional] district, it takes the form of someone who elects Donald Trump because they’re ticked off. In the suburbs, in the metro, it takes electing two Democrats. … People are mad because they don’t see big change.”

Throughout his seven terms as commissioner, McLaughlin pushed to consolidate the region’s libraries; build Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway bike path; construct Target Field and change the name of the Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska.

Other successes, he says, came from his work on affordable housing and training people for employment. He’s most known, though, as the force behind much of the political maneuvering required to expand the light rail system and creating a “sea change in how we did transportation at the county.”

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The job at the county requires works across multiple levels of government. On specific projects, commissioners coordinate with local municipalities, even at the neighborhood level. But their work also requires thinking outside the county and negotiating on behalf of residents with state leaders. And all of the work is influenced by Trump administration’s policies and the federal funding that flows from it.

“You’re still only operating around the edges, and as a result, there’s only so much you can do,” McLaughlin said, describing how he only worked with one Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, during his entire 27 years. “The county is the creature of the state. You’ve got to make that work and find ways to get things done. It’s incredibly difficult.”

Some people seemed not to understand that workflow on the campaign trail, McLaughlin said. Critics often cite Minnesota’s ranking as among states with the worst racial inequalities as among the reasons for denying him re-election. McLaughlin calls that blame misplaced. “Somehow one county commissioner, that out of seven county commissioners, somehow was responsible? Not the governor? I was responsible. That was the argument that ticked me off the most.”

McLaughlin spent more than Conley campaigning and got several big-name endorsements, including Dayton, governor-elect Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. But he thinks his defeat was due to voters’ failure to appreciate or know about his achievements. “That’s part of the dynamic I couldn’t translate some of the things I have done into a political [gain].”

What it could mean for Hennepin County

The Hennepin County Board is responsible for administering the county’s massive budget — this year it totals $2.4 billion — which means commissioners play key, if often overlooked, roles in governing the region; they decide what services to fund and by how much, while grappling with some of the metro’s biggest issues, from homelessness to mental health.

In that work, Conley has said there has been a “one-size-fits-all approach” to solving disparities between white residents and those of color in terms of employment, health-care access and more. She instead aims to think more comprehensively about such issues, largely by seeking input from people in the community who feel the effects of inequities firsthand with the creation of a new Race Equity Advisory Council.

“We’ve never had people impacted by disparities at the table to say, ‘This is what’s affecting me; this is how we fix it.’ Because these [people] are the experts in it. When you are living through disparities — no matter which disparity it is: health, education, incarceration — you know, you’re an expert on that,” Conley said.

Beyond that initiative, Conley said she wants to team up with other regional leaders to reform the cash-bail system; improve county roads for safety, and target ways to lessen the county’s impact on the environment.

Increasing everyone’s access to county government is also among Fernando’s top priorities in representing the board’s District 2, which spans parts of Minneapolis as well as Golden Valley and Plymouth. The political newcomer, who currently works for Thrivent Financial, has a thick portfolio of activism and nonprofit experience. She founded Students Today Leaders Forever, for example, a now-defunct nonprofit that aimed to empower children and teens.

In Fernando’s race for commissioner to succeed the retiring Linda Higgins, the DFL endorsed the first-time candidate at the party’s county convention in the spring. Fernando’s opponent, Yang, had run unsuccessfully for the same position in 2012.

Other members of the Hennepin County board are Mike Opat (District 1), Debbie Goettel (District 5), Jan Callison (District 6), gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson (District 7) and Marion Greene (District 3), to whom voters easily handed a second term Tuesday.

Other county races

Ramsey County felt the metro’s push for new candidates to replace longtime leaders, too. For a spot on the county’s board of commissioners, voters overwhelmingly picked newcomer Trista MatasCastillo over current Commissioner Janice Rettman, who has sailed through re-elections since she first won office in 1997. MatasCastillo beat Rettman with more than 62 percent of the vote.

“One year ago, when I started this campaign, everyone in the establishment told me I couldn’t win,” MatasCastillo wrote on Facebook after her victory. “To the unions, organizations, and elected officials who endorsed me and worked on my behalf: Your backing gave me the credibility I needed, as a political newcomer, to take on a long-term incumbent.”

The shake up did not extend to every office on the ballot Tuesday. The campaign by Minneapolis lawyer Mark Haase for Hennepin County attorney was a major test for incumbent Mike Freeman, but the results Tuesday night proved Freeman’s strong name recognition and support in the metro. He won a sixth term with 54 percent of the vote.

The race for chief prosecutor in Ramsey County was even more predictable. Voters elected the current attorney, John J. Choi, for a third term over his challenger, attorney Luke Kyper Bellville.

Also in Ramsey County, former Sheriff Bob Fletcher beat the county’s current sheriff, Jack Serier, to recapture the county’s top law-enforcement position. While campaigning, Fletcher, who is currently mayor of Vadnais Heights, said he would move fast launching the county’s body-camera program; restore trust within the department; and find ways to combat the region’s opioid crisis. He’s a former St. Paul police commander and St. Paul City Council member — before voters elected him four times for sheriff beginning in 1994.

Serier, who was appointed to sheriff last year, thanked campaign supporters in a short Facebook post Tuesday night: “I am truly grateful to you all.”