At a glance: Special election for Hennepin County Commissioner District 2 seat

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October 22, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss

In June, long-time Minneapolis Downtown Council CEO and president Sam Grabarski retired, and Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein stepped in to replace him. 

After 15 years representing District 2, Stenglein’s departure attracted a wide variety of candidates to succeed him. The top two vote-getters from August’s primary were State Sen. Linda Higgins and attorney Blong Yang. 

Hennepin County District 2 includes North and Northeast Minneapolis, St. Anthony, Golden Valley, Medicine Lake, and portions of Crystal, New Hope and Plymouth. 

There are seven commissioners on the Hennepin County Board — a group that provides leadership on the county’s services, which include transportation projects, health and social services programs, law enforcement, libraries, corrections and environmental services, among other things.

County races are nonpartisan so candidates’ political affiliations are not listed on the ballot. 

Higgins and Yang are both DFLers who live in North Minneapolis and have similar stances on many issues. Both oppose the two constitutional amendments on the ballot and have voiced support for two planned light-rail lines that will run through District 2. 

Each said the county must take care of those in need and work to provide opportunities for the economically disadvantages. Both advocate for environmental protections and a responsible county budget. 

One issue where the two candidates differ is on the issue of the Vikings stadium. Higgins supported it; Yang said he would have not. Higgins said she’s heard very little about her support for the stadium during her campaign for commissioner, and she doesn’t regret her vote. “It was going to pass, so I decided that I wanted to put into the law things that would help our community and I did,” she said. “In the way of workforce goals and jobs for people in the four most disadvantaged zip codes in the city. And I voted for it.”

Different paths 

While the Higgins and Yang share similar stances on may issues, they have very different backgrounds. 

Higgins has represented North and downtown Minneapolis for 16 years as a state senator. She chaired the Public Safety Budget Division from 2007-2010 and State and Local Government Operations from 2004–2006, served as majority whip from 2001–2006 and served on dozens of legislative caucuses, committees, commissions and task forces. Her legislative accomplishments including authoring a predatory lending package and securing funding for the MacPhail Center, Guthrie Theater, Lowry Bridge and Basset Creek Trail, among other projects.

Higgins originally planned to retire from public service at the end of her current term, but changed her mind when the County Commissioner seat opened up. 

“I thought I was all done with running for office,” she said. “But then I thought this would be a good way to continue my public service.” 

Born in a Thai refugee camp, Yang immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 and has lived in the Jordan neighborhood for over a decade. After earning a bachelor’s of arts degree from the University of California, Los Angeles and a law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School, he worked as a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis. He then ran a solo law practice for eight years before joining the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights as an investigator. He also served on the Commitment Defense Panel of the Hennepin County Bar Association, Jordan Area Community Council, Hmong American Institute for Learning and Westside Community Health Services. 

If elected, Yang would be the first person of color to serve on the Hennepin County Board. 

“I’m the first Hmong person in Hennepin County to run for office, any office,” said Yang. “Every single day I feel like I’m making history.”

Yang said he was inspired to run for the open seat because he felt that North Minneapolis was being ignored and that the county has misplaced priorities. “My quality of life hadn’t improved in the 11 years I’d lived in North Minneapolis,” said Yang. “I just felt like it was time for a change.” 

He cites the Webber Park library in the Camden neighborhood as an example. Despite promises from the County Board for a larger library that date back to 2008, the project still hasn’t happened. But several other high-profile projects have, many of which Yang questions. 

“A clear example is the Lowry Bridge,” he said. “Why did we have to add that signature design, which cost about $18 million more? I just want us to be able to spend our money on things that make sense. If some of those savings were used to open up libraries more, that would be a better investment.”

Yang is supportive of major county projects like the new light rail lines and believes the county can complete these projects and fulfill its obligations to its citizens by focusing on government that is efficient, cost effective and sustainable. “I want our money to be spent on things that are important to the county: essential services, public safety, transportation,” he said. “The county has a large budget and we should be able to do what we need to do within that budget.” 

Yang knows he has an uphill battle in his campaign for the County Commissioner seat. 

Higgins has more endorsements and name recognition, but Yang has surprised people with the strength of his campaign. A campaign music video caught the attention of both local television news stations and Comedy Central’s election blog. 

“We reached out to everybody because we had to,” said Yang. “We had to work harder. It was a combination of money, working harder, and at the end of the day it was about us doing things differently.”