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Hennepin County Commissioner election interview: Ben Schweigert

The third of four candidate interviews ahead of the April 29 primary for the Minneapolis-St. Louis Park seat. 

Editor’s note: this is the third of four candidate profiles to succeed Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman. The primary election for the downtown/southwest Minneapolis and St. Louis Park seat is Tuesday, April 29, with the general election May 13. You can read the Ken Kelash and Anne Mavity profiles; Marion Greene’s will appear Thursday.

Ben Schweigert grew up in St. Paul, graduated from Swarthmore College (also Marion Greene’s alma mater) and was settling into East Coast life when he took a course from Wellstone Action.

After the course, he came home as the regional director of the Democratic National Committee’s 2004-election canvassing project. He later worked for the Minnesota House DFL Caucus.

He is on Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s staff,  as a prosecutor and legislative liaison. He is 34.

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His law degree is from the University of Michigan, where he also earned a Master’s Degree from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He later clerked for the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, which includes New York, Connecticut and Vermont.

MinnPost: What would you have done differently with the Southwest Light Rail Line?

Ben Schweigert: I’m committed to building a transportation future that’s healthier for people and healthier for neighborhoods and healthier for the planet.

I see our light-rail network as a critical part of that, and I want to see it expanded, I want to see it succeed, and that includes the Southwest line. I want to see it built.

Obviously, the process to get where we are now has been very difficult. I think we’ve learned a lot about the importance of getting good data in the early stages of the planning process, and I mean that in terms of engineering data.

I also mean it in terms of good modeling of ridership and projections, about impacts on communities in terms of development potential and in terms of the impact of construction and future impacts of the project.

I think we can learn from this process … engaging at earlier stages with communities and giving communities a chance to hash over that kind of data.

We’ve also learned the importance of making sure that commitments made with a project like this, to communities and other players, are well-understood by everyone involved and reduced to writing, so that people have a shared understanding.

Obviously, there was an agreement regarding the relocation of the freight trains, that people have proven to have had different understandings. I think a lesson we can learn is to avoid such a situation in the future.

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MP: The winner of this contest will take office while Hennepin County and the cities along the Southwest Light Rail line are in the process of deciding the question of municipal consent. Minneapolis is at odds with the current plan. What would you do to get them into the fold?

BS: I think it’s critical that we get Minneapolis on board. I don’t think we can afford to see this project fail or significantly delayed. I think it’s time to move forward.

We’re going to have a conversation with Minneapolis about what they need to get on board. Obviously, the deal Minneapolis is being offered right now is not quite the deal they thought they agreed to at the beginning. I understand that. I take that seriously.

The question then is how do we make our leaders at Minneapolis City Hall feel good about this project. I think we can do that by focusing on our areas of agreement, making sure we are protecting the lakes, making sure we are minimizing impacts on communities both from construction and the project.

Ben Schweigert
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
Ben Schweigert

Then, looking at our transportation future and figuring out the ways we can cooperate going forward and how can we engage constructively with the city doing that.

But as the center of the metro area, Minneapolis — and I say this as somebody who lives in Minneapolis — is invested in a future where people can use cars less and where it’s easy to get around in other ways if we choose to.

I’m a bike and bus commuter myself, my wife and I are a one-car family. That’s a choice we made, partly a lifestyle choice and a choice of values, to live in a more sustainable way. We can do that because of the infrastructure that exists here.

This line, the Southwest line, will connect places in Minneapolis. It will allow people who live downtown or in Cedar-Riverside to transfer from bus lines and get to employers in the western suburbs. It will allow people in the western suburbs to get to their jobs in Minneapolis, which is good for our business community.

There are benefits Minneapolis is going to get out of this line being built. The more we can develop a culture here that understands that we can do things in our daily lives without getting into a car, that is inherently a good thing for Minneapolis and the City of St. Louis Park as well.

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MP: Leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul are dedicated to closing the opportunity gaps that exist between persons of color and those who are white. This was a major issue in the Minneapolis election. What would you do to move Hennepin County in this direction?

BS: Certainly, I was excited to hear those conversations happening in the city elections last year … in a way I haven’t seen before.

I grew up in an urban community that was, maybe, half-white. I went to a high school that was less than half white but my classes in that high school were mostly white. The divide we see in our community is one that ran right through the middle of my high school. It’s one I’ve been conscious of my whole life.

And one that, for a long time, has been hard to get people to talk about, especially hard to get white people to talk about. I was very heartened to hear that conversation.

From my vantage point, as someone who works at the county, I’ve been very conscious that making progress on these issues is going to require the county, because the bulk of our social service infrastructure is housed at the county. The significance of the county in social services was one of the primary things that motivated me to run for this seat.

It is time for us to think about the infrastructure that exists at the county, that is there to provide help for people who need help, and ask ourselves what is this for and what is the organizing principle and how do we make sure the structure we have is well designed to serve that goal.

[The] organizing principle here is fighting inequity, creating opportunities for people. We should judge our work and judge our structure of government by how well it’s doing that.

I want to see the county’s social service infrastructure as a tool for addressing inequity.

MP: What do you bring to this contest that makes you a better choice for County Commissioner than your opponents?

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BS: There are five things that set me apart. One is that I work for the county. In my role as legislative liaison for the County Attorney, I have had the chance to work with people in different county departments. I’ve had a chance to get to know some of the members of the County Board and the County Administrator.

