Linda Higgins’ announcement in November that she would retire after one-and-a-half Hennepin County Board terms instead of seeking re-election this fall sparked immediate interest in her District 2 seat.
By spring, four candidates had announced runs for her office: Irene Fernando, a nonprofit founder and Bush Fellow who now works for Thrivent Financial; Iyob Waldsmayate, an employee in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ St. Paul office; former commissioner Mark Stenglein; and School Board Member Kim Ellison.
Injured in a fall in April, Stenglein dropped out of the race. Ellison lost the DFL endorsement to Fernando in May and ended up filing to run for Congress in District 5, the seat her ex-husband Keith Ellison is leaving to campaign for Minnesota attorney general.
Just as the window to file for office was closing on June 5, three new, election-tested candidates entered the race. All three previously held city council seats: Blong Yang and Natalie Johnson Lee in Minneapolis’ Ward 5, both of them for one term; and Tim Bildsoe for four terms on the Plymouth City Council. After moving to the North Loop, Bildsoe ran to represent Minneapolis’ Ward 3, losing last fall to Steve Fletcher.
Hennepin County District 2 stretches from St. Anthony in the east to Plymouth in the west and covers roughly a third of Minneapolis, including much of North and Northeast and the Bryn Mawr and North Loop neighborhoods.
Tim Bildsoe, who serves as president of the North Loop Neighborhood Association, said at a recent meeting they were discussing potential improvements to North Washington Avenue, a neighborhood thoroughfare. It’s also a county road, and Ward 3 City Council Member Steve Fletcher reminded Bildsoe there was an opening on the county board in District 2, which includes the North Loop.
“It was kind of like, ‘Oh, thanks, Steve. I appreciate that suggestion,'” Bildsoe said, adding that supporters of his recent Ward 3 run also had urged him to re-enter the political arena in recent weeks.
Elected four times to the Plymouth City Council, Bildsoe said government experience is essential to a role on the county board, which manages a $2.4 billion budget. His city council seat also gave him an inside view of how the county interacts with cities, particularly in matters of transportation and public health, he added.
Bildsoe pledged to be a strong advocate for the county’s mental health and youth homelessness programs. He supports investments in a multi-modal transit system, and said the county needs to do more for pedestrian safety, particularly where Highway 55 cuts through North Minneapolis.
Expanding access to affordable housing was a top priority for Bildsoe in his Minneapolis City Council race, and he said he’d continue that push if elected to the county board.
Irene Fernando (DFL-endorsed)
Irene Fernando said she first started paying close attention to the county board in 2017 and “was truly taken aback by how much responsibility and impact they have in that room.” She was also shocked by the board’s lack of diversity.
The daughter of Filipino immigrants, Fernando, who launched a nonprofit as a college student and now works for Thrivent Financial, noted the board hasn’t had a person of color as a member since its founding.
“We talked visas and deportation. Those were topics in my house,” she said. “When I think about what a lot of our communities are facing today, those (experiences) are in our households but not directly represented on the board.”
Fernando said she would “seek to fundamentally re-examine and redesign how our system functions” so that it works better for underrepresented communities. That includes even the design of the Hennepin County Government Center, which she said could be confusing and intimidating.
If elected, Fernando would seek to coordinate work between the county’s mental health staff and local law enforcement, possibly as an alternative to using police to respond to mental health emergencies. She would also make support for the county’s child welfare and protective services programs a priority.
She pitched a “both-and” approach to expanding transit, promoting more flexible bus rapid transit projects alongside light rail, while advocating for increased density along transit routes. She said she would be a leader on promoting environmental stewardship.
Natalie Johnson Lee
(No campaign website provided)
Since leaving the Minneapolis City Council in 2005, Natalie Johnson Lee has worked as a nonprofit executive and consultant, and said she may be known for her involvement with Girls in Action, a school-based youth leadership program.
In those roles, Johnson Lee said, she works with girls, women and families on a variety of issues, including childcare, housing, homeownership and employment, interacting with Hennepin County “on almost a daily basis.” Joining the board would be “a natural progression” for her, she said.
Elected to office as a Green Party member in 2001, Johnson Lee represented the North Side’s Ward 5 for one term. She was defeated in her re-election bid when the redrawing of ward boundaries pitted her against another incumbent City Council member, Don Samuels.
If elected, Johnson Lee said she would focus on “responsible budgeting,” which
she said also means “responsible governing” — ensuring there are strong policies in place and residents are getting the maximum return on their tax dollars. She would also promote equity in the county’s transit policy, advocating for speed and efficiency and prioritizing improvements in areas where more residents are transit-dependent.
She would also encourage “more visible collaboration,” between the county and other local governments. Johnson Lee said it’s all too common to hear complaints that the county, state, school boards and cities — even individual county departments — appear to be operating in silos instead of working together.
(No campaign website provided)
A federal employee who works in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs office in St. Paul, Iyob Waldsmayate said he would bring his experience in public administration to the county board.
“I believe in the power of local government,” Waldsmayate said, adding that he’s running to “make positive change in the community.”
As a first-generation immigrant who moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia in 2002, he’d also bring that perspective to the board for the first time. He said greater diversity in board leadership would benefit the entire county.
Waldsmayate would prioritize streamlining the delivery of county services to make them as efficient and effective as possible. He said the St. Paul office is a leader in the VA’s innovation efforts, and he suggested the county could take a similar approach and save taxpayer dollars.
He would also bring a renter’s perspective to the board, which he said should play a more prominent role in expanding access to affordable housing, in part by leveraging state and federal resources.
Waldsmayate said Hennepin County’s environmental programs should lead the state. He described environmental protections as an investment in the future, and said the county should have a role in expanding access to and incentivizing renewable energy options, including tax breaks for property owners who invest in solar.
Waldsmayate would promote expanding the area’s transit network and finding ways to make it cheaper.
(No campaign website provided)
Former Ward 5 City Council Member Blong Yang said he “took a long break” after falling short in his bid for a second term last fall, spending time with his family and focusing his energy on managing the properties he owns.
But as the candidate filing deadline approached for Hennepin County District 2, he decided voters needed more options, including someone with experience in elected office. He said he wasn’t surprised two other former city council members made the same decision, adding that he looked forward to a “vigorous campaign.”
Yang said he would make oversight of the county’s massive human services operations a priority if elected. He said the county needs a forward-looking board to prepare it for significant demographic shifts, including an increase in two key populations: seniors and people of color.
Noting that Hennepin County has the largest budget of any county in the state, he said even small innovations and improvements in how the county delivers services can make a huge difference, and pledged to seek out those solutions.
Yang previously ran for the District 2 seat in a 2012 special election to replace Mark Stenglein, who resigned before the end of his term to take over leadership of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. Yang lost in that race to Linda Higgins.
An attorney, Yang worked as an investigator in the city’s Department of Civil Rights before being elected to the council.