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INSTRUMENT OF CHANGE: Outgoing County Commissioner McLaughlin reflects on public service

Posted on 18 December 2018 by calvin

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a two-part series.

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
When outgoing Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin drives through the district he’s served for 28 years, he’s proud of the work he’s accomplished.

“I feel good looking around at all the things I helped do,” observed McLaughlin, who lives in Standish-Ericsson a few blocks from the train station at 46th and Hiawatha.

“The county is a pretty amazing instrument, and I’ve put energy into making it an instrument of change.”

Photo right: “I feel good looking around at all the things I helped do,” observed Hennepin County District 4 Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who left that office in December 2018 after 28 years of service. “The county is a pretty amazing instrument, and I’ve put energy into making it an instrument of change.” (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

From the start, he took his charge to be making things better for those who had elected him, and he worked to show up even when the heat was on.

Close to 40% of Minneapolis’ population live in McLaughlin’s district 4, and there is a steady stream of constituent calls and community meetings.

“Commissioner McLaughlin has a track record of getting things accomplished, and that has been the most exciting thing about working for him,” said his principal aide Brian Shekleton, who has worked in McLaughlin’s office for 12 of the last 21 years at three different times.

Shekleton pointed out the visible and structural investments such as LRT lines, the Midtown Greenway, Target Field Station, the Midtown Exchange, and safer street designs, that have improved Minneapolis and the region.

“But Commissioner McLaughlin has fought for the much less visible investments in people through training programs, human service support structures, supportive housing, environmental response funds, library, and youth sports investment funds, amongst many other programs.

“It’s these investments in people that have helped foster a more stable social fabric, something that is much less monumental but it is people who make a city livable, and I have found that working on these projects to be incredibly rewarding,” stated Shekleton.

His life was changed
McLaughlin didn’t grow up thinking he’d get into politics. He lived in a small town in western Pennsylvania, the son of a printer. Over the years, he watched the town wither away as the manufacturing jobs dried up.

McLaughlin earned a scholarship to attend Princeton University where he studied statistics and economics.

It was during the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson was president, New York City was going bankrupt, there was rioting in the streets, and people were fleeing the city in favor of the suburbs.

The summer before his junior year, McLaughlin took an internship working in Spanish Harlem. “The events in Spanish Harlem got me involved in community organizing and changed my life,” recalled McLaughlin. He switched his major to politics.

Then he went to work for the mayor of Trenton, N.J. The office was focused on revitalizing a dying downtown, and one tool was passing a progressive income tax to ease the property tax burden. As a “punk kid” he accompanied the mayor to Washington, D.C., among other places, and got an up-close look at the mayor’s work.

Photo left: The bike lanes on Park and Portland were the first, significant lanes to be put on a Hennepin County road and paved the way to new lanes on Minnehaha Ave, E. 46th St., and Washington Ave. downtown. McLaughlin has fought for visible, structural investments such as LRT lines, the Midtown Greenway, Target Field Station, the Midtown Exchange, and safer street designs during his 28 years as a Hennepin County Commissioner. (Photo submitted)

Force of community
McLaughlin came to Minnesota for the first time in 1975 to attend graduate school at the University’s School of Public Affairs and never left.

What struck him most were the social networks Minnesota had in place to get things done.

“You not only had tangible investments being made, but you also had this group of people that came together as a force within the community,” he observed.

McLaughlin got pulled into serving as board chair for the Powderhorn Residents Group (now PRG), helping with affordable housing developments. PRG was one of the first groups focused on that in the city. Its first project was revamping the Whittier School at 26th and Blaisdale into 45 units of affordable housing.

When he bought his first house near Matt’s Bar, McLaughlin watched how a city program that put people into vacant homes for $1 stabilized his block.

McLaughlin was hired by the Urban Coalition of Minneapolis and began focusing on social justice issues. Everything they did was cutting edge at the time, affordable housing, weatherization for owner- and renter-occupied homes, apprenticeship credits, education, and more.

Then Pastor Brian Peterson of Walker Church approached McLaughlin and asked him if he’d ever thought about running for office.

McLaughlin agreed to try it and was elected to three terms in the Minnesota House beginning in 1985. Minnesota was in a deep recession, and unemployment was high.

McLaughlin helped create the Jobs Now Coalition to offer a wage subsidy program that is still operating today, and helped pass the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) to put more control in the hands of Minneapolis neighborhoods and foster community. He sponsored the first parental leave act in the country that included six weeks for fathers, as well as mothers.

Directly affecting lives as Commissioner
Then, in 1990, he decided to run for Hennepin County Commissioner because he wanted to be more involved in doing things that directly affected people’s lives.

An experience early on shaped the rest of his career. He accompanied then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and others to Chicago where they met with Sears representatives to ask that the company be the anchor tenant in the redevelopment of the Sears site on Lake St. (now Midtown Global Market). Sears was focused on how much disposable income residents in the area had, and that’s when McLaughlin realized that to get development he needed to focus on jobs first.

“I’m a believer in the economy and how important it is to have jobs for people,” stated McLaughlin. “That’s what pays the mortgages, the grocery bills. That’s what goes to Sears.”

Photo right: Commissioner Peter McLaughlin led the protection of the Upper Post buildings at Fort Snelling using Sentence-to-Service Crews to stabilize the buildings. The buildings will now be redeveloped by Dominium to create housing. (Photo submitted)

He set off to create a renaissance in South Minneapolis and hopefully staunch the exodus of people leaving the city.

It wasn’t going to happen overnight.

“You have to be paying attention when the opportunity arises to do something,” McLaughlin explained.

That involves doing something before then, however. McLaughlin’s method included serving on committees, talking to people, setting up the framework needed and doing studies so that when the time is right, things are in place.

While leaving Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) one day, McLaughlin came out a different door than usual and noticed an old, vacant brick building across the street. He checked the property tax records, saw it was owned by Allina and asked them what they planned to do with it. Fast forward a few years, and the building has been transformed into housing for youth and working adults through a collaboration between the city of Minneapolis, Central Community Housing Trust (CCHT), Allina, the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, and YouthLink.

“I’m kind of always on the lookout for things like that,” McLaughlin said. “You need a network of people to make that happen.”

Look for part two in this series in the February edition of the Messenger.

 

 

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