Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

In Hennepin County board race, longtime incumbent McLaughlin faces newcomer Conley. And a changing DFL.

Angela Conley
Conley for Commmissioner
Angela Conley says her knowledge of the county’s problems at the ground level is unmatched.

While campaigning for a spot on Hennepin County’s board of commissioners, Angela Conley hears the same thing again and again: Few people even know the role of the board — much less who represents them. But her pitch for a seat representing the board’s District 4, she says, makes them care about the race for the first time.

Meanwhile, Conley’s opponent, incumbent Peter McLaughlin, says people are rushing to fill out ballots and elect him for another term because they’re so fired up by Donald Trump.

Whatever the motivation, more people in Hennepin County are choosing to vote now than in recent primary elections, early tallies show. Roughly 15,300 people countywide have already filled out ballots ahead of the Aug. 14 deadline — almost double the total absentee count in 2016. Minneapolis voters cover about half of that total. (Election officials are keeping track of who’s voting by ward, too.)

The surge in voter participation — which extends statewide — comes as a new form of progressivism asserts itself in races that incumbents have long sailed through without much competition. Frustrated by racial inequalities and a lack of diverse leadership countywide, political activists are not only fueling Conley’s challenge against McLaughlin, they are also heating up the race for county attorney, signaling a change in priorities for the DFL party on a broad scale. “There is this desire to bring new leadership to all levels of government that are a reflection of the community,” said Conley, who does job assistance for the county.

If elected, she would be the first person of color on the board.

For voters in Hennepin County's District 4, which covers much of the eastern half of Minneapolis, Conley and McLaughlin will be on the primary election ballot along with Megan Kuhl-Stennes, 34, an environmental activist and urban farmer in Minneapolis who has secured the Green Party’s endorsement. The top two vote-getters in the primary will move on to November’s general election.  

“When we have these competitive races up and down the ballot — that drives voter engagement and it drives youth engagement,” said Chuck Leisinger, Conley’s campaign manager. “Both of those things are positive from my perspective.”

‘Big systems,' big money

For McLaughlin, 68, the changing climate in the DFL became apparent at the party’s convention this spring: He failed to receive the DFL endorsement for the first time in 27 years. Conley, 40, who’s never run for office before, received the majority of delegates’ vote, but not enough to win the endorsement herself. An attendee tweeted: “This convention feels like a sea change in many ways.”

Both McLaughlin and Conley call themselves progressives. They agree leading Minnesota’s most populous county means pushing against the Trump administration and state Republicans. That pitch is particularly crucial given that District 4 represents the very bluest part of the county. All together, seven elected officials make up the board of commissioners, each serving four-year terms. Three seats are up for election in 2018.

The board is responsible for divvying up the county’s massive budget — this year it totals $2.4 billion (or more than $1 billion more than the city of Minneapolis’) — which means commissioners play an integral role in managing regional growth by deciding when and how to fund certain services. While navigating between local municipalities and federal policy, commissioners will have to address a pervasive homelessness problem; a broken mental-health system; an outdated computer network for county programs; and disparities among white residents and those of color in terms of employment, health-care access and beyond.

“These big systems — we need to make sure that they function well,” McLaughlin said. “It’s not like I’m tired. … I bring my A-game every day.”

‘Leadership does not look like the people that we're serving’

Born in South Minneapolis, Conley says her knowledge of the county’s problems at the ground level is unmatched. Among her roles as a neighborhood activist and government employee, she once worked as a case manager at Our Savior’s Housing, a Minneapolis homeless shelter, which she said gave her a firsthand look into what factors help people achieve permanent housing.

She started working for the county in 2000 processing applications for welfare. Later she took a similar job with the state of Minnesota, auditing food support benefits. She returned to Hennepin County to work in the health and human services department, where she now oversees contracts with community nonprofits that provide job help for low-income residents. It provides a “birds-eye view” of what happens to people in extreme poverty, she said.

She began preparing for her jump into politics more than two years ago, when she started asking questions about diversity in her department — and the rest of county government.

“Upper leadership does not look like the people that we're serving,” she said, which to her seemed counterintuitive to the county’s goals around reducing racial disparities. “I have these deep roots within my community and feel like, with that, that’s how you lead.”

If elected, Conley wants to create a new Race Equity Advisory Council that’s made up of  community members and experts who are directly impacted by racial disparities. She also is pushing for an end to the cash-bail system; new bike lanes on county roads; different ways to lessen the county’s impact on the environment; and commissioners to get out and about more — especially after teaching so many people about the board’s role while campaigning.

“You know, whatever happens after November, these people are now interested in this level of government,” Conley said. “That’s huge.”

‘The elections are about taking an assessment’

McLaughlin says he fell in love with Minneapolis when he moved here from New Jersey more than four decades ago. He came for graduate school at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School, and stayed for the neighborhood activism and work. His first job out of college was at the Urban Coalition of Minneapolis, a nonprofit that dealt with racial discrimination.

