Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin is seeking re-election this November for a seat he has held since 1991, but two challengers say it’s time for fresh blood in District 4.
One is Angela Conley, a county employee who nearly won the DFL endorsement for McLaughlin’s seat in May. Neither passed the 60 percent threshold at the endorsing convention, but Conley came closest, winning support from 57 percent of delegates after 10 rounds of voting.
The other is Megan Kuhl-Stennes, who worked in zero-waste education and policy development at Eureka Recycling until May, when her position was eliminated. Kuhl-Stennes has the Green Party of Minnesota’s endorsement.
The race will narrow after the Aug. 14 primary. Only the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.
District 4 covers much of the east side of Minneapolis, including parts of downtown, the University of Minnesota campus and most of South Minneapolis between Interstate 35W and the Mississippi River. At the southern end of the district are Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and Fort Snelling.
Voters in Hennepin County districts 2 and 3 also elect commissioners this year. Both include portions of Minneapolis.
Angela Conley traced the genesis of her first-ever run for public office to a question she asked herself about two-and-a-half years ago. A county employee, she’d noticed the diversity of rank-and-file staff wasn’t reflected in upper management, and she wondered: Had a person of color ever served on the Hennepin County Board?
The answer was no, not in its 150-year history.
“I respect Peter’s leadership, but we do need to be reflective of the place we’re serving, and we do need different perspectives on the board,” she said.
Conley has worked in state and county government for two decades and is currently the county’s operations coordinator for the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which provides cash and food assistance to the working parents of low-income families. It’s a system Conley understands intimately, having received food, childcare and emergency housing assistance from the county as a young woman.
“And I say that was the beginning of my career because it was then I discovered so many of the gaps and how hard it was to access the system and how much we put on families who are poor,” she said, adding that she went to work for the county not long after getting off of assistance.
Among Conley’s priorities if elected is creating a racial equity advisory council made up of diverse citizens that could advise the board on its efforts to reduce disparities. She would make changes to integrate county services so that families with multiple needs aren’t juggled between multiple case managers. And she would focus more of the county’s affordable housing efforts on transitional housing for people coming out of homelessness, a priority inspired by her experience as a case manager for Our Savior’s Housing.
Located on the edge of downtown Minneapolis near Target Field, the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, or HERC, creates electricity by burning garbage. Megan Kuhl-Stennes would like to see it go away.
Kuhl-Stennes said she doesn’t just want to shut down the HERC, she wants to make it unnecessary. The top priority for the first-time candidate is moving Hennepin County down the path toward zero waste, which she described as her “big passion.”
It was a passion that drove her work at Eureka Recycling, where she was a zero-waste education manager and the associate director of policy, advocacy and fundraising until her position was eliminated this spring. She advocated on behalf of Minneapolis’ “bring your own bag” ordinance, which would have eliminated most single-use plastic bags until it was blocked by the state Legislature, and an effort in St. Paul to ban any to-go packaging that can’t be recycled or composted.
Other top priorities for Kuhl-Stennes include fostering more community engagement in county-level policymaking and improving the lives of working families. If elected, Kuhl-Stennes would work to make childcare more accessible and affordable, and her policy platform also includes piloting a basic income guarantee. Under such a system, Hennepin County — which currently operates with a roughly $2 billion budget — would make regular guaranteed payments to residents, with the goal of eliminating poverty and homelessness.
Those are ambitious goals, she acknowledged, but Kuhl-Stennes said she wants to bring big ideas into the District 4 race.
“We have to be looking at visionary leadership to solve all the myriad problems we have with inequity,” she said.
Peter McLaughlin won his first county board election in 1990, and he said recently that his decision to run for a ninth time was an easy one. Angry about the rightward drift of the country under the Trump administration, McLaughlin said it’s up to local government to fight back.
“We sure as heck aren’t calling Washington for help anymore,” he said.
McLaughlin touted a “record of achievement in hostile environments on tough issues,” like transit. Despite the opposition, he said, the build-out of the area’s commuter and light rail network has been “an enormous success,” with both light rail lines and the Northstar Commuter Rail Line setting ridership records in 2017.
His top priority if re-elected would be building on the county’s efforts to increase access to affordable housing and reduce homelessness. McLaughlin would put the county’s support behind aspects of the city’s draft comprehensive plan, Minneapolis 2040, that promote affordability and density, including a proposal to open neighborhoods to fourplexes, and would increase county investment in the incentives that encourage the development of new affordable units.
McLaughlin said the county should expand the Hennepin Pathways job-training program, which he argued was essential for reducing income disparities, and pursue new higher-education partnerships.
A third priority for McLaughlin would be to strengthen the county’s mental health services, adding new resources to unclog a “jammed-up” system and additional housing.
McLaughlin said he has heard the calls for increased diversity on the board and supports them. But he noted his is not the only open seat in 2018, and McLaughlin said he believes he is the “strongest of the candidates.”
“I try to do as much as I can to balance the scales to give everyone in this community a decent shot,” he said.