Hennepin County Board District 1 Candidates Attend Forum, Talk Racial Disparities
Candidates for Hennepin County Board of Commissioners in District 1 attended a virtual forum Tuesday night, addressing a wide range of issues. Topics included the officer-involved killing of George Floyd to housing, transit and economic issues.
The candidates running are Jeffrey Lunde, current mayor of Brooklyn Park; MaryJo Melsha, a Hennepin County resident of more than 50 years; and De’Vonna Pittman, a small business owner and 18-year employee of Hennepin County. District 1 includes the cities of Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Crystal, New Hope, Osseo and Robbinsdale. Longtime District 1 Commissioner Mike Opat is not running for re-election.
The forum was hosted by Brooklyn Park nonprofit African Career, Education and Resource, Inc (ACER) and Africa, Let’s Talk, a weekly podcast.
Personal Background on Hennepin County Board District 1 Candidates
Jeffrey Lunde is married with two sons. He has spent more than 20 years working in IT that included travel to Asia. Jobs included working for Dell and Microsoft, but quit his six-figure salary job because he “found himself wanting more.” He chose to work as a volunteer coordinator at Evergreen Park elementary school in Brooklyn Center.
“It was in that role that I really learned about the challenges that kids face,” Lunde said Tuesday night. “It was really eye opening.”
Lunde would become a teacher at Hennepin Tech before returning to IT, where he now works for an employee-owned company. He has been Brooklyn Park mayor for 10 years.
Married with four adult children, De’Vonna Pittman has lived in Hennepin County for 25 years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in public safety leadership. As a Hennepin County employee, she has worked as a contract services analyst for the past 18 years and for the past two years as a disparity reduction coordinator to improve racial disparities.
“I’m completely humbled to be running for county commissioner in the most diverse district in the county,” said Pittman during her opening statement.
Pittman also the author of three books and founded Organic Syrup, an organic hair and skin care line. She is endorsed by the DFL Party and AFSCME Council 5, a government employee labor union.
MaryJo Melsha has lived in District 1 for more than 50 years. Melsha, a single mother with one grown daughter, has focused a lot of her time volunteering to help single moms like she was.
She pointed out that Hennepin County has a $2.4 billion budget, but doesn’t do enough for families and seniors.
“We do not have the services for young families and the senior citizens that we desperately need in order to give everyone a good start and then a safe place to live their later years,” Melsha said during her introduction.
Addressing Racial Disparities
The George Floyd killing has been top of mind as communities look for ways to improve racial justice. The candidates were asked what they would do to address racial disparities.
“What I’d really like to have is a conversation on the cost of being poor,” said Lunde, who talked about how people of less means pay a disproportionate share for taxes and housing. “We keep people from climbing out.”
Lunde says his involvement with Cities United and My Brother’s Keeper works to peer into the root causes.
“For people say ‘hey, we have large salaries here, people make good money here’, yeah, if you’re white,” said Lunde. “But if you’re a person of racial diversity, you may not see those benefits.”
Pittman says her work as disparity reduction coordinator with Hennepin County looks to address those issues. She says the Hennepin County Board vote recently declaring racism a public health crisis was very important.
It was “uncomfortable for a lot of people,” she said, but “it forces us to act and it also caused an action of a series of steps to review current processes and policies inside Hennepin County to figure out where those policies go wrong.”
Melsha says the issue comes down to “fostering a culture of inclusion.”
“Strengthening our community for new education and career opportunities for everyone,” said Melsha, who also mentioned creating programs to education residents on cultural diversity.
“I’m probably the minority in my neighborhood,” said Melsha, who lives in Brooklyn Park. “Everyone needs to be engaged in making sure we move forward and learn more about one another and our cultures.”
How to Help Small Businesses
Helping small businesses has been a big issue, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Candidates agree more help is needed.
“We need more small businesses in our district,” said Pittman, a small business owner herself.
Pittman says small businesses need more resources.
“I deeply believe that we need to leverage relationships between government and private sector,” she said.
“Something I would recommend is a mentor-type system,” said Melsha on her program idea to help nurture aspiring entrepreneurs. “Capital needs to be more available to small businesses so they can grow.”
Lunde agreed that more financial resources are needed.
“Small businesses suffer from a lack of access to capital,” said Lunde. “Business with diverse owners suffer even more lack of access to capital.”
Lunde said county block grants to cities is one possible way to help.
Fixing the Housing Crisis
Another issue is the affordable housing crisis. Lunde says it’s an issue that Brooklyn Park has become a leader at, mentioning that during his time as mayor, his city became the first suburb to build a teen homeless shelter.
“I understand the process of which money is allocated, by which it is invested,” he said.
For Pittman the issue is personal.
“I know what it’s like to experience housing instability,” she said. “We need more supports in place for renters, we need accountability for landlords.”
Melsha says the crisis impacts all races, especially younger families and seniors.
“Low-income housing for seniors is non-existent,” she said.
Melsha pointed out the average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment is $1,500.
“How many young families can afford $1,500 a month for rent,” Melsha said. “We really need low-income affordable housing that is not going to go up disproportionately to someone’s income continually.”
Stance on Public Transit
The issue of public transit also came up. Candidates discussed the pending Blue Line Extension light rail project in their district.
Melsha believes her district does have “a terrible transportation issue.”
“If you don’t own a car, I don’t know you’re getting your groceries without walking three or four miles,” she said.
She doesn’t believe light rail is the best way to do it.
“I think the trains are wonderful, I just don’t think we have the population at this time to support the system.”
Melsha would push for expanded busing because “it’s more economical.”
Lunde would disagree with not supporting the Blue Line Extension. He touts his founding of the Blue Line Now! Coalition, which consists of leaders of cities along the planned route.
“Commissioner Opat has been a bulldog on this issue,” he said. “I will be right there after him fighting for this.”
Pittman also supports the Blue Line Extension project, which currently is without federal funding due to a lack of an agreement with BNSF railway.
“We have to bring all the parties back to the table,” said Pittman. “I know I can be the person to get that done.”
Residents could also ask questions during the virtual forum. You can view the entire Hennepin County Board candidate forum here.