Neighbors: Irene Fernando wins Hennepin County race, making history

 Irene Fernando celebrates her election night victory with two of her supporters.

Irene Fernando celebrates her election night victory with two of her supporters.

By Daija Triplett | Photos by David Pierini

On Nov. 6, Irene Fernando was elected Hennepin County Commissioner for District 2. She and District 4-elect Angela Conley have made history by being the first two people of color to be elected to the board in its over 150 year history.

This month, she spoke with North News about her youth-staffed campaign, her goals for her first term in office, and how all her professional roles up until this point have prepared her to be an active and innovative commissioner.

Fernando will be sworn in on Jan. 7, following in the footsteps of current District 2 Commissioner Linda Higgins, who announced her plan to retire last year and later endorsed Fernando. Fernando rallied voters with a campaign that communicated greater advocacy, transparency and equity for the county through a clearly articulated policy agenda, her “Commish Dish” YouTube videos, and an occasional Beyoncé reference. She’s fun but she means business.

 Fernando held her election night party at La Doña Cervecería in Harrison neighborhood where she lives.

Fernando held her election night party at La Doña Cervecería in Harrison neighborhood where she lives.

Fernando, who is Filipina and the daughter of immigrant parents, grew up in Carson, CA. She moved to the Midwest when she was 17 to attend the University of Minnesota, where she completed both an undergraduate and graduate degree and founded a nonprofit, Students Today Leaders Forever. She is a social entrepreneur who received a Bush Fellowship, and she campaigned for commissioner while working full time at Thrivent where she focuses on talent development and organizational design. 

She has lived in Harrison for over a decade with her partner Kent and their dog Ernie. 

You just won a big race after a long campaign season. How are you feeling? I’m energized at the idea of very different viewpoints being present on the board. I’m hopeful that we can make very material points of progress toward more equitable allocation of funds and resources. We don’t even know what they get to decide because we haven’t had leaders who are independently interested in that type of transparency. 

What changes would you like to see happen in Hennepin County? How do you expect to make those changes as a commissioner? I would like to have a more focused allocation around housing. There are a lot of committee appointments I get to weigh in on. How are we getting a different set of voices on those? I’m interested in what a true partnership approach could look like. This campaign was able to achieve a very broad set of supporters, including people who tend to disagree with each other.

What was it like to grow up with immigrant parents in America? I grew up in Carson, CA. Both [my] parents [are] from the Philippines. I am the second born in the U.S on my dad’s side and the sixth born on my mom’s side. If I were to describe what it’s like to grow up in an immigrant household, there is a really heavy amount of translation that’s needed. Language but also a lot of code switching, especially for a really early immigrant family [like mine]. That’s something we learn really really early on. It’s helped me in my career and in this campaign. The culture of Filipinos generally is humorous [and] laid back. [You] have to have thick skin. [My devotion to] developing leaders of all ages really comes from my background. [In my family], everyone had responsibility.

You started a youth leadership nonprofit when you were a student at the U. What did you learn from that experience that you’ll bring to this role? Starting a nonprofit [requires] a lot of organizing. The first thing was to reveal leadership through service, relationship and action. We believe that everyone has leadership ability and responsibility within them regardless of title. We had over 30 part time and full time staff on this campaign at any given time. Most of them were women. Most of them were people of color. For most of them, this was their first time in that type of role. [The decision to do that] comes from my youth leadership background. [I believe that it] does not matter what you’ve done; it matters what you would like to do. 

 Fernando credits phone banking efforts for her victory. Her phone-banking team was made up entirely of youth of color who meticulously called potential voters from her basement campaign office.

Fernando credits phone banking efforts for her victory. Her phone-banking team was made up entirely of youth of color who meticulously called potential voters from her basement campaign office.

What type of things did you learn as a Bush Foundation Fellow that you’ll bring to this role? Starting a nonprofit at a young age, I became a community leader and a bit of a symbol in some ways. When I became a Bush Foundation fellow, that was my first [time] investing into myself as a person. The Bush Foundation really allowed me to invest in myself as a leader, and that’s a vital component to being able to win a campaign of this size because when nobody’s listening, I still had to convince people to select me over somebody else.

What do you admire about your predecessor, Linda Higgins? I cannot give Linda enough ups on this. She announced early that she was retiring, and in her letter, she said she was doing so in enough time so candidates had time to organize. Then she waited to see how things went and then endorsed. She came into politics as a trailblazer. There weren’t a lot of women, particularly not younger women. She very powerfully and meaningfully entered politics, and she powerfully and meaningfully retired from politics. 

How do you want the district and communities to measure your success in your first term? When I first started running it was visibility, transparency, and accessibility. My biggest point of progress is not people agreeing or disagreeing with what I vote on, but is it more visible? Is it more transparent? And is it more accessible? The second thing that I would say is partnership. I’ve worked really hard to to create a really really diverse coalition of people. The third would be [that] people should feel different. For example, I still want to do meet and greets. They’re common for campaigning, but not super common when people are in office.

What do you want people to know about you? I will not pretend to know the challenges and struggles and sacrifices of all marginalized identities, but I hold narratives and have access to narratives that have never been in these rooms and that have never been considered and never been incorporated. That’s what motivated me to run and what I’m most excited about. We can give life to these ways of being and living, and not only can they be included in the conversation but that it will make our decisions stronger. I will work very very hard to do that. 

Kenzie O'Keefe