Five candidates have filed for the District 2 Hennepin County Commissioner seat: Timothy Bildsoe, Irene Fernando, Natalie Johnson Lee, Iyob Waldsmayate, and Blong Yang. Current Commissioner Linda Higgins is not running. Because more than two candidates have filed, there will be a primary vote on August 14, and it is a non-partisan office. Voters vote for one, the top two advance to the November 6 general election.
District 2 includes Golden Valley, Medicine Lake, North and Northeast Minneapolis, the southeast section of Plymouth, and St. Anthony Village.
Bildsoe is a former Plymouth city council member who now works for a national commercial insurance broker. Fernando co-founded a non-profit agency and works for Thrivent Financial. Business owner and leadership coach Johnson Lee is a former Minneapolis City Council member. Waldsmayate works for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Yang, an attorney, was a Minneapolis City Council member.
The Northeaster e-mailed the following three questions to the candidates. 1) Please briefly describe your background: education, employment, public offices held. 2) If you are elected, what unique talents or skills will you bring to this office? 3) Hennepin County has a wide range of initiatives that seek to address community issues such as health, the environment, homelessness, the opioid crisis, redevelopment, transportation, parks, and the public works infrastructure. Please choose one area in which you think the county does a good job, and explain. In what area or areas, in your opinion, might the county focus more attention, money and resources?
Below are the candidates’ answers.
I have lived in Hennepin County for over 25 years. I graduated from Bemidji State University with a B.S. degree in Business. After college, I worked in public finance for over 10 years and now work for a national commercial insurance broker. I served on the Plymouth City Council for 16 years, before the City Council I was on the Planning Commission and Parks and Recreation Board. I’m currently President of the North Loop Neighborhood Association and have served on numerous non-profit boards and commissions.
I’m the only candidate that has served communities throughout the district. Experience does matter when managing a multi-billion-dollar budget and being responsible for thousands of employees. My successful experience in the public and private sectors and common-sense approach to solving problems are what District 2 needs now.
Hennepin County has created a world-class medical facility and network of clinics. As Hennepin County Commissioner, I’ll work to keep Hennepin Healthcare’s standards high and accessible to all residents.
In partnership with local cities, the county’s roads, trails and bridges must be maintained to provide safe travel for all residents. The county should improve its communication with residents by updating the county’s website and social media efforts to offer more information and interaction with residents. The tragedy of mental health and substance abuse issues require the county’s highest attention.
At the age of 17, I co-founded Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF), a youth leadership nonprofit with a mission of revealing leadership through service, relationships, and action. I worked at STLF for 11 years—during which 22,000 students came through our programs—creating jobs and recruiting national talent into Minnesota. In 2013, I was selected by the Twin Cities Business Journal as one of 40 under 40, and awarded The (Real) Power 50 by Minnesota Business Magazine. In 2015, I was selected to be a Bush Foundation fellow and began teaching social entrepreneurship at St. Mary’s University. Currently, I work within a newer division at Thrivent Financial leading around organizational design, culture, and talent.
I have a proven track record of leading within complex, mission-driven organizations that serve a variety of needs. I will work to bring a culture of transparency and accountability to county government, and rely on relationship building, including those I have built over the last 15 years as a community leader, to help me serve the needs of our District 2 residents.
I would identify Heading Home Hennepin as an example of the good and important work Hennepin County does. By collaborating with the community and bringing new strategies and resources to the table, Hennepin County has been able to significantly reduce the number of persons experiencing homelessness. I think Heading Home Hennepin is a great example of what local government is capable of doing when we place the community at the center of our decision-making process. I am eager to support this important project as your next Commissioner.
I believe Hennepin County has the opportunity to offer more quality, coordinated health and human services by focusing on the ways in which the needs of our residents are interconnected. I am committed to starting with a holistic view of the people the county serves and finding solutions that meet their needs. I think there are exciting opportunities for the county to provide better quality services and reduce costs long-term through this approach.
Natalie Johnson Lee
Former Minneapolis 5th Ward City Council Member; Girls In Action, vice-president/chief action taker, 13 years; charter president of The Rotary of North Minneapolis; business owner, Sisters In Power 365; coaching and consulting, executive coach for over 20 years; leadership coach for St. Kates; University of Texas (Austin).
