Angela Conley is at the crest of this year’s unprecedented wave of Black women who are running to win elections all across the country. The 40-year-old South Minneapolis native is a first-time candidate for Hennepin County Commissioner, who rocked Minnesota’s political establishment in August when she got the most votes for endorsement by the influential Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DLP) Party, beating out 27-year incumbent Peter McLaughlin, who she now faces in Tuesday’s general election.
Hennepin County has more than a million residents, making it the most populous and diverse county in Minnesota, and more than twice the size of Minneapolis, which it encompasses. Hennepin’s $2.4 billion budget is also nearly double that of the city.
All of this is no sweat to Conley, who currently supervises more than $34 million in social services for Hennepin County, and has worked for state and county agencies for twenty years. An MPA and social worker, she brings unprecedented perspectives to her bid: if elected, she will be Hennepin’s first Black commissioner, and she has also experienced social services as a client.
As a young mother, Conley came to Hennepin for help when she sought to escape an abusive relationship. She credits this experience with inspiring her to improve the system for others. She returned to work for the county, first as an hourly worker, then as a social worker and in supervisory roles. But she has never forgotten her early experiences, and the importance of understanding each client’s needs and valuing their experiences.
She spoke with me about her candidacy and involvement in Take Action Minnesota’s Political Healers program, and what it means to be a trailblazer, creating pathways for a new generation of Women of Color to follow in her footsteps and take leadership roles.
OF: How did you come to run for Hennepin County Commissioner?
AC: I’ve always been working to change systems from within. Twenty years ago, I was a young single mother leaving a violent relationship, and I had no housing, nothing, so I went to my local County Office to apply for assistance. I didn’t know what to do, and a friend said, “You need to go to Hennepin County, because that’s where you’ll get help.”
And so I did – I applied for things like childcare and food assistance and medical coverage, all County social service programs that I was trying to navigate as a young person. And it was just daunting, oppressive, and frightening – and you know, the paperwork never ended. I felt just like just a case number: I didn’t really feel like I was valued at all.
I just kept thinking about how when you go in, there are so many other people there in the same situation. It’s always packed, and there’s always a baby crying. So I said, “I’m really going to have to come back here and work here, because something’s got to change. This shouldn’t be this way.” It was that experience that sort of propelled me into working for Hennepin County,
So that’s what I consider to be the start of my career – because that’s what really sparked this drive and determination in me to fix this system. I went back to school and got undergraduate degree in social work and then a master’s degree in public administration. I’ve spent the last 20 years working in county and state government program operations. Currently, I work as a programs operations coordinator for our family public assistance programs.
So I’m now in charge of multiple agencies that are contracted with Hennepin County to do things like make sure people are self-sufficient and adequately employed. But I’ve seen so many gaps within the system. I went back to school specifically so that I could be in a position where I could say, “You guys, you know, this isn’t working – let’s try this a different way.”
I came back to the county after eight years at the State of Minnesota Department of Human Services, and realized that the internal culture, the internal structure is so hierarchical that it’s very difficult, no matter what degrees you have, to advance – especially if you’re a woman of color. Our upper leadership looks nothing like the people we serve or the direct-line staff.
About two years ago, I got frustrated with the fact that none of our leadership were people of color, and why was it so difficult for women with all this experience and credentials to advance. I went all the way to the top, and said, “Has there ever been a person of color on the Hennepin County Board at all?” And no, there had not been, in all of its history.
So I was just really frustrated and fed up with seeing us perpetuate poverty, and no one monitoring outcomes for individuals who were really at the bottom, or living in extreme poverty. Sometimes it’s life or death – you have people who don’t have a place to sleep at night. They’re coming to our offices for help, and we’re sending them to three or four different case workers – it’s mind-boggling to me.
People told me to wait. People told me, “Angela, you know, a lot of folks are retiring soon, and it’s going to be this wave of new leadership, we’ll probably get you a position as a director.” But the folks who are receiving our benefits, they don’t have time to wait – so last year, I decided I’m not going to wait anymore, and I said I’m going to run in District 4.
A lot of people told me to wait your turn and not to run, because that’s just something people tell women of color when we want to claim our own power – but it was also the fear of running against a 27-year incumbent who is really entrenched in the Democratic Farmer and Labor (DFL) Party, and it’s going to be a fight for your life. So it like, cue the scary music!
But I’ve never strayed from the fact that this is something that I’m doing for the people who live here, for people who are forgotten about, for the hungry and poor who the government doesn’t really prioritize, ever. So I don’t care if I have to go up against the establishment – we’re going to do this, and we’re going to win it.
The past year has really been a learning experience for me, but I think what is really been inspiring is that halfway through my run, we got so much support that we were making history left and right.
Our current commissioner, my opponent, has received the DFL endorsement in every race for 27 years – I think that’s nine terms. He’s been challenged, he’s always gotten the support of the DFL party. So we come on the scene, and we block that – we got the most votes at the convention, and the next day we’re the paper. “Omigosh – is the party changing?” It’s like this huge deal!
So the message is clear: people want change. People are tired of these long-term incumbents and of not having representation, when we’ve got a woman here, Angela Conley, who is really, really experienced and qualified and has lived through housing security and food insecurity and knows what these things are like. And that’s what we need informing policy at all levels of government, but especially here in Hennepin County, where it’s the largest county in the state, operating this gigantic $2.4 billion budget.
So as much as we’ve been able to spread that message across this really large area, people are on board and saying, “Yes, I’ll vote for her, yes I support her.”
