Hennepin County Commissioner Board has been all white since 1852 – and that might end on Nov. 6


This piece is part of Twin Cities Daily Planet’s series covering the 2018 elections season. Every year we’re moving towards a possibility of a more diverse legislature. And with it, we hope comes increased opportunities for communities historically shut out of political processes and power to imagine and enact policies to create a Minnesota that benefits all its constituents.

“If you want to know if you are going the right way, follow women of color because we know where justice is. We are closest to the pain, which makes us closest to the solutions. We are the boldest and the bravest in this movement. Just know, that women of color, you are enough and this country needs all of you right now. We are the majority, we’re organizing and winning races across this country,” said Linda Sarsour at the She the People Summit on Sept. 20 in San Francisco, the “the first-ever national summit of women of color in politics [which] drew nearly 600 attendees, mostly women of color, from 36 states.”

Nationally, white men continue to be severely overrepresented as elected officials, “Despite white men comprising only 31 percent of the population, 97 percent of all Republican elected officials are white and 76 percent are male. Of all Democratic elected officials, 79 percent are white and 65 percent are male,” according to a 2018 report by the Reflective Democracy Campaign.

Here in Minnesota, the Hennepin Board of County Commissioners has been 100 percent white since its inception in 1852, even though the vision of the board, according to its website, states, “we will be a diverse, learning organization.”

The outcome of this race will affect the daily lives of millions of people who live, work and recreate in Hennepin County. More than one in five Minnesotans lives in the county, and the seven Hennepin County Commissioners control a total budget of $2.4 billion, which includes $788.6 million from taxes.

These billions of dollars translate into public works, libraries, public safety services and health and human services. Our county leaders manage resources that affect every one of us in multidimensional ways.

“The county commission for 166 years has not had one person of color, that’s really striking,” said Ward 5 candidate Irene Fernando. The Hennepin County board is on track for a historic change this November when, for the first time, a candidate of color could be elected to be on serve on the board.

This election cycle there are three Hennepin County board seats open: Districts 2, 3 and 4 and in each race, there is at least one candidate of color running.

After the August primary, the two top vote-getting candidates in District 2 were former Ward 5 Councilperson Blong Yang, who is Hmong American, and Irene Fernando, who is Filipina American. In District 4, Angela Conley, a Black woman, is challenging the 27-year incumbent Peter McLaughlin, a white man. In District 3 LaDonna Redmond, a Black woman, is running against incumbent Marion Greene, a white woman.

Conley says heavy white representation in politics is not limited to the Hennepin County Board. “We’re used to this idea that white men equal leadership,” she said. “For years people of color have been pushed out and people of color have lost faith in a system that is designed to work against us.”

The numbers locally and nationally bear this out. For example, at the Minnesota state level, people of color are also not proportionally represented, “8 percent of legislative seats will be held by minorities, while people of color make up about 19 percent of Minnesota’s population,” but this is still a record high for the state, with sixteen legislators of color in 2017.

One of the causes of this asymmetry of power is that “fifty-two percent of elected officials run unopposed, [and] of these, 87 percent are white and 58 percent are Republicans,” according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign.

There are efforts to correct the gender imbalance in American politics and the women of color shortage in elected office, such as the Center for American Women in Politics. Nonpartisan national efforts like those as well as local efforts to close leadership gaps will bring us closer to full participation and proportional representation at all levels of government.

The whiteness of political bureaucracy

According to Conley, bureaucratic struggles with government systems experienced by communities of color are part of a bigger problem of institutional racism and the influence white supremacy has had in shaping the current political landscape.

“It’s embedded in everything from elected leadership to our system of mass incarceration to how poverty has grown among people of color and how homelessness is on the rise and the opioid epidemic,” Conley said. “All of our systems are sort of designed to work against us, and I’ve seen Hennepin County perpetuate poverty and perpetuate the disparities that we say we want to end.”

Part of the solution, Conley said, is changing who is at the table when discussing these issues. “We need to change the conversation so that it’s rooted in people that are most marginalized … It’s shifting the narrative to speak to people who have traditionally been ignored.”

Fernando echoed Conley’s statement and said it is not a secret that racism plays a role in politics. She says she has experienced it first hand, stating, “I’ve literally had people say like, I don’t vote for people of color.”

The solution, in part, Fernando said is, “We need to be holding this commission accountable to the vision that’s required for our communities. There are three levels that Fernando said are important for politicians to be held accountable at. One, she said, is the influence of an elected official, using the platform to advance the community’s values.

Second is legislative, “We should be able to see in your votes and in your policies and in what you’re putting forward an extension of [community] values.”

Last is accountability from an operating standpoint. For example, Fernando said if you walk into a candidates office you should see their values represented by who they hire.

“Young women of color are underrepresented in politics,” she said. “So I’ve hired canvassers who are a young woman of color in between the ages of 16 and 26 … if people were to walk in, they could see my values being demonstrated in how we’re operating today.”

The underrepresentation of women of color in politics expands to all POCI people she said. “I don’t think people see themselves or feel their stories present among political leaders at the moment,” she said.

