Irene Fernando for Hennepin County Board, District 2

It will be no surprise that I am endorsing Irene Fernando over Blong Yang for the open seat on the Hennepin County Board in District 2. There are many reasons you should vote for Irene Fernando, which you can read in the second half of this post. You’re fortunate if you have the chance to vote for her. But first, I have unpleasant memories of Blong Yang in his previous job that I must share with you.

Blong Yang

In 2012, Blong Yang ran unsuccessfully for this same seat on the Hennepin County Board. In 2013, he was elected to the Minneapolis City Council in Ward 5. In 2017, Yang was defeated by Jeremiah Ellison.

If you care about ideology, Blong Yang is not the progressive choice. In 2017, while on the City Council, he was the sole vote against a Minneapolis minimum wage ordinance (even business community stalwarts Lisa Goodman and Barb Johnson voted for it). He voted with former President Barb Johnson more than anyone but Lisa Goodman. There’s a picture of Yang attending a GOP fundraiser in 2012, smiling with current Republican candidate for Governor Jeff Johnson. I’m not saying Blong Yang is Rich Stanek (seriously I’m not… nobody is Rich Stanek), but they do share a lot of the same supporters. And yes, in 2014 Blong Yang endorsed our Trump-supporting, ICE-cooperating, racist Sheriff Rich Stanek.

Jeff Johnson, Blong Yang, and GOP friends.

Here’s one episode I find particularly revealing about Blong Yang’s leadership. During his time on the City Council, Yang was Chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee. In 2015, a young black man named Jamar Clark was shot and killed by police. In response, a group of protesters camped outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct for 18 days. A day before the protest was cleared out by police, Yang held a surprise public hearing. The benefit of an unannounced public hearing is you only have to hear from the people you invited. The people who disagree with you have no idea that it’s happening. When it’s done intentionally — as in this case — it’s a shitty, gutless thing to do.

But it gets worse: the person Blong Yang used this special maneuver to elevate is the worst man in Minneapolis politics, Bob Kroll, President of the Police Federation. Blong Yang couldn’t stomach the idea of having a real public hearing, advertised to the public, open to people who disagree with him. He created a special platform for the absolute last person who needs one. I wrote at the time:

Kroll has been particularly outspoken, using his platform not just to defend cops, but to go after the protests themselves. Speaking of the 4th Precinct protesters on television, he said that “we need to silence that vocal group of activists.” On talk radio he called the 4th Precinct protest a “local version of Benghazi.” That Yang’s committee would elevate the already well-amplified voice of Lt. Kroll, while going to great length to exclude dissenting voices, is disturbing.

Bob Kroll’s Minneapolis Police Federation sent Yang a $250 donation the day after the hearing. For a full account of Yang’s sham hearing, read this post. (If you’re keeping score, Yang did all this with help from Ward 13’s Linea Palmisano.)

During his unsuccessful City Council re-election campaign in 2017, Yang skipped at least three candidate forums, including a forum sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce (I remember this one in particular because I was there, hoping to see all the candidates on the same stage). He also failed to respond to a bunch of 2017 candidate questionnaires from various organizations. He really stood out among all serious city council candidates as by far the most non-responsive. And in the midst of writing this paragraph, I found a MinnPost article that mentions Yang didn’t show up to a candidate forum last week; Irene Fernando was there.

Somewhat surprisingly for a guy who didn’t look like he was trying very hard to get re-elected, Yang was immediately bitter about his defeat. He took some hard swipes at winner Jeremiah Ellison on Facebook.

(I will say one nice thing about Blong Yang: he was a great host for a long-running series of New Year’s Eve countdown videos.)

If you consider nothing else, you should probably not vote for Blong Yang because he runs from public accountability. He doesn’t show up. On top of that, he goes to great lengths to keep constituents from being able to show up. This is especially important in light of the fact that county commissioners can fly under the radar. The Hennepin County Board, which controls a $2.4 billion budget, consists of seven very powerful people whose names you rarely hear outside election season. If you elect him, Blong Yang will disappear on you.

