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Hennepin County Commissioner election interview: Ken Kelash

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

Ken Kelash: "You can’t constantly re-make decisions that were made years ago, so now we have to move forward with the decision the Metropolitan Council has made with the shallow tunnels."
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros

Editor’s note: This is the first of four candidate profiles for the Hennepin County Commissioner District 3 primary election Tuesday, April 29.

Six candidates are vying to replace Gail Dorfman, who represented St. Louis Park and downtown and southwest Minneapolis before she resigned with a few months left in her term. Two will survive into the May 13 general election.

Today, Karen Boros interviews Ken Kelash; interviews with the other major candidates — Marion Greene, Ben Schweigert and Anne Mavity — will run Tuesday through Thursday.

Ken Kelash is a union carpenter who went back to school for a Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship and a Master of Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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A long-time DFL activist, Kelash served two terms in the State Senate representing southwest Minneapolis until 2012, when redistricting put him in the same district with Sen. Scott Dibble. Dibble was the senior of the two and Kelash choose not to challenge him for the DFL endorsement.

Kelash served as the business representative for the Carpenters Union for 14 years, was a member of the Policy Board for the Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program for 15 years and was a member of the Minneapolis Building Trades Council for 7 years. He is 61 years old.

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

Ken Kelash: They should have started a lot earlier finding out what it was going to take to move the freight rail because the freight rail is the big problem right now. It was way to late in the game for it to be moved.

It was going to take a lot to move it, and the kind of changes they would have to do in St. Louis Park in order to move it, and the kind of disruption in that community moving it was going to cause, was greater than St. Louis Park or Minneapolis imagined.

I think they should have taken a look at trying to get light rail through Uptown, but at the time they were doing the studies, 10 or 12 years ago, Uptown wasn’t nearly as populated as it is now.

You can’t constantly re-make decisions that were made years ago, so now we have to move forward with the decision the Metropolitan Council has made with the shallow tunnels. It needs to move forward. We can’t let all of those federal dollars go to waste.

One of the things Minneapolis has to realize is that if they turn down this light rail project that the next light rail project will not be in Bottineau (north Minneapolis). It will be some place else out east because Minneapolis will prove to the feds and the rail authority that they don’t want to work with them.

I think there’s a certain amount of risk in that; it’s not like we turn around and get another line right away. I don’t think that’s going to happen.

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MP: The winner of this election will take office while Hennepin County and 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 to agree?

KK: If they have to take the light rail and the freight in the Kenilworth Corridor, what is it they want for amenities?

They have three great rail stations on the north side that will have difficulty attracting development dollars right away. Maybe getting some help getting development and getting some public space around those stations to make those areas grow right away. 

That would be one of the features I would go for if I were sitting on the Minneapolis City Council. Make those stations become vital faster than is currently done.

[Minneapolis Mayor] Betsy Hodges, to her credit, inherited some of this, so she’s kind of stuck. I’m not sure this is the way she would negotiate if she were starting from scratch. But that hard stance of absolutely not has been ingrained. It makes it difficult for her to change.

But I think in the end, the light rail is great for the whole region and it’s very good for Minneapolis. It isn’t like Minneapolis isn’t coming out with a very good economic development opportunity.

It doesn’t go through Uptown, where lots of people live, but where it’s going, there are a lot of opportunities for economic development, housing and jobs.

The north side is probably the area that’s going to benefit the most, if they have the opportunity to develop those stations and create a sense of community. That’s one of the things that didn’t happen with  the Hiawatha Line. We just slapped in a few multi-housing units without much thought about how you make that a community.

This goes back to my days with the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, which brought neighbors together. It gave them a sense of belonging. It made the city more desirable. We went from a city hemorrhaging middle class and families to now, when we haven’t got enough housing built and the prices are going up because Minneapolis has become a desirable place to live.

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MP: Leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul are dedicated to closing the gaps that exist between persons of color and those who are white. How would you move Hennepin County in this direction?

KK: It goes back to where we are providing the services. When I was a state Senator, Hennepin County put some social services and a clinic in one of the East Bloomington schools. That attracted parents to the clinic, which helped the school get those parents to realize that they had to send their kids to school every day, that their kids needed to have some stability in their lives and they would do better.

Hence, reading by the third grade is pretty standard now in that area. It works.

The County needs to partner with the school districts, the cities, and bring those social services to the schools where we know what’s going on, where we’re supportative of the families. I think that’s a big way to close the gaps in education.

The other thing we have to do is look at these light rail stations as a way to put an economic engine in place. I think that’s vital. It’s good for all income levels.

That’s one of the things I’m a strong advocate for, that these stations have housing around them that’s affordable for all income levels and not concentrate poverty again like we did in the ’30s and ’50s. On the north side, we have to stagger poverty out. It makes for healthy communities.