It’s in that role that I got to know Commissioner Dorfman, because I was on a working group on sex trafficking in the County Attorney’s office, which is an issue she has been a leader on at the county level.

I’ve seen what works at the county. I’ve seen what we can improve. That puts me into a position where I’ll be able to come into this role with a base of knowledge that, I think it’s fair to say, sets me apart.

At the same time, I think I have an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to the board’s work. The County Board is composed of great people who I work with and admire. At the same time, I think it’s an institution that needs a new, forward-looking perspective.

I’m coming to this as someone who has had a career in public service, but I’ve never run for office before. I’m coming to this without any legacy of political battle scars, ready to work with everyone on the board and excited to work with the new leadership at Minneapolis City Hall, excited to work with the leaders in St. Louis Park.

Hennepin County

And do it all from the prospective, not of the conflicts we’ve had in the past, but what is it we can do together in the future.

I have the skill set to come in and ask those hard questions and hold people accountable, to parcel large bodies of information, and figure out where the problems lie and challenge people on them. That’s what I do as a prosecutor.

I think that skill set will allow me to come in and ask the hard questions that have to be asked and build innovative forward-looking solutions that can prepare our county for new generation of public policy challenges.

MP: The winner in this contest will have to run again in November. If you lose in May will you challenge the winner in November?

BS: I don’t know. I’ve never done anything like this before. Six months ago, I didn’t think I’d be running now. So I just don’t know. And that’s the honest answer.

MP: If you win the election in May, you will not have much time to establish a track record before the November election. What will your number-one priority be, and how will you make that happen?

BS: Obviously, we have to resolve the situation with Southwest Light Rail and that is an externally driven time line we have to be responsive to. That would have to be one of the first things I do.

Some of those larger structural questions are going to define our success going forward. How does our transportation infrastructure work or how can we change our social services structure so that it’s an engine to create opportunity for people.

Those are things that are not going to get done in six months, but they are things we can’t wait to get started on, either. 

MP: The Hennepin County Board is sometimes referred to as the invisible government, even though it is second only in size to Minnesota state government. Do you think this is a problem? What do you do to change this image?

BS: The county is not invisible to everyone. A lot of what the county does is help people who need help. It’s not invisible to people who rely on the county for help with food or housing or health care or child care, for people who are victims of crime and rely the county’s public safety structure. It’s not invisible to them.

It’s more invisible to those who are lucky enough, or privileged enough, not to need that sort of help. 

A lot of what the county does interfaces with other units of government. So our county roads, many of them run through our cities and are indistinguishable from our city streets, like Lyndale Avenue, which runs a block from my house. That’s probably a good thing. We want there to be a seamless infrastructure.

As a member of the County Board, you can count on me to be out in the community talking about what the county is doing. I think that’s crucial for accountability. It’s critical that people who represent the county make themselves available to people who live in the communities, listen to people and learn from people.

What I’m committed to do is show up at neighborhood meetings, labor meetings, nonprofit and faith organization. I don’t think the answer is to expect people to come to us. I don’t think that’s the kind of accountability people expect.

I say this as someone who is active in my neighborhood organization, I say this as someone who is active in my union, who is involved in the community. People are active in all kids of ways in our county, and that is where a lot of important, exciting stuff happens.

I don’t think the best model for the county is to hold more hearings and expect people to show up. I think having people come to the Government Center is probably good, but I think its better for people to be in the their community doing the good work doing rather than spending the day waiting for a hearing to happen at 300 6th St.

MP: Is there a question I haven’t asked or a topic you would like to address?

BS: One of the things that I’ve been talking about in this campaign that I think is important is the way in which the wage structure of our economy affects all of the other questions we’ve been discussing, and affects the way in which people need economic assistance.

We live in a time when wages — especially for people at the lower ends of the income distribution — have been stagnant for a long time. And yet we live in a community where rents are going up all of the time.

I want us to be talking about that, not just the help people can get from the county, but the way in which the county can be part of developing economic success in people’s lives. Allowing them to create more prosperity.

This is why I was such an advocate for raising the minimum wage on the state level. It’s why I have called on the county to adopt a living wage at the county level, similar to the efforts of President Obama on the federal level. It’s why I am a supporter of organized labor, and why I’m a supporter of enforcement of our prevailing wage standards.

We need to find whatever mechanism we can to make sure people who are working full time are not living in poverty. This is not a problem Hennepin County is going to solve on its own, but if we’re not looking for ways to be part of the solution, that’s a significant failure on our part.

MP: At a journalism seminar I attended a few years ago we talked about questions that will get people talking about themselves. So here’s the question: What is your favorite childhood memory?

BS: Since we are doing this interview in the context of me running for office, I think about my early political memories.

When I was 10 or 11, going with my Dad to hear Sen. Wellstone speak. He had probably been in office three weeks at that point.

I remember taking the 16 bus from our neighborhood to the U and seeing him speak and being transfixed by him.

When I think about the inspirations I’ve had in my life, working for a society that is fairer, more sustainable, creating more prosperity for more people, for a world that’s more peaceful, I always think about that memory. I think it had a lot to do with the choices I’ve made in my life.

He was an inspiration to me without him even knowing who I was.

But all through my years of growing up, all through college, no matter how bad it got, I could always say ‘at least we’ve got Paul.’

And then all of the sudden we didn’t.

I had never really worked on a political campaign before that point. I think it was feeling that hole that made me decide I needed to do that.