For the record, Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein says he decided to accept the job of CEO and President at the Minneapolis Downtown Council because he thought the opportunity too good to pass up.
He leaves the county board at the end of May.
Stenglein was elected to the board in 1996 to lead the county’s 2nd District, which includes parts of north Minneapolis and Golden Valley. I’ve covered Stenglein’s career as an elected official and here are a few things that stand out.
At the time he was elected, I was working for the African American community newspaper, Insight News. The paper held a weekly public meeting at Lucille’s Kitchen, a north Minneapolis soul food restaurant that closed several years ago. The meetings eventually became a live broadcast event, but in 1996, the format was much more informal. Conversations between newspaper staff and neighbors and newsmakers were held over plates of scrambled eggs, sausage and biscuits and gravy. Stenglein was an early attendee to the meetings. And from what I remember, the dialogue often got tense as some black community members challenged this newly-elected, white, conservative-leaning politician who lived on the other side of the river. Stenglein took some lumps then. But he kept coming back to Lucille’s.
Stenglein says while some of the meeting participants took verbal shots at him, he never felt intimidated by being the lone white guy in a group of African Americans.
“What was most interesting to me was people would say to me – people from northeast or the suburbs — would say, ‘well gosh, you’re going to represent all of north Minneapolis. A bunch of black people live over there.’ And I’d say, ‘oh, yeah. I used to live Nigeria, for a couple years. I’m used to being around a bunch of black people.’”
In 1999, Stenglein championed a new effort at the county called the African American Men Project. At the time Stenglein said the idea for the project came to him as he drove through north Minneapolis and saw so many black men standing around on the street. He was criticized by some African Americans who took offense at the idea that black men needed to be studied. But the project continues today and is housed at Northpoint Health and Wellness center. It offers help for black men who are struggling to find employment, housing and other basic needs.
Stenglein ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Minneapolis in 2001. The mayoral primary was held on Tues, September 11. I was assigned to watch the election returns from Stenglein’s home and interview him. However, for most of the evening, media and Stenglein supporters alike, watched television news coverage of the attacks in New York and Washington DC.
Commissioner Stenglein was also present for two of the most controversial measures passed by the board in recent years. He opposed the countywide smoking ban, which eventually passed. And Stenglein voted in the majority to approve the countywide sales tax that helped build Target Field. The public hearings before both votes featured some of the most passionate and at times nasty rhetoric I’ve ever heard directed at elected officials. Often that invective was hurled directly at Stenglein.
Stenglein says some of the worst came from anti-smoking advocates. One accused him of wanting to kill babies. “Yeah, it was nasty,” he said.
Stenglein says after the Target Field sales tax vote, a group of protesters gathered on the front step of his home. Some carried signs calling him a “traitor to the taxpayer.” But despite threats from voters that they were going to kick him out of office for his stance on these issues, Stenglein kept getting reelected.
But he will not face reelection this fall. Stenglein will replace Sam Grabarski as the leader of the Downtown Council starting June 1. He will still be a public figure, but chances are Stenglein will not need a hard hat for this job.