At a time when cult of personality politics is all the rage, Angela Conley is a breath of fresh air. To be sure, the 40-year-old South Minneapolis native has plenty of personality, but it’s her skills as a 20-year Hennepin County employee and navigator of the social services system she seeks to oversee as county commissioner that makes you want to root for her and, if you’re in Conley’s district 4, vote for her.
“It’s blossoming,” said Conley, of her campaign to unseat incumbent Peter McLaughlin, sitting in her Cedar Avenue campaign office Saturday afternoon. As she speaks, “Conley For Commissioner” signs can be spotted in storefronts and on lawns and boulevards up and down Park and Portland Avenues, 38th and 42nd streets and all over South Minneapolis.
“There’s been a lot of voter education happening on the doors, which is really important to me because I love telling people what the county does,” she said. “People don’t know much about the county board and their role in their lives. Every time you leave your home, you’re interacting with your county government, whether it’s your roads or what happens with your trash.
“I love educating people about that, because this is the work that I’ve been doing for so long. Then, once they see that connection and I tell them about me and my qualifications, that’s when the momentum builds. That’s when people start to say, ‘You know what? This candidate is inspiring!’ And they can also see parallels from my story to their lives and things that they’ve gone through.”
The seven-member Hennepin County Board of Commissioners operates a $2.4 billion budget (“twice the size of Jay Z and Beyonce’s net worth,” notes the Conley team) that plays a key role in advancing housing strategies, accessible transit systems and public health and human services. Incredibly enough, were Conley to win the District 4 seat in November, she would be the first African-American ever elected to the board.
“We are running a historical and unprecedented campaign against a 27 year incumbent that was last contested in 2006,” said Aurin Chowdhury, organizing director for Conley’s campaign, in an email. “If elected Angela will be the first county commissioner who has actually worked in the county, the first commissioner to actually use and receive public assistance from the county, and, finally, since the establishment of the county in 1875 Angela will be the first Black person ever elected to the County board. This is groundbreaking because in the most diverse county and the most diverse county district, representation matters.”
Conley’s candidacy is part of a long-time coming progressive movement within the local DFL party. For the first time in his 27 years on the Hennepin County Board, McLaughlin failed to receive his party’s endorsement at the DFL convention in May. Conley received the most delegate votes, at 57 percent (60 percent of the 80 delegate votes are needed to earn the endorsement), and each of the three open board seats has nonwhite candidates.
“I thought about this run for two-and-a-half years,” Conley said. “I thought about leadership at the county, I thought about leadership at the state, I thought about some of the frustrations I had within my own position at the county and some of the things that I’ve seen, right on the ground, in the trenches, that don’t get transferred to upper leadership.
“We’ve been trying at the county to eliminate racial disparities within the county, because we perpetuate them sometimes with the work that we do. The last straw was when I found out that last fall our county board, which has never included a person of color, went on a retreat specifically to talk about reducing racial disparities within the county. I don’t know that there was any input from a person of color in that retreat, and it was at that moment that I was like, ‘No. No. This is not how we’re going to do it.’ We need voices of people who are impacted either on the board or at these retreats when we’re making decisions that affect people’s quality of life, and they need to be at the table for that.”
A mother of four, Conley began working at Hennepin County in 2000, making $12 an hour as a financial worker. Starting out, she lived in a townhouse that was part of an income-based co-op on Chicago Avenue where she quickly discovered that “I didn’t know it was a full-time job to be poor, that people talk down to you,” as she told the Minneapolis Interview Project. She loved helping people by working “on the other side of the counter,” where she processed applications for welfare, helped women who were single parents fleeing abusive partners or women who found themselves with unexpected pregnancies needing assistance or homeless.
After five years, she took a promotion to work in a similar position at the State of Minnesota, returned to college to study creative writing at the University of Minnesota and social work at St. Catherine University, interned at a homeless shelter and taught English to newly arriving immigrants. She graduated from St. Kate’s in 2013 and went back to school for her Masters in Public Administration at Hamline University, and she has served as the board president of the Bryant Neighborhood Organization for the past two years. Given her education, passion for poor people and knowledge of the system, it’s difficult to imagine a more qualified commissioner with real-life experience.
“I’ve been in county and state government for nearly 20 years now, but before that I was accessing services,” she said. “I was food insecure. I was accessing emergency assistance because I was housing insecure. I needed health care and help with child care at one point in my life, so I know what it’s like accessing systems, and it was that experience when I decided I want to work here and change systems from within.
“No commissioner has had to access our services, or worked within our services. I’m a current county employee. These perspectives are key, and they’re missing from our leadership and that’s why I think we’re continuing to perpetuate these cycles. And when we lead the nation in [racial] disparities you can look directly at Hennepin County, because we’re the biggest issuer in the state of social services programs.”
Conley’s candidacy is another illustration of the times, as a wave of women and people of color run for offices all over the country. In Minnesota, the DFL primary takes place Tuesday, Aug. 14, though early voting opened on June 29.
“We’re in a huge moment of change,” said Conley, who seeks to represent District 4, which mostly covers east and downtown areas of Minneapolis. “The 4th District is diverse, we’re dense and we haven’t had leadership that’s reflected that in nearly 30 years. I’ve been in the community doing activism work and advocacy work, I worked at a homeless shelter for a year, I’ve been an advocate for victims of domestic violence and I want to see better victim services. I’ve lived through that. Our voices need to be the ones that are guiding these policies. That’s the frustrating bit, is that no one is asking us for our opinions, and they matter, and these are experts.
“They’re experts because they’re living it, they’re breathing it every day. They’re under this boot, and for me it’s like, who’s going to lift that up and actually listen to people? You keep making up your own decisions about what’s ‘best’ for us, so we need someone to challenge that, and I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do: I’m going to challenge the status quo, I’m going to challenge what we’ve been doing and I’m going to join this race.’”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]