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Hennepin County welcomes new diverse leadership

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Irene Fernando, Angela Conley, and Marion Greene
Angela Conley, center, speaks during the Hennepin County swearing-in ceremony Monday as Irene Fernando, left, and Marion Greene listen. Fernando and Conley are the first women of color ever elected to the county board of commissioners.
Brandt Williams | MPR News

It was a historic day in Hennepin County: The first people of color ever elected to the board of commissioners and the county's first openly gay sheriff all took the oath of office at the county's Government Center in Minneapolis.

In a meeting of two pioneers, Angela Conley, the first African-American ever elected to serve as a Hennepin County commissioner, was sworn in by Judge Pamela Alexander.

"It gives me extreme pleasure to swear-in Commissioner-elect Conley in the same room where I was sworn in 35 years ago as the first African American judge [in Hennepin County]," said Alexander.

After she raised her right hand and took the oath, Conley reflected on her own journey. 

"When I think about where it all started," said Conley, "I think about standing in line for public assistance at the old Century Plaza just blocks from here."

Conley's path took her from being a client to becoming a county employee. Before she ran for office, Conley worked in Hennepin County's family public assistance department. Now as a policymaker, Conley said she wants to help the county do a better job of helping people in need.

"Over the last year, I have met thousands of people within the 4th District who shared their stories with me, the issues that matter to them the most and who ultimately trusted me with their vote," she said.  "Thank you so very much."

Conley defeated longtime incumbent Peter McLaughlin and will represent a district which includes a large portion of south Minneapolis.

After Irene Fernando took the oath of office, she could barely contain her exuberance.

"Woo!  Commissioner Irene Fernando in the house!" she shouted as the crowd in the county board room applauded gleefully.

Before she ran for office, Fernando worked in both the nonprofit and private sectors. Fernando said she wanted to become a county commissioner, in part, to eliminate racial disparities.

Fernando, who grew up in a large Filipino family, said she learned at an early age that titles come with responsibilities.

"In the Filipino culture, we place prefixes in front of names of anyone older than us as a sign of respect," she said.

Fernando said those titles are also assigned to older siblings or cousins. Those who hold them are meant to provide guidance and advice to younger family members. Fernando, who has an older and a younger sister, said she still abides by that cultural tradition.

"We carry these titles with us forever. We don't age out of them," said Fernando. "We say them out loud in front of each other's names even today as a reminder of the responsibilities and privileges that come with it. It is with this deep sense of responsibility that I carry into my newest title as Commissioner Fernando."

With Conley and Fernando, five of the seven county commissioners are now women.

The county's first openly gay sheriff Dave Hutchinson took the oath of office in front of his parents and his husband. But Hutchinson didn't dwell on the historic nature of his election. Instead, Hutchinson, who previously served as an officer with the Metro Transit police department, stressed his commitment to public safety.

"It's my job to make sure everybody in this county — 1.2 million people — are safe," said Hutchinson. "And I promise you we're going to try our best."

Like Commissioner Conley, Hutchinson defeated a longtime incumbent — former Sheriff Rich Stanek. And all three new Hennepin County elected leaders have never held public office before.