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Midterms delivered high-profile defeats in Hennepin, Ramsey counties

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Hennepin County Sheriff candidate Dave Hutchinson, right.
Hennepin County Sheriff candidate Dave Hutchinson, right, approaches a house in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis while knocking on doors with volunteer Matthew Burress on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The winds of political change blew through Minnesota's most populous county Tuesday night as Hennepin County voters used the midterm elections to oust a couple of longtime local incumbents.

Maybe the most visible defeat: Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who appeared to come up short in his bid to return to office for a fourth term. Instead, voters chose Dave Hutchinson, a Metro Transit police sergeant by about 2,300 votes, a difference of less than half a percentage point.

"People just wanted a change and they wanted more progressive, more fair, forward thinking leadership," said Hutchinson, who's set to become the county's first openly gay sheriff.

People, he said, are tired of the usual approaches to public safety. "The last few years hasn't been good to us," he said of policing. "I love this profession, and I'm going to make sure we do a better job in this profession."

Hutchinson, whose father was a police officer in Burnsville, says his job is to protect everyone, including immigrants who may feel scared to speak to law enforcement. 

In a statement, Stanek's campaign said the race remained too close to call and results were not yet official. Stanek isn't expected to comment on the race until after the county certifies the election results next week.

Stanek's counterpart, Ramsey County Jack Serier, also lost his re-election bid to former sheriff Bob Fletcher, who will now return to the job he held for 16 years before losing in 2010.

Former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.
Former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher won his old seat, which he held from 1994 until 2010.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Change also came swiftly on Tuesday to the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners when political newcomer Angela Conley beat Peter McLaughlin, a longtime incumbent commissioner. Conley said at first she couldn't believe it either.

"I watched the results come in with my family. And it was just a house full of, 'We won! We won!'" she recalled. "And just, you know, just disbelief."

Conley will become the first African-American woman to serve on the Hennepin County Board. A current county employee and a former recipient of county services, Conley ran her campaign with her history on her sleeve.

"I ran unapologetically on the passion and the drive and the determination, after everything I've seen working internally that we need change at this level," she said.

Conley said she's going to work hard at making services more accessible and focus more county resources toward helping homeless residents find housing.

McLaughlin was first elected to the board in 1991. Over the years, he's taken the lead on transit, the environment and other issues important to political progressives. However, McLaughlin says the current climate is not favorable to longtime incumbents like himself.

"People aren't looking for ... they don't much care what you've done in the past," McLaughlin said. "It's about this frustration and trying to get someone new in to do something different."

Other longtime incumbents survived the election.

They include Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who withstood a challenge from his political left.

Freeman said he's been able to stay in office for nearly 20 years by building strong relationships with people who supported him despite what his opponent said. He won every suburban precinct and some in Minneapolis this midterm election.

"I think I developed those relationships over a period of time," he added. "So when the left wing came in to beat me up, I think people said, 'I don't think that sounds like Freeman. We know him. We've seen him.'"