A sense of community makes a huge difference in how people feel about their lives, how they respond to other people, less crime, more respect for what is going on and a lot more fun.

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

KK: I have the most experience. I have 15 years on the NRP Policy Board, 10 years on the Minneapolis Workforce Investment Board and the State Senate. I’ve also been active in labor politics and DFL politics for 30 years.

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All of that experience, working with transportation issues, working with economic development issues at the Capitol, working with environmental and natural resources and labor issues, all of those things give me a broader base of knowledge to bring to the County Board.

The County really covers a lot of ground. The County budget won’t be the biggest budget I’ve ever seen. It will be for the other candidates.

I’ve already worked on transit-oriented development projects and know the potential there. I’m up to speed on that.

When it comes to health and human services, I’ll be going to the county Board from the state level. I’ve got a fair idea of what’s going on there.

And my background in labor.

Hennepin County

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

KK: I would keep my options open. It’s going to depend on the turnout for the primary and for the general election. It’s going to depend on whomever gets elected and how good of a job they do between now and August. If they fall on their face or blunder that creates an opportunity.

I would like to do this job. A lot of what this job entails I’ve already worked on in the past, and enjoyed as a State Senator.

I want to do this public service. For me, it’s an opportunity to solve a lot of problems and try to create a great Hennepin County.

If somebody wins overwhelmingly and becomes very popular because of the decision they make, I’m not going to beat my head against the wall and run against that.

But if they aren’t doing a good job and there’s maybe an opportunity to actually win in November I’d consider it.

MP: The winner will not have much time between the election in May and the next election in November to establish a track record. What will be your number one priority and how will you make that happen?

KK: The big priority is to learn the job of County Commissioner, get up to speed on as many issues as I can and start getting involved in the decision making process that’s going to affect this district.

Obviously, the light rail and the Kenilworth Corridor are part of it. We’re going to have to hit the ground running on that.

This particular seat has to be an advocate for those people, to make sure those people who are harmed in the process get the best possible mitigation. I think the county board needs to step up and say here’s how we can make it better. Increase the funding for a sound barrier, for example, or whatever that’s environmentally friendly for the people.

It’s a countywide asset and having a small number of people harmed by a countywide asset, and the County not stepping up to mitigate the damage makes it harder to do big projects in the future. It’s our responsibility, and I think it contributes to the success of light rail.

MP: The Hennepin County board is sometimes referred to as “the invisible government” even though it is second only to state government in size. Do you think this is a problem? If so, what do you do to solve this problem?

KK: Board meetings are televised, the County has a wonderful web site that takes you through all of the services and really does a great job, and the County Commissioners are at every ribbon cutting I’ve ever seen.

How do you make it more visible?

The county needs to spend more time in the municipalities, especially where you’re talking about disruptive things like the light rail system. If I were a board member, I’d be at St. Louis Park and I would be talking to the people in Minneapolis to make sure this works for everybody.

How do you solve the mitigation problem? How do we get Minneapolis a little more accepting of the co-location they didn’t want? Trying to make those north side train stations develop faster.

MP: Is there a question I haven’t asked that you want to address?

KK: I think the question voters need to ask is this: is this a starting position job? I don’t think it is.

Hennepin County is the second-biggest government in Minnesota. You should have some time in the trenches. Some of the candidates have a little bit of experience. Some have had literally no experience on any kind of board, any kind of planning, or passing bills through the legislature or working with the two sides. 

They don’t have experience doing that. I think this county board seat is more important than that. You need to have someone who is a little more experienced.

That’s easy for me to say because I think I’m the most seasoned. Hitting the ground and not knowing what’s going on, not knowing how to respond, without any background in politics or the decision making process, the hearing process, all of that takes experience.

They may be very bright people, they may be a lot of things but they haven’t put the time in the trenches working with all of the other parties. I have a broader base of issues, a broader network I can tap if I need questions answered.

MP: A couple of year ago, I attended a journalism seminar. We talked about questions that might reveal who a person is beyond the issues. So here’s that question: What is your favorite childhood memory?

KK: I have a little bit of a disadvantage because it’s been longer since my childhood than it has for the other candidates.

I think going to the Met Stadium and watching the Twins play baseball on a beautiful summer day was as good as it ever got for me as a kid.

I’m a baseball fan. I’ve lived in Minnesota most of my life but I have lived and worked elsewhere. Minnesota has a better quality of life than most people even here realize, because it’s a great place to live, work, play and learn.

There are incredibly bright people with incredible opportunities in culture, sports, outdoors, work fulfillment and the cost of housing versus the wages. All of those things make this a great place to live.

Going to the Twins game is just one of those things. For a town in the middle of the prairie we’ve done pretty darn well with the quality of life we’ve managed to develop. It’s unique and amazing.