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How the Hennepin and Ramsey County elections could shake up metro area politics

DFL activists made it clear from the beginning of campaign season that local elections in the Twin Cities metro would be different this year.

Minneapolis/St. Paul
Minneapolis/St. Paul
MinnPost photos by Corey Anderson/RitaKovtun

DFL activists made it clear from the beginning of campaign season that local elections in the Twin Cities metro would be different this year. They rallied behind a handful of candidates who have never run for office before hoping the newcomers’ fresh perspective would be enough to replace some longtime elected leaders.

Here’s what you need to know about the races in Hennepin and Ramsey counties: from finger-pointing in a sheriff’s race to a Minneapolis ballot measure that could make restaurant cocktails more prevalent across the city.

Hennepin County Attorney

The first real sign that the Hennepin county attorney election was going to be different this year came in May: DFL delegates endorsed Minneapolis lawyer Mark Haase (pronounced hah-see) over five-term incumbent Mike Freeman. They liked Haase’s focus on the county’s racial disparities and ideas for making the criminal-justice system fairer. But the endorsement is really just for show, since the race is technically nonpartisan.

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Support for Haase’s campaign grew after that, making for Freeman’s first major test in 12 years. Haase says he wants to reform the cash bail system; simplify the sealing of records for nonviolent crimes; change state law that requires public records for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with felonies; and copy a practice by Philadelphia’s newly elected district attorney that makes minimum sentences the standard, “that turns the whole system on its head,” Haase said.

Freeman points to his decades in office and relationships as reasons he deserves another term. He touts his work helping victims of domestic violence; cutting down on truancy; keeping more children out of the criminal justice system; and reducing prosecutions for low-level marijuana crimes. He’s also known for taking a firm position on gun crimes, seeking higher sentences for defendants when firearms are involved.

“There’s always a fascination with something new,” Freeman said of Haase’s challenge this summer. “This is a big, huge, massive job that requires regularly from me everything I have — I’m at the top of my game.”

At the center of the race are controversies over how the county attorney handles high-profile crimes. While campaigning this summer, for example, Freeman faced backlash from police reform advocates after his announcement that he would not charge the police officers who fatally shot Thurman Blevins. At the same time, an investigation by the Star Tribune uncovered officials’ mishandling of sexual-assault cases, which Freeman called a “necessary wake up call.”

Hennepin County Sheriff

Similarly to Haase’s campaign for county attorney, progressive activists have gotten behind a political newcomer, Metro Transit Sgt. Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson, to run the Hennepin County sheriff’s office. They say his ideas match the values of the predominantly urban, left-leaning county more than those of his challenger, incumbent Rich Stanek (even though the race is also nonpartisan).

Hutchinson’s campaign has faced an uphill battle from the start: Stanek’s time in the public eye spans decades, his campaign donors have been generous and he commands strong support in the suburbs.

August’s primary proved as much. Stanek, a former police officer and Republican legislator, won with more than 49 percent of the vote, while Hutchinson garnered 35 percent (a third candidate, Joseph Banks, got 16 percent; only the top two candidates move on to the general election). That early showdown also showed the metro’s split based on geography: Voters for Stanek turned out heavily in precincts outside Minneapolis, while Hutchinson got most of his vote from the city.

Recently, both candidates accused the other of illegal campaign activity. Stanek says that complaints against Hutchinson over missing filing deadlines, among others, are telling of his leadership skills. Hutchinson, meanwhile, says a complaint against Stanek over wording on yard signs is important, since he has years of campaigning experience and should know the rules.

But the sheriff’s relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has the majority of Hutchinson fans riled up. Those immigration-rights activists and elected leaders argue Stanek goes too far in helping the federal immigration authorities target people coming in and out of jail. “My goal is to make sure that people, even who are undocumented, are still comfortable coming to the police,” Hutchinson said last month.

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Stanek said the office has state and federal laws to follow, and that’s why deputies at the jail ask certain questions that can lead to them talking to ICE. “If it’s the law that says we have to do something, we do it,” Stanek said.

Hennepin County Board of Commissioners

This year, even a typically sleepy, nonpartisan race for a seat on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners is a battleground for DFL activists, who are rooting for Angela Conley to replace 27-year incumbent Peter McLaughlin for the board seat representing the eastern half of Minneapolis (District 4).

