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Hennepin County Commissioner election interview: Marion Greene

The fourth of four candidate Q&As ahead of the April 29 primary for the Minneapolis-St. Louis Park seat.

Editor’s note: this is the final candidate profile for Hennepin County District 3 primary election Tuesday, April 29. Previously profiled: Ken Kelash, Anne Mavity and Ben Schweigert. The general election for the Minneapolis-St. Louis Park seat is Tuesday, May 13.

Marion Greene spent her childhood years in India, Morocco, Brazil and Pakistan, following her parents as they moved with the U.S. Foreign Service.

Her first job out of college was with Washington, D.C.’s Center for Science in the Public Interest, where she led a project to establish nationwide standards for products labeled “organic.”

She moved into the political arena as a New Mexico field worker for the Clinton-Gore campaign. She also worked as a Democratic caucus analyst in the New Mexico House of Representatives. 

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Greene moved to Minnesota in 1999 after completing an MBA at the University of Texas at Austin. Her undergraduate degree is from Swarthmore College (also Ben Schweigert’s alma mater).

In 2010, she was elected to the Minnesota House from the district formerly represented by Speakers Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Dee Long. Redistricting cut her legislative career to one term.

She serves on the board of directors of OutFront Minnesota, Minnesota United for All Families and Ready Set Smile.

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

Marion Greene: It seems like a key step that got missed was the discussion of freight rail early on.

My impression is that the question was put to the side, and in community discussions wasn’t considered in the open forum because it was somehow resolved or was going to be resolved later. And of course, as we all see it unfold, that wasn’t the case.

The first thing I would have done was have that topic on the table earlier. 

I don’t necessarily think it would have changed anything, but I think it would have changed people’s sense of fairness and transparency if they were told from the beginning what was, and what was not, possible to change.

It’s more about people’s faith in the process, and people’s understanding that government is transparent, and that community dialog has value.

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

MG: I haven’t spoken to all of the City Council members yet, so I’m not sure I want to conjecture here.

But I would have to think we are where I would have expected us to be. The City Council has said they don’t want co-location of freight and light rail and now we’re at the point of negotiation. And while it seems that we’re at a total impasse, I think we are where we thought we would be, and we shouldn’t be alarmed.

If Susan Haigh, Chair of the Met Council, is saying they won’t go forward without Minneapolis, this is an opportunity for Minneapolis to define what it is that they want.

In my conversations with voters, my sense of what people in the general public are feeling is, “let’s figure this out but let’s definitely move forward.” That is my sentiment as well.

We want to figure this out. We definitely want sophisticated, multi-modal transit for our community, and that includes light rail.

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?

MG: That’s a big reason why I’m running. Hennepin County plays a big role in closing those gaps. I’m really excited that those issues were prioritized during the Mayor’s race. That’s at the heart of why I’m running for County Commissioner.

At the county, we have the greatest opportunity to address the racial and economic gaps that are plaguing our community by really focusing on how we invest in health care, how we invest in transit and housing.

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A central platform of my campaign is early childhood. That’s the ideal entry point for really addressing equity issues. There are all sorts of studies that show that an investment in early childhood pays off, a dollar now pays off in up to $16 later for children who are the most at risk.

Marion Greene
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
Marion Greene

If we’re going to be financial about it, the return on our investment is fantastic and it’s also the right thing to do. We get kids going off to school read to learn. I think that’s the strongest place to invest.

It’s not just about Minneapolis. It’s a regional question. That’s why I think the county has a role to play. The county also has a role to play, because they have the big budget and their mandate is health and human services. They are really positioned to put some muscle behind this.

It’s absolutely about collaborating with municipalities in Hennepin County — clearly Minneapolis is a big one, and St. Louis Park is also an important community member.

St. Louis Park has done really fantastic things. It’s a really strong community, very racially and economically integrated, much more than other suburbs or Minneapolis itself.

So what can we learn? I think if we’re going to close the gaps, it’s going to be the county in partnership with all of the other jurisdictions — not just the City Councils but also the School Boards, the Park Districts, all of us pulling together.

MP: What do you bring to this contest that makes you the best choice?

MG: I’m the best choice because of a mixture of things that set me apart as a candidate.

I’m a former legislator, so I have a track record voters can look at, I have constituents people can talk to, and can learn that when I talk about greater community engagement with the county, I really do deliver on that. Community engagement was the hallmark of my success at the Legislature. 

