Jan Callison is not to seeking re-election to the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners this year, and six candidates are now vying to take her place representing the board’s District 6, which covers many of the county’s largest and most affluent suburbs, including the northern part of Eden Prairie as well as Edina, Minnetonka, Hopkins, Wayzata, Orono, Mound, Excelsior, Shorewood, Greenwood, Spring Park, Deephaven, Minnetonka Bay and Long Lake.
The seven-member board oversees the county’s $2.5 billion budget, and helps manage regional growth by deciding when and how to fund certain services, including those that target some of the metro’s biggest social issues: affordable housing, the mental-health system and rising rates of opioid abuse.
The Aug. 11 primary for the District 6 seat will narrow the field down to the two top candidates, who will then face off in the general election this fall.
Here, a look at who’s running — and the issues that the candidates are focused on.
Candidate Brad Aho is familiar to voters in Eden Prairie, where he’s been a council member since 2004 and where he’s served as acting mayor. Though the county commission race is technically nonpartisan, Aho, an electrical engineer and business owner, has the endorsement of the Hennepin County District 6 Republicans.
Dario Anselmo, 58, an entrepreneur and former Republican state representative from Edina’s House District 49A, calls himself a “fiscally conservative, socially tolerant” centrist, and has been endorsed by several current and former mayors of District 6 cities and politicians from both parties, including former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad and former Minneapolis Council President Barbara Johnson.
Carmella Doby decided to run after losing her job due to the coronavirus pandemic, and if elected, the 25-year-old Hopkins resident says she would focus on programs that help people become homeowners and specialty services like infant-specific childcare.
Chris LaTondresse, 38, is currently the Hopkins School Board vice chair, and is the DFL’s endorsed candidate for the seat. The 38-year-old marketing strategy specialist said he’s running because he wants to reimagine “government on the other side of the pandemic” by investing in county housing and health services.
Cheri Sudit, 62, says she’s running because she believes her years of experience working as an assistant Hennepin County attorney makes her uniquely qualified for the job. And though she sees criminal justice, workforce and infrastructure as important issues for the board, she said that, “If I had my choice to work on any particular issues, it’d be climate.”
Office administrator and racial justice advocate Kimberly Wilburn said she’s running to better serve everyone in the district, including groups that have traditionally been underserved by the county. Wilburn said the district is more diverse and less conservative than people think, and that most people in general want the same things. She said her top priority on the board would be addressing the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Housing and homelessness
Concerns about both homelessness and affordable housing, especially the lack of it, has become a major issue in the campaign.
Several of the candidates, including LaTondress, Doby, Wilburn and Sudit have advocated putting more money into shelters for the homeless.
Sudit, for example, has argued the county should allocate more money to strike up contracts with hotels to use them for extra shelter space during a pandemic. She also believes the county should find ways to help seniors who want to keep their homes and look for ways to develop more affordable housing options for people in different phases of life.
Likewise, Wilburn says the county needs to address the housing crisis for every stage of life. “We need to provide more housing that’s available for low-income people, new students, young families and the elderly,” she said.
LaTondresse points out that it’s more expensive to help someone when they are in a health or housing crisis than it is to provide them with persistent services they need. Referring to such “upstream” investing, he said the county needs to focus on expanding mental health and transportation services with more preventative programs.
Anselmo said he prefers long term solutions like permanent housing over spending more money on using hotels as shelters in order to expand Hennepin County’s shelter system. “The best social program is a job,” he said, and added that the county should look to private and nonprofit groups for extra money for shelters.
Criminal justice, law enforcement
After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, criminal justice and policing is also on the minds of District 6 candidates, even if the county’s law enforcement agency, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, has avoided the same level of scrutiny as the Minneapolis Police Department.
Doby believes the county could prevent something like the Floyd tragedy happening by putting in a system that documents and flags deputies with multiple complaints and institute intervention training to prevent county deputies from standing idly by when a misuse of force is occurring, as happened with the three Minneapolis police who did not intervene to prevent Floyd’s death.
Citing racial disparities in arrests and instances of law enforcement violence, LaTondresse also says “bold action” is necessary to improve the sheriff’s department. If the law enforcement side of the county and the human services side communicated more, he said, people can get the proper services they need and would limit the number of calls answered by people with a “badge and a gun.”
Even as the debate about policing in Minneapolis continues, Hennepin County is getting acclimated to its new law enforcement leader, Sheriff David Hutchinson, who defeated longtime Sheriff Rich Stanek two years ago. Hutchinson, “Hutch,” as he’s known, campaigned on creating a department that treats both civilians and deputies better, vowing to be more accessible and open with staff and the public.
“I think his heart is in the right place. I think he has good intentions,” said Wilburn. “The thing we don’t really know is information about arrests,” she added. “We don’t have the data.”
Wilburn said she put in a records request for information on traffic stops, arrests and use of force by race but was told that data doesn’t exist. “We need to have the data so we can make some recommendations,” she said.
Though the county has little to do with Minneapolis policing, Sudit has been vocal about not supporting the idea of defunding the Minneapolis department. She has also expressed support for Hutchinson. As an assistant Hennepin County attorney, she said, she often works with the sheriff’s office, and says Hutchinson “embraces new training” and race disparity reduction and awareness, “and even supporting women in the sheriff’s department.”
Anselmo says that police brutality and bias are real and need to be addressed, but that he also doesn’t want the county to “overreact the other way,” and says that he is a “public safety supporter.” A longtime mental health advocate, he also said the county should beef up its response team to mental health and other calls. “Maybe George Floyd could have had a different response team,” he said. “But that’s a tough call. Your theoretical spouse calls. What is it going to be? Bring a gun or don’t?”