By the mid 1980s, he had won a seat in the state House representing parts of Minneapolis. That role put him on the front lines of statewide tax changes and transportation projects. It also paved way for his election to the Hennepin County board, in 1991. After more than a decade on the board, however, he tried getting another job: mayor of Minneapolis, challenging incumbent R.T. Rybak in 2005, a campaign during which he criticized Rybak’s leadership and ideas around public-safety. He lost the race by a wide margin.

As Hennepin County commissioner, McLaughlin has pushed successfully to consolidate the region’s libraries and, more recently, construct Target Field and change the name of the former Lake Calhoun. He’s most known, though, as the force behind much of the political maneuvering required to expand the county’s light rail system. And it’s that ability — to push his agenda, no matter critics at the state or local level — he often points to in touting his bid for re-election.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has pushed successfully to consolidate the region’s libraries and, more recently, construct Target Field and change the name of the former Lake Calhoun.

In addition to emphasizing his commitment to expanding light rail, McLaughlin also hopes to continue work around programs that incentivize affordable housing and train people for employment, among other goals.

And to supporters rallying behind Conley for her new perspective, he said in an interview: “Yes, I’m not a person of color. Yes, I’m not a woman. But I have had the life experiences that directly feed into my ability to do this job. ... What I’m asking people to do is step back; the elections are about taking an assessment.”

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (14)

Peter's experience Shines through

No offense to the challenger, but Commissioner McLaughlin has done so much for progressive issues, from the County program he mentions, and support for Tree Trust, to the Greenway and the ongoing maintenance and tree planting efforts, and of course Light Rail. He is a champion of the DFL and progressives everywhere. His experience is broad and his commitment is deep. You can't really go wrong with a vote August 14th for returning Commissioner McLaughlin to the HC Board!

McLaughlin is for himself first last and always.

McLaughlin doesn't care what other Democrats or progressives or liberals think. He's right they're wrong. He's going to push his agenda regardless of how much opposition or who stands in his way.

If there's an accident on TC& W Railroad. The railroad will have no liability because of a deal McLaughlin cut with them. If 50 people die in an accident. T C & W owes nothing.

No offense to the commenter

but McLaughlin is 68, he's been doing this for 27? years, maybe its time for some new blood. Democrats in general have a real problem with grooming new leaders and knowing when to pass the baton. Usually they have to be pushed out, maybe its time....

McLaughlin doesn't listen

McLaughlin has decided LRT is the right thing for Hennepin County. He doesn't care how much it cost or how much of the natural environment is destroyed. He doesn't listen to anybody because he knows he's right.

He doesn't care if Hennepin County has to pay the entire 2 billion dollars for Southwest LRT. He still wants it built.

Thanks

We need politicians who support LRT. Hope he wins again.

LRT is supposed to save the environment not destroy it

LRT is supposed to be good for the environment, not destroy the environment. McLaughlin supports poorly designed LRT that destroy sites that are sacred to Native Americans and puts the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes at risk.

LRT that is well-designed and well-thought-out is a good thing. McLaughlin has a damn the torpedoes Full Speed Ahead myopic focus on LRT. Southwest LRT is been delayed by 5 years because McLaughlin wouldn't stop and listen to residents making Common Sense arguments.

Nope

It got delayed because NIMBYs didn’t want it in their neighborhoods.

READ

The EIS then get back to us.

We can do better!

I’d be the first to say that Commissioner McLaughlin has done some good things in his 27 years on the Hennepin County Board. His myopic minded focus on transit is a good thing. His neglect of the child protection system and oversight of medical experiments conducted on citizens without their consent, not so good.

The challenges we face today require more than a single approach, it will require fresh new ideas, action and strong advocacy.

After a while, even people with good intention become part of the system. One becomes an ingrained part of maintaining the machine that cranks out disparate outcomes. It is like the air, we don't even notice it is happening. We all come into our work as fresh cucumbers. We then get into the brine of the organization (deal making and politicking) and after a while we can become a pickle. This can happen to anyone. I am not one who is for term limits, but everyone reaches a point of marginal utility. It is just part of the human condition.

The situation for low wealth communities, people of color and indigenous people has gotten much worst in last 27 years, not better. Commissioner McLaughlin is not responsible for all of it, but he has been in a powerful seat while the conditions have gotten worst and therefore needs to bear some culpability and responsibility, otherwise there is no accountability.

Today, a significant portion of people of color are either out of work or unemployed. Touting small workforce demonstration projects Commissioner McLaughlin has championed for 27 years are good, but just won’t cut it today. https://statisticalatlas.com/county/Minnesota/Hennepin-County/Employment...