If elected, Fernando said she hopes her story will resonate with her constituents and inspire them to create change in their communities.

Making politics more equitable is something that keeps Fernando up at night, and the most straightforward way to do this is to make sure that we elect people and women of color, she noted.

“We need to get there first because that is what allows us to see it as possible,” she said. “Then we’re going to make it so common that first doesn’t even matter anymore.”

Policy and proximity: Angela Conley

The lived experience of someone who has had to navigate their life in the face of the rampant disparities of Hennepin County is what is missing from the board, Conley said. Even though it was more than twenty years ago, the challenges of relying on county benefits remain at the forefront of Conley’s decision making. “I was insecure in my housing and food, and I had two young children at the time. What I experienced in accessing county services was a lot of red tape, a lot of paperwork, a lot of processes.”

Conley’s experiences while accessing aid resonate with a lot of the District 4 community members, she said. These experiences, she said, are part of why she has been able to run a successful campaign so far. “When [community members] hear from me, they hear maybe their own lived experiences and that certainly separates me.”

Apart from Conley’s lived experience being an asset she can bring to the board, she also said her non-traditional background and path to politics works in her favor, too. Conley has a long history of activism and social work in the Twin Cities, including college degrees in social work and public administration. Still, Conley is not a complete stranger to government and politics; she has experience working for the state and the county government.

But she also has experience working in a homeless shelter, as a social worker and a community activist. “The in-the-trenches experience is desperately needed when we’re talking about policy changes at this super high level of government.” Not only is it needed, Conley stated, but it is a big part of why she said she has been able to find success.

Finding power at the intersections: Irene Fernando

Like Conley, this is Fernando’s first time running for public office. Her background, she noted, is as a community and business leader. In both of those roles, Fernando said she has taken a community-centered approach. And she has never thought about running for office until now.

“After the current administration got elected, I was really seeking to better understand who was making decisions on my behalf,” Fernando explained. Then she learned about the county commission and became motivated to run because of “the ways that the county commission both creates a vision for our county and our communities long term.”

If elected, Fernando said she would be not only the first person of color elected but also the youngest. The intersection of her race, class and gender, she said, have presented challenges for her throughout her campaign.

For example, Fernando recalled when she hears the question, “What happens if you get pregnant?” This is problematic, she said, because if she and her male opponent both get three minutes to talk to a voter and they want to talk about her pregnancy and not policy, then she could lose their vote. On the other hand, her male opponent would have the full amount of time to talk about policy.

During her freshman year at the University of Minnesota, Fernando co-founded Students Today Leaders Forever, a nonprofit that focuses on leadership training. The organization has had nearly 23,000 students participate in hundreds of hours of community service.

She said she may not have a voting record to lean on or the name recognition of an incumbent, but her experience working with the community will tell a story “that helps people see how my leadership can make a difference.”

Fernando is also a former Bush fellow. According to the Bush Foundation, Fernando used her fellowship “to further her education in the areas of leadership theory, management structures and organizational design.”

Focused on impact: LaDonna Redmond

“I never thought that I would run for office. I am an activist and I prefer to work on projects that have an immediate impact on the community.” Her campaign agenda focuses on equity in the criminal justice system, the environment, transit and housing. She also believes the county should play a direct role in youth development.

Redmond, the county commissioner candidate in District 3, is known for her work as a food justice advocate for the past two decades, notably working in Chicago as the co-founder of Chicago Food Systems, a university and community partnership focused on food access and public health in African American communities.

“I define food justice as the activity to shift the injustice in the food and agriculture systems. Filling the gap, for example, in worker rights, making sure that the workers are treated fairly; making sure that all communities have access to healthy food; and if people want to grow food, making sure that they have access to land and materials or capital necessary to grow it. Also, to have seeds that are free from genetic engineering and land that is not contaminated by pesticides and other chemicals,” she said in a profile in the Minnesota Women’s Press.

The work she has done with food helped launch the Campaign for Food Justice Now that brings attention to social justice issues that intersect with race, class and gender. She was the co-chair of Chicago’s chapter of the National Black Women’s Health Project and has received recognition for her work by Time magazine.

As an activist, she has also focused on access to reproductive justice and reentry of prisoners into society. On her campaign website she discusses the breadth and depth of her community work, “Others still may know me as a community organizer, making sure that women returning home from prison or being released from drug treatment have a safe home and a chance to rebuild their lives. I am the founder of Sisterhouse – a women’s recovery home.”

She also directly addresses how her work has prepared her for being a county commissioner, “The personal is political. Every issue that I’ve worked on. I have been touched personally by many issues. Whether I’m talking about my life as the mom of a baby that has food allergies or a young woman beginning the long road to recovery. If you look at my record, you will see community institutions that uplift the community.”

“As county commissioner, I would use all of my personal and professional experiences to ensure that every person, especially those that may feel invisible or forgotten, are supported.”

*Due to personal reasons Ladonna Redmond was unavailable for interviews for this story. All information regarding her has come from either her social media accounts, campaign websites, or other sources. This comment has been approved by Redmond.