Candidates hope to break color barrier on County Board

Print

Gregory Gray is the unanimous DFL-endorsed candidate for District 2 Hennepin County Commissioner. His campaign slogan — “Experience, Integrity, Compassion” — symbolizes a track record of dedication as an activist, advocate and community leader.

Gray is opposing longtime incumbent County Commissioner Mark Stenglein in District 2, which covers St. Anthony, North Minneapolis, Northeast Minneapolis, Golden Valley, parts of Crystal, New Hope and Plymouth. “It’s a wide and extremely diverse district ethnically and economically,” he said.

Gray grew up at the corner of 36th and 5th Avenues in South Minneapolis. “My parents still live in the same house,” he said. He now lives in North Minneapolis with his wife Renee of 29 years.

His career as a student began at Warrington Elementary School. He also attended Bryant Junior High School (current home of Sabathani Community Center) and Central High School. He continued his education at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in business administration.

After graduating, he worked in accounting and finance for 10 years with companies such as Land O’ Lakes, Marquette Bank, Pillsbury Company and the Dayton-Hudson Retail Company. He enrolled in Hamline Law School, then worked in corporate law for Cenex, Inc. “I passed the bar and began to really get active in the community. I believe in public service,” he said.

His activism led him to run for state senate in 1996. His loss opened a new door when his mentor and colleague, State Representative Richard Jefferson, urged Gray to take his seat. He became Minnesota’s sixth black state legislator, preceded by Wheaton, Pleasant, Lewis, Staten and Jefferson consecutively. He is succeeded by Neva Walker and Keith Ellison.

“There have never been more than two blacks in the legislature at one time,” Gray observed, “but there are currently three Asians and two Latinos.”

Gray represented 58B in the state legislature from 1998 to 2002. He was the DFL-endorsed candidate for state auditor in 2002 but lost the primary. It was during this election that Gray saw a need to educate voters on the importance of voting in both the primary and the general elections.

“Our biggest challenge as African Americans is to get out and vote. We have to be astute enough to realize that we have to vote in the primary and general elections. We can be more influential in the primaries.

“If all African Americans came out to the primaries, we would control it,” he said. “We have tremendous influence. It is not acceptable to sit and not vote. There is too much in history that demands we do that small thing,” he said.

After this election, Gray did consulting work for the Minneapolis Urban League, Synergy Academy, and Community Action among various other agencies. He also took George Garnett’s place on the library board for two and one-half years, becoming president of the board during his tenure.

“The most pivotal event in my life was encountering the Civil Rights Movement,” Gray reflected. “I saw sacrifice, but there was a greater sense of community. Along with opportunity came responsibility.

“Now, there is too much stratification [in the black community]. There’s still commonality, a shared destination, background and culture. We should never forget about those in the past,” he said.

“I remember when blacks couldn’t go to Northeast Minneapolis. Now there is an unusual amount of diversity there. The [demographic change] is exciting, but brings challenges.”

Gray is an advocate for transportation reform in the Twin Cities. “The Twin Cities are behind in transportation; we need to invest in infrastructure. Jobs are in the suburbs. We need to find a way to get people to their jobs efficiently,” he said.

When asked about African Americans concerned about decision-making around transportation in St. Paul, with the Rondo neighborhood in mind, Gray explained, “In those days, blacks did not have political clout, and there is still a sense of helplessness. We now have the ability [to speak out] because of our increased numbers. Now we can take control of our destiny. We can have an impact on policy. We don’t have to wait. We can intervene for self and use our voices.”

Gray has decided to stand for election again based on what he believes is right and just, this time choosing to focus his energies on the current Hennepin County Board. “It’s not only due to racism, but to misguided priorities,” he said.

“They’ve proposed a tax for a stadium — $4 million invested. Why not invest in kids, health care and transportation?” he asked, and he will put the same question to his opponent, incumbent Mark Stenglein.

“We need more youth intervention programs. You suggest that, and people always say, ‘We’d love to, but there’s no money.’ We need to focus on things that have long-term, positive ramifications,” said Gray.

Gray does not envision a campaign filled with personal attacks, but one that will be issue-based. “I’m not against Stenglein as an individual. But he’s been in office for the last 10 years, and I disagree with the priorities established. The stadium provides a view of what has taken place,” he said.

“They spent hours imposing a tax on constituents on what can be called at best a luxury [the Twins stadium]. Stenglein also pushed to roll back the smoking ban to exclude bars, saying it was an economic impact. Second-hand smoke is an equal hazard. This economic impact has been proven to be minimal. In their defense, [the board] claimed that people didn’t have to work in bars. The fact of the matter is [that] people work where they can. People should be outraged,” said Gray.

There are more issues to address: “I don’t plan to get personal, but we will have a full airing of issues,” said Gray. “The crime rate is unacceptable, and there are [overwhelming] concentrations of poverty. I just don’t think we have strong advocates.”

Greg’s message of access to health care, a 21st century transit system and targeting human service dollars to move less fortunate residents into the economic mainstream would revolutionize the current budget and leave room to advocate for issues the board has not historically overseen, like education.

“We have a county board budget of $2 billion; 62 percent of that budget goes to human services for welfare and health programs, 12 percent to public safety, two percent to libraries. There is no amount available directly for education.

“The state and school district could use human services money for programs like Head Start and youth intervention services,” he said. The remainder of Hennepin County expenditures is used for capital improvements, general government, and public works.

