Hennepin County commissioner candidates participate in forum on “equity”

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Thirty-six year old Blong Yang points out that there’s a Hennepin County Commissioner who’s been in office 34 years, and that Mark Stenglein, the District 2 Commissioner whose resignation opened up the seat Yang is running for, was on the county board for 16 years. “Why not me? I want to see change in District 2.” Born in Thailand, a refugee who came here at age 3 and grew up on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), Yang said, “I know how tough it is. I’m tired of sitting on the sidelines.”

State Senator Linda Higgins received more than twice as many votes than Yang in the Aug. 14 primary. She was elected to the Minnesota Senate five times and was going to retire at the end of her current term, but said she sees the Hennepin County Board as “a wonderful opportunity to continue public service.” She pointed out that the Organizing Apprenticeship Project has given her racial justice awards.

The two participated in a forum based on “equity” Oct. 4 put on by several organizations at the Capri Theater to an appreciative but far from capacity crowd. Moderator Neeraj Mehta encouraged the candidates to be specific, to “tell us what it looks like.” In some cases that worked, in others, it didn’t.

The organizers said the difference between equality and equity is “Equality is everyone gets a pair of shoes. Equity is everyone gets a pair of shoes that fit.” Some take it further to “Everyone gets a pair of shoes that are custom-fit.”

On using the county commissioner position to promote “a more equitable North Minneapolis,” Yang said elected officials and the DFL party have had a chance to end entrenched racial and economic disparities, but have not. “The Hennepin County Board has never had a commissioner of color.” The fact that he is, and has been a recipient of county services, should change things, Yang said. We do “need to think of all of District 2,” as well. Pressed for specifics, he said in the 16 years Stenglein was in office, had it been Yang, “I could have tried to solve those problems already.”

Higgins said she would take advantage of the new Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) waiver that allows a person in job training to stay on the assistance program for longer. She would build a network of employers and supportive services. “Vocational training needs to be retooled so that we’re training people for careers with high potential for employment.” She questioned, for example, a community college course in taxidermy. Asked how to measure success, Higgins said, “families would be stronger, healthier, kids would be better prepared, there would be more income. The community is a vibrant and lively place. In hard times, there develops a malaise. To quote Paul Wellstone, ‘we all do better when we all do better.’”

The second question was about high unemployment rates in North Minneapolis in several non-white populations. Higgins talked about better education opportunities and pointed out that Adult Basic Education has located in North with the new John B. Davis school district headquarters. “Baby boomers will be leaving jobs in droves,” opening up new opportunities for others. “I will need to learn more about the county’s hiring practices—is there an equity screen?” She also mentioned light rail which would transport residents to jobs all over the metropolitan area.

Yang worked at the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department when the “startling” and “ridiculous” unemployment statistics came out. “The billion dollars going into the stadium, that could have been spent” in North Minneapolis. Stadium construction jobs “are not lasting jobs. But now that it will be built, there need to be hiring goals for minorities, and monitoring, or they won’t do it.” Yang said he supports funding compliance departments and exacting penalties.

On stadiums, Higgins said, “Stadiums weren’t a priority, they’re just things that get done. And I made sure there was language in the bills so the most disadvantaged neighborhoods got access to jobs. The Twins’ 26 percent [minority or women owned business/worker participation] was higher than their goal. Half of those employed live in the city of Minneapolis and one-quarter in the four most disadvantaged zip codes, 55411, 55412 and two in Senator Jeff Hayden’s [South Minneapolis] district.”

On equity in transit options, both candidates focused on the Bottineau light rail line that is now hung up because the Golden Valley City Council won’t approve the route alignment through Golden Valley land.

Yang said that within 30 years, 40 percent of the population in the district will be people of color, and the senior population will double. “We need to address how to get them to downtown, and services out to them.” He said if light rail isn’t funded by other governments, “are we willing to tax our residents” to make it happen? And if Golden Valley doesn’t allow it, will North Minneapolis accept having it go through here?

Higgins talked about setting aggressive minority hiring goals in building the light rail lines. “Hire Minnesota has been making strides, and there is a strong track record of increasing goals at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). She said she hopes “Golden Valley can learn enough to be comfortable” with the alignment.

On reducing disparities in education, both candidates stated that education is not a traditional county role. As Higgins put it, the county does partner in efforts that benefit education such as preventing truancy, promoting literacy, health clinics, and juvenile detention. Yang said the county “supports services for families, and that’s where it ends.”

Both candidates said they support giving people with a criminal history a second chance. Higgins co-authored the “ban the box” legislation which keeps employers from asking if an applicant has a criminal history. And Yang said that without a job, people who come out of prison have no alternative but to “commit more crimes and come back.”

Both said they support requiring banks who seek to do business with the county, to disclose information on foreclosures and other measures that would help assess those banks’ impacts on community.

Audience questions submitted that weren’t addressed during the forum will be answered on the ISAIAH website, www.isaiah-mn.org, organizers said.