I am a bridge builder. I will bring 40+ years of life, public service and community experience to the county. I have the unique ability to translate public policy to everyday people and bring a common-sense approach to policy initiatives. I am an entrepreneur who has worked in corporate, non-profit, faith-based and governmental institutions. I am bipartisan by nature and that allows me to put people before politics.
Libraries. Our libraries honor our history, create safe spaces, connect communities, develop our youth, provide training for the unemployed, seniors and more. They give free access to information, research and those who do not have computers or the Internet. Hennepin County is recognized across the country as one of the best library systems.
I believe we have one of the best counties in the country; however, there is always room for improvement. In my opinion, we need to focus in the areas of child welfare, mental health, property taxes and a more efficient service delivery models.
I am a first-generation immigrant from Ethiopia who moved to the United States in 2002. I have experience working for both the state and federal government, first, working for the correctional facility in St. Peter and currently I work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs office in St. Paul. I have a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a Master in Public Administration from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Having worked for the government in multiple capacities, I bring unique insight into how systems are already functioning on the bottom line. I know what works and what doesn’t. I also have the ability to bring people together and find common ground regarding complex and often times difficult situations.
I appreciate the current goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. A recent report from the Great Plains Institute shows that it’s possible to meet our electricity needs without carbon emissions by 2050, and Hennepin County needs to continue its progress moving forward towards this goal.
I’d focus on streamlining county services so that residents will have the ability to utilize and access multiple services at once. We’d be able to ultimately save tax dollars in doing so. I’d also like to focus on the lack of affordable housing throughout the county. All too often, this is yet another indicator of the racial disparities that we continue to face every day.
I graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Minnesota Law School. My first job out of law school was at the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, advocating for limited English proficiency persons in the areas of housing and social services. After Legal Aid, I opened a solo law practice to help those who didn’t qualify for legal aid services but needed representation. I served on the Commitment Defense Panel of the Hennepin County Bar Association where I represented people in danger of being committed for mental illness and/or chemical dependency. I then worked as an investigator with the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights. From 2014-2017, I served on the Minneapolis City Council representing Ward 5. While on the City Council, I chaired the Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Emergency Management Committees.
Hennepin County has more than 20 percent of the state’s population and more than 30 percent of all jobs –1 in 3 jobs – in the state. Our economy is the engine that moves the state forward. I will bring experience and an ability to balance a budget in a government organization as county commissioner. With my professional experience as an elected Minneapolis City Council member and as an attorney, I am uniquely positioned to provide a voice on the County Board that represents Hennepin County residents. My personal experience also contributes to my reason for running. As the oldest son of poor Hmong refugees, my family has been a recipient of county services. I’ve spent my professional career helping people navigate the system. I also understand the importance of diversity and reducing disparities.
Hennepin County is innovating in strategic planning to reduce disparities – examples include its new programs to rehabilitate homes using small, women- and minority-owned businesses, hiring a director of disparity reduction, and its April 2018 board action to enhance the county’s Small Business Enterprise program. The Hennepin County workforce now is 62 percent women and 28 percent employees of color. A Star Tribune article last year noted that county leaders estimate that doing away with racial and ethnic disparities in income and employment would foster a full $4.6 billion in economic growth. I will continue to support and expand this important work as county commissioner.
A county commissioner must maintain a balance between the needs of residents and businesses with property taxes. Our region is approaching a shortage of workers due to changing demographics and we will need trained, skilled workers. Providing human services means providing critical services in our communities and includes initiatives for families and children like child protection and access to early childhood education. I will work with our partners at the state to make sure state-mandated services are not solely paid for by Hennepin County taxpayers.
Improving recycling systems and protecting our environmental resources will help maintain the environment for our children. Affordable housing that prioritizes housing for county clients and investment in the Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing Fund to support the preservation of existing affordable rental housing are investments to provide safe, affordable housing for all.
A transportation system that gets people to work helps our region remain economically competitive with top employers. Whether light rail, roads and bridges, or a bicycle network, I have the experience to move these initiatives forward in partnership with business, government and other partners.