Sometimes it’s my own personal story that resonates with people, and sometimes they’re just tired of people who don’t look like them, or who haven’t walked in their shoes, making these decisions for them. So it’s kind of just skyrocketed, blown up from there. Because people are just really invested in the change that we’re bringing.
OF: And sometimes to bring that change, you’ve got to be the change, right?
AC: It’s really true.
OF: What does the Hennepin County Commission do?
We’ve got seven commissioners in Hennepin County who make decisions for millions of people, but who have never experienced what over 40 percent of the people who live here have experienced. In public assistance, it’s about seven thousand people a day who are either on our programs or are coming in to apply. Of those, we’re working with 48 percent people of color. It goes even higher when you get into different County departments like child protection, especially for African American and Native American children and adults.
Our criminal justice system is overwhelmingly people of color, who are overpoliced and overcriminalized here. So to see nothing but white judges, white commissioners, white upper management leadership, area directors , all of that, when you’re dealing with such a diverse county and a diverse district – our district is the most diverse and dense of all the districts.
The 4th District is a beautiful array of these amazing people from all different backgrounds and gender identities. We have newly arrived immigrants undocumented folks, Black folks, indigenous folks, Hmong, and a large population of Latinx. but you’ve got leadership that hasn’t reflected that in 30 years. And we’ve also got a very large a population of young adults between 18 and 24. So in my opponent, you’ve got someone who’s representing you at this level of leadership since before you were born.
So the fact is, I’m a better person than my opponent to understand how our district has changed, not just in the last 27 years, but also in the last 10 to 15 years. We lead the nation in racial disparities in education, health care, and criminal justice. We have a housing crisis right now that is unbelievably hitting folks in the 4th District. We’ve got the largest homeless encampment ever in the state of Minnesota right in our district – and that’s because the county hasn’t invested in shelter like it should have. You’ve got a whole tent city now, and it’s a direct result of Hennepin County not making the proper investments in emergency shelter.
So if we don’t have people representing us, even where we’re just about the majority, then we don’t get a say in our quality of life. Because Hennepin County touches everything, whether it’s the road you’re driving on or your library or your cousin in jail, no matter what it is – when you take out your garbage, it’s taken to a burning facility Hennapin County owns. The way they have a reach into everyone’s lives is unbelievable.
OF: How will your experience put you in a position to find better solutions?
AC: I worked in a homeless shelter for a year. When you’re doing direct case management with people who are living on the street, one of the first things you ask is, “What was the situation that resulted in you becoming homeless?”
People will tell you, “I got out of jail and I had nowhere to go.” And a lot of women were there fleeing intiimate partner violence So you start to see the trends, then when you follow that, you start to find where the gap was. Where did we fail – what resulted in so many people becoming homeless?
If you’ve never been in that room, doing that work, or never had to think about where your next meal is going to come from, you don’t get that point of view on the board. I’m working is this area right now; I’m a current county employee. I’ve dedicated my career to it, for a span of 20 years. You don’t have anyone on the board right now who has that internal working knowledge of how our systems are affecting people.
While they’re informed by data and briefed by department heads, this would be an opportunity for the other six commissioners to have me in the seat, because I can speak to these issues from my perspective as a worker, and I can speak to it from lived experience. This is a perspective that the rest of our commission, it’s not a way that they can view things from, because it’s just not a part of their narrative.
On any given night, we have 200 people sleeping on our light rail system. My opponent champions that system. But while we do need public transportation to be expanded, we also need to be real about the fact that people hundreds of people sleep on our trains, because of where we haven’t invested in the past.
OF; Tell me a little bit about how you got involved with Take Action Minnesota and their Political Healers project.
AC: Yes! It took me about two years to decide that I’m going to run for office. During that time. I took trainings – Women Winning held one called “Maybe Someday,” geared towards women who wanted to run for office “someday.” And then Take Action held a three-day political training with a track for candidates and a track for people who wanted to work on campaigns. And there was such a sense of urgency in that training: the trainers were really, really good, and it was like, “We need you right now to run for office. You’re thinking about this and you’re at this training because you want to make a difference, well, guess what? The time to do that is right now.”
And I was like, floored. That’s when it really hit me. You learn about the basics – doing email, about the kind of team you’re going to need as a candidate, what your issues are going to be and how to have a one-on-one. But they really brought home the message that we need women running, we need women of color running right now.
There’s a part of Take Action that’s called the Women of Color Table, who are Political Healers. They want to make sure that women of color are protected and have the tools that we need, and that we’re healthy. Because we have to fight three, four, and five times as hard as our counterparts to make change.
We say that we want to own our power, claim our power and use it, and we already have that power. But we have to fight so hard, so this group of women of color surround you, and make sure that you understand that you’re creating a path for other women of color behind you. There are other women watching you take this leap, and fight this fight; they’re looking at you, and saying, “Well, she’s doing, it, I can maybe do this too!”
You’re showing these young women of color who might be thinking of getting into politics and for running for office, but who are hearing the same things I did: “No, no, no – don’t do that, wait your turn, don’t challenge the status quo.” When they see me, they’re like, “Why should I have to wait?”
That makes me feel wonderful. If we did anything during the last 12 months of campaigning, if we change the hearts and minds of women of color who were doubting themselves, and wanting to run but didn’t, that’s really the key to me. Then we’ve changed the whole narrative, we’ve already made history, we’ve come this far and we’ve shown people that you can do this, and you can be successful.