“I’m interested in making things easier for the next generation. We too often remove kids immediately from the home. It’s gone way out of proportion. We need to begin re-evaluating our systems — especially African Americans — to impact kids’ ability to learn. We need a stronger partnership between the state, the county, and the school district,” said Gray.

“We need fresh eyes on the county board. I have the experience to do the job. I’ve been serving people in this area for the past decade. If people believe the government should work for the people, they will vote for me,” he continued.

“Too often, things happen on the county board in secret… Racial profiling, out-of-home placement, these things often go unnoticed. I am a [self-proclaimed] Progressive Democrat, [meaning] I’m for a government that cares about people as opposed to letting the market control. I believe the government has to intervene in order to provide equity. Government shouldn’t sit back and watch.

“The dream that I want even more than to win this election is for 90 percent of communities of color, and African Americans in particular, to vote. There’s no reason why that can’t take place.”

The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners has never had a Black person on the board; Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter is the first in the state. “Having diversity on that board would be a positive,” Gray said.

Farheen Hakeem’s guiding campaign principle: ‘Stay focused’
By Swallehe Msuya

She is an educated young woman of 30, a woman of color, and a head-scarf (hijab)-wearing Muslim. Last year she created a great sensation when she ran for Minneapolis mayor under the Green Party ticket. Now she is contesting the Hennepin County Board incumbent in District 4, veteran Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. She has the guts to try big fights and is confident of winning.

Just who is this up-and-coming political celebrity? She is a lot of things woven together: an ex-math and science teacher, a skillful communicator, a strong lobbyist, a youth organizer, and a charming woman with a lot of charisma.

She is comfortable discussing homelessness with the street guys. She is at home with pregnant teenagers, advising them to go back to high school and college to build a career. And, she is quick to confront cops who harass people of color.

Hakeem cuts across the cultural divide. When Becky Lourey announced that she was running for governor, she did so at a gathering at Hakeem’s home. She was conspicuous in the Juneteenth and Gay Pride parades. She identifies herself with all people of color, addressing their concerns on affordable housing, child protection, quality education, family values in a holistic context, and leadership accountability to the communities they serve.

Why District 4? “When I ran for mayor last year,” Farheen told the Spokesman-Recorder, “and looking at the numbers of the precincts where I did really well, I felt that there was a strong need and a calling for me to serve. So I felt that I needed to fulfill that calling and serve and run for office in that area.

“I felt that District 4 County Commissioner was the best job for me,” she added. “With my background in mathematics and my community organizing and skills with many other things that I can accomplish, I can bring a lot of fresh ideas to the [Hennepin] County Board.”

District 4 lies east of 35W, west of the Mississippi River, north of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and south of the industrial Como area. The University of Minnesota is included in the area; the West Bank and the warehouse district are in it; and in addition, District 4 extends all the way to the very southernmost areas of South Minneapolis. It is a strategic and very diverse urban district.

Hakeem is appealing to the district’s young people to go out and vote for the candidate who supports their issues because, if they fail to do so, no one will take care of their interests. She has been engaging youths in scout activities and community volunteer services and believes many will show up at the polls.

What political lesson did she learn from last year’s mayoral race? “Many lessons,” she responded, “but the best part of it is [that] someone running for office should not allow themselves to be caught up in the political drama that a lot of people try to engage in. My experiences of working with youth — you know what the politics of high school are like — sometimes you just see people act like high school kids in the political game! Oh my gosh, this person did this and this other person did something else to me, and so on and so forth. It is kind of tragic!

“It is important to stay focused in your issues, stay focused in your race without distraction. That is the best advice I have for young persons trying to run for office,” said Hakeem.

As a woman of color and a Muslim, what kind of challenges does she face? “This time it is great,” she said. “Since I ran for mayor, I have established myself enough that people really feel and see me as a legitimate candidate. I am no longer getting such questions as, ‘What country are you really from? Why is your English so good?’

“The media has helped me get over it. I used to get embarrassed a couple of times, but now voters are looking beyond that. They are now looking at issues, and in addition to that, more Muslims are now interested in running for office.

“For example, we have Keith Ellison running for Congress, and there is an intern in the DFL Party who is Muslim that I happen to know. This year, the White House Party held a conference in Chester, Minnesota, and they had five Muslim women being trained to be candidates who hopefully will someday run for office.”

How does she plan to win this race against the heavyweight, 16-year incumbent Peter MacLaughlin? “By sticking to the issues that matter to the people, engaging in grassroots campaigns, going to all corners of the district where voters are disappointed with the incumbent’s position on the controversial stadium issue. I tell them that my position is to vote for a peoples’ referendum on the matter, and this has created a lot of support for me even in areas where my opponent seemed strongest.”

Farheen Hakeem is of the opinion that between the Democratic Party and the Republicans, there is not much of a choice. So she has chosen to settle down with the Green Party whose values and principles she upholds, although she would like to see more diversity of membership.

She is a tough fighter for racial equality and is challenging the mainstream view that a good leader must be a male Christian straight person. She believes in fewer jailhouses and more spending in quality education to keep bad guys off the street.

Hakeem’s political slogan is “A fresh voice for the County Board.” If she succeeds in beating the Fourth District’s long-serving incumbent commissioner, she will have opened the floodgates for people of color to move into other leadership positions.

Do not tell her that she can’t do that — Hakeem is convinced she can!