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I also have 15 years of activism in the community and the relationships that come with that involvement. I know that relationships are not about just one election cycle, but are much longer than that. I have a peer-to-peer relationships with the current County Board.

Also, a feature of mine is that I have independence from the Board. I have worked peer-to-peer with the board, I am endorsed by a current County Commissioner, but I also have a fresh perspective I can bring. I am not peer-conditioned to toe the county line. I’m going to look at things with a new set of eyes.

I have an extensive background in finance, and particularly in health care finance. This is not only a key function of the county, but also important to the county’s financial health going forward.

Communities across the United States are seeing health care costs going up while reimbursements are going down. How can we figure this out so health care costs don’t eat up the rest of the budget pie in the county?

That’s a key issue in front of the county, and I bring extreme expertise to those discussions.

MP: The winner in this contest will have to run again come November. If you do not win in May will you challenge the winner this fall?

MG: I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I will have so much more information is May. I will consider the facts at that time.

I’m not ruling it out and I’m not saying yes, definitely.

MP: You will not have much time between May and November to establish a track record. What will be your number-one priority and how will you make that happen?

MG: My number one issue priority is early childhood. The first thing I would like to do is pull together the existing groups at the county that talk about early childhood.

I want to be clear that I am not talking about reinventing the wheel. The county is doing great work in early childhood and I just want to bring more focus to it and more collaboration across the disciplines.

Its not just about quality child care, but also about how can we coordinate housing, health care, and transit to be really focused on children in their youngest years to make them and their families a success.

I also plan to be working on community engagement immediately. One of the questions I’m asked most frequently on the campaign trails is, what does the county do?

The county does a lot. They have a $1.8 billion budget, the second-largest budget in the state, besides the state itself. So creating a better partnership between the communities and the county will be something I will jump into immediately.

MP: The Hennepin County board is sometimes referred to as the invisible government. Do you think this is a problem? What do you do to change this image?

MG: I think a lot of it is going to be just being there and being a really strong communicator, establishing newsletters, getting in touch with neighborhood organizations. I think of the email lists I’m on just in my neighborhood. Those are the modes of communication I want to discover in every neighborhood in the district.

That’s only email and not everybody is on email. It’s not a convenient way to reach everybody. So I also plan to be present, to be out there in the communities. 

One of the things I love about campaigning is it puts you in touch with so many people across the district who care about a lot of different things. As a candidate, you can begin to connect the dots and I know when I’m working on early childhood that I can call people who are really fired up about early childhood.

I’ve talked to people in, I think, every neighborhood in the district who are asking how to engage their neighborhood in government. How about if we establish some best practices and put them in touch with each other. As a candidate, I get to see that many of the neighborhoods are wrestling with very similar problems.

Hennepin County

It’s about building those connections, putting people in touch with one another, keeping people in touch with you and keeping people in touch with government.

I’m a keen believer that the reason our government works is because people participate. It doesn’t matter if somebody agrees or disagrees with my point of view, I want to get people engaged.

As much as I’d like to know everything about everything, that can’t be the case. But we have incredible intellectual capacity out there. How can the County Commissioners better tap into the community at large for expertise, for comment and for engagement?

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

MG: What I’ve learned is that there is a lot of love and passion for our community and our region. The challenge for elected officials is how to tap into that.

I think this gets at the question about how do we drive community engagement, or how we elevate the profile of what the county is doing. There is so much interest out there, but it’s hard to reach people who are busy with the real challenges like raising children or jobs.

I’m really excited by the question of how do we build programs, services, community engagement, how do we do the work and connect with more people and make it fit into the busy-ness of their lives?

How can we find a way to tap that passion out there that oftentimes is frustrated by being busy, by not being able to fit things in?

MP: At a journalism seminar a few years ago we were talking about questions that get people to talk about themselves. This is one of the questions: What is your favorite childhood memory?

MG: My favorite childhood memory was field day at my elementary school. I was in first grade. It was in south India.

The whole school sat around the soccer field, everybody cross-legged in a big gigantic circle. We were all fed curry on big banana leaves. We ate as a community.

I remember the truck going around as we sat there on the ground waiting for our banana leaf, our meal.

The communal nature of it was so fantastic. It was so green. There’s nothing like breaking bread together.

Growing up overseas I really credit for why I have such faith in community and why I think the diversity of community is so fantastic and to be embraced.

It’s interesting to think of that memory as a microcosm of those beliefs. It definitely shaped me and shaped my commitment to the fact that, if we can all work together and figure things out, we’ll all do better.