McLaughlin has been representing Minneapolis on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners since 1991. Yet, according the 2017 Hennepin County Disparity Study, the County's record on contracting with people of color is abysmal. From 2011-2016, less than 1% of Hennepin County’s contracting dollars were awarded to African American owned firms. Less than 2.8% of contracting dollars went to Asian owned firms. Less than 1/2% was awarded to Hispanic owned firms and only .83% was awarded to Native American owned firm. This represents 100’s of millions of dollars that should have went into local businesses of color to create sustainable jobs and economic security for families, rather welfare and workfare programs

We need new leadership, not because Commissioner McLaughlin is a bad person, but because his solutions aren’t working. We can do better!

Gary L. Cunningham, Former Director of Planning and Development and Primary Care for Hennepin County

Vote Angela!

Vote Angela!

It is time for a change! We can do better!

Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has been there a long time. Some say he deserves to retire in place. I’d be the first to say that Commissioner McLaughlin has done some good things in his 27 years on the Hennepin County Board. His myopic minded focus on transit is a good thing. His neglect of the child protection system and oversight of medical experiments conducted on citizens without their consent, not so good.

Yet, the challenges we face today require more than a single approach, it will require fresh new ideas, action and strong advocacy.

After a while, even people with good intention become part of the system. One becomes an ingrained part of maintaining the machine that cranks out disparate outcomes. It is like the air, we don't even notice it is happening. We all come into our work as fresh cucumbers. We then get into the brine of the organization (deal making and politicking) and after a while we can become a pickle. This can happen to anyone. I am not one who is for term limits, but everyone reaches a point of marginal utility. It is just part of the human condition.

The situation for low wealth communities, people of color and indigenous people has gotten much worst in last 27 years, not better. Commissioner McLaughlin is not responsible for all of it, but he has been in a powerful seat while the conditions have gotten worst and therefore needs to bear some culpability and responsibility, otherwise there is no accountability.

Today, a significant portion of people of color are either out of work or unemployed. Touting small workforce demonstration projects Commissioner McLaughlin has championed for 27 years are good, but just won’t cut it today. We can do better.

We need new leadership, not because Commissioner McLaughlin is a bad person, but because his solutions aren’t working. Today, in Hennepin County we have medical experiments being conducted on citizens by Hennepin Health at the behest of the Minneapolis Police without their permissions, against all known human subject research protocols. We have had the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office deporting our neighbors without due process.

We have a child protection system, once the best in the country, now overwhelmed and in crisis. We don’t need more press releases condemning these issues. We need someone who is proactive, who takes responsibility and is accountable.

As someone once said, “You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem.”

It is time for a change!

Gary L. Cunningham former director of primary care and director of planning and development for Hennepin County

Respectfully disagree

It is quite easy to list everything wrong with Henn CO and the City of Minneapolis, but to lay it at the door of one County Commissioner; is less responsible than laying all of Minneapolis's problems at the door of the Mayor (I think Gary might catch my drift). I can't help but detect a combination of ageism in the comments about how long Peter has served. Yes he's been serving the public a long time. Please compare that with the challenger's public accomplishments. Peter still by a mile!

Wish I lived in Angie Conley's District so I could vote for her

Those of us who saw our friends beaten during the Highway 55 protest remember Peter McLaughlin as the person who pushed through the loss of the sacred Oak Savanna and damaged cold water spring also sacred to Native Americans. Elders from all over the country came to testify on what thid land meant to Natives. Their testimony was placed as an appendix to the more "objective" report proving the land was not sacred, so it could be given for use as an LRT Line. The line could have been moved to avoid Environmental and Cultural objections but it was not. We also remember Peter McLaughlin as pushing through the garbage burner. The waste was so toxic it would have failed environmental tests, but was categorized as "special waste" to avoid scrutiny. The plume of these toxins blows over the poorest neighborhoods including Little Earth, environmental racism at its worst.
Those who know Angela Conley absolutely look up to her and value her and want to work hard for her campaign. We need someone who is able to work in Coalition and listen to the needs of her constituents. I think she'd make a wonderful fresh face on the Hennepin County Board.

Angie Conley the better choice

Those of us who saw our friends beaten during the Highway 55 protest remember Peter McLaughlin as the force pushing through this unpopular line against every type of Environmental and Cultural objection. Native Americans said the land was sacred to them, including four oak trees planted in the four directions and Coldwater spring which is the birthplace of Minnesota. Elders came from all over the country to testify about the meaning of this land and their testimony was placed into an appendix of a more "objective" report stating the land was not sacred. If you could easily have been changed but it wasn't.
We also remember Peter McLaughlin forcing the garbage burner through. The ash was too toxic to pass acceptable standards and so it was reclassified as "special waste" thus circumventingi environmental review. The toxic plume flows over the poorest neighborhoods in the city including Little Earth, environmental racism at its worst
The unpopular currently disputed SWLRT line also escaped meaningful environmental review by firing the award-winning head of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District shortly before discussion of the environmental impacts of this project.
Angie Conley's campaign is filled with people who admire her and feel respected by her. We need a coalition builder who represents constituents and not their own personal view of why Minneapolis should be more like Chicago.