Both candidates call themselves progressives, but their fans prove the classification is a spectrum. Some Conley supporters say her experience as a black, single mother who once lived on government support could bring a necessary perspective to the board. (There has never been a person of color on the Hennepin County board.) Meanwhile, people behind McLaughlin cite his work on public transit, housing and budgeting as reasons to return him to office.

Just 1,146 votes separated the two candidates in August’s primary, which eliminated a third candidate from the race: environmental activist Megan Kuhl-Stennes.

Another showdown among DFLers is for the open seat for the board’s District 2, which represents parts of Minneapolis as well as Golden Valley and Plymouth. Community activist Irene Fernando, whom the DFL endorsed at the spring county convention, is running against former Minneapolis Council Member Blong Yang, who ran unsuccessfully for the same position in 2012.

In August’s primary, Fernando secured just over 33 percent of the vote, while Yang received about 26 percent.

Less contested is the seat to represent parts of southwest Minneapolis and St. Louis Park (District 3) on the board. Incumbent Marion Greene is running for a second term, and she’s basically a shoe-in for re-election. Her opponent, LaDonna Redmond, paused her campaign after the death of her son in September.

Ramsey County Attorney

The race for chief prosecutor in Ramsey County has been less tense than Hennepin County’s. The current attorney, John J. Choi, is asking voters for a third term after previously serving as city attorney of St. Paul. His challenger is an attorney named Luke Kyper Bellville, who has not filed any finance reports and has run unsuccessfully for multiple offices before.

Ramsey County Sheriff

More interesting than the Ramsey county attorney election is the race to lead the county’s top law-enforcement agency, with current sheriff Jack Serier facing off against a former one, Bob Fletcher.

The Ramsey Board of Commissioners appointed Serier early last year to finish the term of his predecessor, Matt Bostrom. Serier was the sheriff’s chief deputy at the time, after moving through the department’s ranks. Throughout his roughly 22 months leading the sheriff’s office, he’s faced problems with staffing; planned the department’s rollout of body cameras for deputies; and ended the practice of holding inmates for questions by ICE. The DFL endorsed him, even though the race is nonpartisan.

Fletcher, who is currently mayor of Vadnais Heights, says he would move faster on launching the body-camera program; restoring trust within the department; and finding 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. He lost a re-election campaign to Bostrom in 2010. But Fletcher’s time at the helm of the sheriff’s office did not come without controversy: He faced criticism for his role in planned home raids of people preparing to protest the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, among other issues.

No one else joined the race, so it did not have a primary election. Fletcher has raised more than triple the total of Serier’s campaign, according to campaign finance reports.

Ramsey County Board of Commissioners

Four seats on the Ramsey County board of commissioners are up for election this year. But only one race — the contest between Trista MatasCastillo and incumbent Janice Rettman is competitive. They’re squaring off to represent Falcon Heights and parts of St. Paul (District 3) in another race die-hard progressives are rallying behind someone new to replace a long-term politician. The DFL endorsed MatasCastillo at the party’s convention this spring, propelling forward her campaign that focuses on affordable housing and workers’ rights — much like her opponent.

Voters first elected Rettman to the position in 1997, and she’s sailed through every re-election since. She often goes against the board majority on votes, especially over new construction projects, which she told The Star Tribune is because she listens closely to residents and business owners who live in the affected areas. Meanwhile, MatasCastillo is targeting urbanists who are open to changes including more bike lanes and community gardens, for examples.

Primary voters chose MatasCastillo over Rettman by a wide margin: The political newcomer secured almost 44 percent, compared to the current commissioner’s 29 percent (a third candidate, Jennifer Nguyen Moore, got roughly 27 percent). MatasCastillo has also raised more campaign donations than Rettman, according to the finance reports.

Minneapolis ballot measure

Minneapolis voters will decide if they want to change the city charter, which restricts liquor to restaurants within seven acres of commercially zoned areas, also known as the “7-acre rule.” The question for voters — Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove from the City Charter the area and spacing requirements pertaining to liquor licenses?” — needs a 55 percent majority to pass.

Supporters say the amendment would make the city’s liquor-licensing system fairer and help them increase their bottom lines. No group or public figure has come out against it.