Irene Fernando

Irene Fernando started contemplating a run for the Hennepin County Board in February 2017 (that’s so long ago!). A few months later she decided she was running. This all happened prior to current Commissioner Linda Higgins announcing her retirement last November. Higgins is one among many prominent political people and organizations endorsing Fernando. At the DFL’s County Convention earlier this summer, Fernando won the party’s endorsement.

Through the end of July, Fernando had raised over $103,524 — a lot, especially for a first-time candidate. While examining campaign finance reports I noticed that Fernando has a celebrity donor: Noelle Quinn, a guard for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. Not to be outdone, Blong Yang has also has a celebrity donor: former Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson.

I came into this election knowing a few things about Blong Yang, but I wasn’t very familiar with Irene Fernando until last week, when I had the chance to visit her campaign headquarters. What follows is a summary of our conversation.

Fernando describes herself as “a leader of action,” a relative newcomer to the process, and an outsider to the political establishment. She described how she’s dug in to the nuts and bolts of how Hennepin County works over the last two years. She’s excited to get to work and says, “I’m more interested in this as a job. It just happens to require an election.”

Fernando says the Hennepin County government is disconnected from residents, creating apathy in the voting booth. Among 35,000 District 2 primary voters on August 14, “between six and seven thousand people filled out other things, and just chose to abstain from this race. That’s a really significant number.”

She talked about how 2018 is different. Her campaign and others (for District 4, County Attorney, Sheriff) are bringing increased attention to the “county layer” of government. She wants to continue raising that profile once in office: “My hope is to expand who sees themselves in the story of the county.”

Fernando says measuring outcomes is important. For example, having data that tells us who is being held in jail and for how long; whether it led to an eviction; or if a child was taken into the custody of child protection services. “The taxpayers are responsible for both sides of that. When we’re not capturing that data and seeing a holistic human-centered approach to that, not only are we missing out on the potential of this human, it truly may not be economically beneficial and we might invest those funds differently on behalf of the outcomes we want.”

She said she is most excited to get to work on two big issues: workforce and housing. Hennepin County employs an 8,000 person workforce. “How are we making sure that we’re training folks, promoting people, in a way that’s really meaningful.” She’s also interested in helping employers recruit and retain professionals of color.

On housing: “The county is uniquely positioned to provide housing for people who are receiving some other county service. We’re really uniquely positioned to provide this cornerstone resource for those who are in our system more than once.”

Fernando advocates for decreasing transit fares, not only because it’s a burden on low-income and transit-dependent households, but because increased ridership benefits everyone, and is key to meeting climate change goals. She says “We need to be doing bus rapid transit now.” She notes that “infrastructure is only as useful as people’s willingness, comfort, and desire to use it. I think we can be cultivating behavior with bus rapid transit, making that more accessible and easier.” Speaking of pedestrian and bike safety, she feels a sense of urgency around the fact that the majority of injuries or deaths in Minneapolis involve county roads.

On criminal justice reform: “sentencing reform is where the commission can put the most pressure and be most powerful” and alleviate the disproportionate harm to low-income and communities of color. She’s hopeful that DFL-endorsed candidates can be elected as Sheriff and County Attorney, in order to achieve a more ambitious set of reforms.

In a testament to Fernando’s determination, when I asked her to give me a “wild, weird, or hilarious campaign story” she spent a really long time insisting she could think of something. Then I forced her to move on to another topic. She finally came back with a story about an adult tricycle that wasn’t really very funny. She had the self-awareness to realize “none of this sounds funny enough.”

Why is she running? “I was one of those community leaders that saw politics as a separate thing that was not entwined with what I was doing every day. But the last couple of years have taught me that politics is very interested in my life.”

She wants to find ways to make people feel “comfort and excitement” with the political process, noting that even at its best, “politics can be very exclusionary and insular, instead of exciting and energizing.”

I really like Irene Fernando. I appreciate her priorities, her perspective, and how thoughtful she is. She’s characterized this campaign as her own sort of journey of discovery about county government; she’s exactly the person who can deliver on a promise of more accessible and responsive government. She’s put a lot of work and preparation into this process, and inspired a lot of people to put in the work to elect her. According to all the standards by which you measure these things, she’s been enormously successful as a first-time candidate. If elected I know she’ll bring that same success to her work as a Hennepin County Commissioner in District 2.

Irene in her basement campaign war room.