In a political season marked by name-calling, nasty Facebook posts and smear campaigns, the meeting between Blong Yang and Irene Fernando was refreshingly polite. Ideologically, they’re not too far apart.
Yang, a former Minneapolis City Council Member and Irene Fernando, political newcomer, are running for the commissioner’s seat for Hennepin County District 2. They met with local business people Oct. 17 at Jax Café, 1928 University Ave. NE, at a forum sponsored by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. The discussion centered on business.
Fernando introduced herself as a DFL-endorsed candidate, daughter of immigrants, and a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While she was there she co-founded a group Students Today Leaders Forever, which promoted leadership through service. The organization now has 22,000 student members. She said she’s running for office to help marginalized people.
Yang immigrated to the U.S. as a child, went to the University of Minnesota and its law school, and represented Minneapolis’ North Side on the City Council. He noted that Hennepin County accounts for 20 percent of Minnesota’s population and there are 885,000 workers in the county.
How would you advocate for business?
Fernando: By insuring we have strong partnerships and conversations between businesses and the county. Let people know how decisions are made, what are the business decisions behind an action? The business community provides livelihoods for residents; businesses should be integrated with the county.
Yang: When I was on the City Council, the businesses that did well had lobbyists. Immigrant businesses couldn’t afford that. On Lake Street, University Avenue and Central Avenue, businesses were started with life savings and prayer. If businesses were helped by government, success would happen much quicker. We have to help everyone, from a small business to Target. We need to make [the process] simple enough so everyone can do it.
What is the biggest challenge for the county?
Yang: The county is doing a lot of things right. They’ve added staff in the child protection system. They’re requiring businesses all across the county to compost. As far as transportation goes, people are paying taxes, but they’re not seeing the value.
Fernando: Seventy-five percent of businesses are having a hard time finding workers; there are not enough recruitable workers out there. There will be a half-million open jobs in coming years. They will require more than a high school education. Jobs mean more tax revenue. We are behind already. People need stable housing. Fifty percent of evictions take place in North Minneapolis. We lose a lot of human potential.
How would you characterize the relationship between the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County?
Fernando: The county does incredible work. The city is focused on housing for 80 percent average median income (AMI). The lower AMI brackets are where Hennepin County can partner with the city. The county can look at things holistically – what’s good for the entire county. I would like to see decisions be data-informed.
Yang: When I was on the Council, it didn’t feel like a partnership with the county. Minneapolis is territorial. There’s a long history of not liking each other. Minneapolis is an important partner, but there are other cities as well. We need to have good relationships with all 45 cities in the county. There’s a perception that the county focuses on Minneapolis, but that’s not the case.
What about transportation?
Yang: We have to build the Southwest and Bottineau lines. The longer the delays, the more it will cost. The county might have to take a bigger role. We have a transportation network of roads and bridges countywide. We have to do better across the county. Minneapolis has a plan to fix or resurface all of its roads every 12 to 14 years; it’s impressive.
Fernando: Transit is the connective tissue in the county. Ease of getting around is one of the most important things people look at when they’re being recruited to work here. We have a regional responsibility to lead; Hennepin County is second to Cook County, Ill., in size. We need to not see these things in silos.
Talk about housing.
Fernando: Two percent of homes in Minnesota receive public assistance. We need to take a look at what is trending. When we have more stable housing, we have more stable outcomes. Right now, there are stronger outcomes in the Mississippi delta than in Minneapolis.
Yang: During the recession, the city demolished a lot of houses, leaving 350 vacant lots. It costs $3,660 a year per lot to maintain them. To cut down on expenses, the city allowed people to garden on them. With an incentive program to building new work force housing, ultimately we have houses on the tax rolls and taxes paid. Countywide, rents are higher than mortgage payments.
How should the county manage garbage?
Yang: As the county looks at a new organics recycling ordinance, it will change how people do business. Thirty to fifty percent of our garbage is organics. The rest goes to landfills or gets burned. We’re going to run out of landfills. The state is requiring businesses to change their habits. It will be difficult for businesses and cities all across the county, but it’s the right thing to do.
Fernando: There’s a goal of 75 percent recycling by 2030. We have had many major changes since 1986. We have to make sure we are being flexible on this. The business community may feel some disproportionate weight.
Why do you want to serve?
Yang: I look at the county as a critical partner of everyday life. We have a budget of $2.4 billion. We have to work within it. In terms of health and human services, we need to protect the most vulnerable. We need to improve our roads so commerce happens. We’re going to have 1.2 million more people living here.
Fernando: A lot is at stake for our communities. I want to advocate for the marginalized. That’s why I’m here today.
Above: (Photos by Cynthia Sowden)