Valento reflects on her unlikely path to FL Council
Hannah Valento’s path to a council seat in Forest Lake has been an unlikely one. In January, the 26-year-old legislative assistant and lawyer will become the youngest person, and certainly the youngest woman, to be sworn into the council. Valento will also now be one of four women representing the five-seat council, alongside Mayor Mara Bain, and Councilwomen Kathy Bystrom and Kelly Monson.
“I think it’s super cool. My biggest fear when I was running was my age and my gender, and that I was new to the political arena within Forest Lake. Those three things are huge in politics and running a campaign,” Valento said.
And yet the relatively unknown figure won the second highest amount of votes amongst the four candidates, getting over 25% of the total votes cast in the 2020 election behind incumbent Sam Husnik’s 31%. Valento said it was a feat she didn’t believe she truly could pull off at times, but her friend and co-worker Adam Candler believed she could.
Valento graduated from Forest Lake Area High School in 2013. She played on the volleyball team through her junior year, then focused on her academics with her College In the School (CIS) classes while working part time throughout the school year. She began her college career at the University of Minnesota, Duluth as a biology major with the intention of becoming a veterinarian. Then a chemistry class changed that plan.
“I realized this is not clicking for me,” she said.
She dropped the class and began her research looking for a new major. She came across UMD’s global studies major.
“It seemed super interesting, because I like learning about people and different cultures. I was already intending a minor in Spanish, so that worked out too. I changed my major, and I started loving my classes,” she said. She completed two years at UMD and then transferred to the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities for her third and final year of her undergrad.
When she was considering what to do following graduation, she recalled a side comment made by Forest Lake Area High School Principal (then assistant) Jim Caldwell to Valento in high school.
“I don’t even think we were talking about future plans,” Valento said, but she distinctly remembers Caldwell telling her, “You’d make a good attorney.”
She applied and was accepted to the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, beginning in 2016 and graduating in 2019.
“I thought it’s only three years, and that should be easy,” Valento said with a laugh. “What a joke. It was not easy.”
After graduating from law school, she began work as a legislative staff attorney for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. She spends her time researching federal, state and tribal law to ensure legal compliance and drafts statutes. It’s work, she says, that often aligns with council work.
Throughout her undergrad and law school, Valento focused on human rights. In 2017, she received the World Without Genocide Benjamin B. Ferencz Fellowship in Human Rights and Law for the 2017-2018 academic year.
It was that experience and interest that ultimately led her to seek out a seat on the council, but that wasn’t the position she initially sought. Upon moving to Forest Lake from Hugo, she began looking for opportunities to utilize her experience in human rights. In July, she was excited to learn of Forest Lake’s human rights commission, only to discover that the commission had been disbanded.
“I thought ‘Well, that’s a shame,’ and got disappointed,” Valento said.
Despite the disappointment, a thought crossed her mind: What if she ran for office? It wasn’t a serious thought at first, just one she mulled over as a possibility. Soon she was talking with Candler about the idea.
“He said: ‘Oh my gosh, you should totally do it. You have the experience for working for the Band [of Ojibwe]. You’d be great at it.’”
Neither of them brought it up again in the next two weeks before the filing period began. But the day before the filing period opened, she asked him once more.
“I didn’t even know how to file,” she said. Candler encouraged her once more to run, and so she entered.
Road to the council
As a newcomer to the political arena, Valento didn’t even really know where to start and wasn’t all too eager to gear up for her campaign. As a self-proclaimed introvert who shies away from the spotlight and dislikes public speaking, in addition to the fact she’d never run for office before, she had a lot to overcome. For Valento, pushing aside that introvert meant personal hurdles that came in the form of yard signs and a maintaining a social media presence.
“I realized that Forest Lake is a huge yard sign town. So I was hearing from different community members all the ins of politics. So I thought, I guess I’ll put them up. … Facebook was hard, too. I had to step out of my shell to post on Facebook,” she said, noting that on her personal page she rarely ever posts anything. “I just always say happy birthday to people, but never post.”
Candler kept encouraging her to push yard signs and even got her to post videos on Facebook, which initially got Valento’s stomach churning.
“I told him, ‘Oh, Adam, that’s going to kill me.’”
She made signs, talked to people and posted on Facebook, still doubting she had a chance of making it onto the council.
“I would think: ‘I’m not going to win. No one knows my name, I’m super new to this political campaign.’”
But that doubt still gave way to an inkling of hope at times.
“I’d get an email from someone saying: ‘I’m excited for you. Can I have a yard sign?’” she said. “And I’d think ‘Yes, maybe I am going to win.’”
On election night, Valento planned to go to bed early and not watch the precincts numbers roll in, which she said was because she wanted to get a good night’s sleep to be ready for another work day.
“Regardless of whether I won or lost, I knew I’d have some sort of emotions to process,” she said.
She tried, but friends were texting her the results, and so she got up and watched the secretary of state’s website for updated results. And when the numbers kept rolling in her favor, with the final tally coming in at about 11:30 p.m., she was in shock.
“I was like, ‘No way, this is crazy,’” she said.
She recalls seeing other council members and Mayor Bain congratulate her on Facebook posts that election night, so she followed suit on her own Facebook page.
She takes her win as a vote of confidence from the community.
As Valento prepares to begin her first term on the council, her priority is simply to dig into the work and become familiar with the structure of getting to know the people she’ll be working with on various commissions or boards.
“I’ve already started reading some of their ordinances, which excites me because that’s what I do for my job,” she said.
Once she gets her feet on the ground, she’d like to see a restart to the human rights council. She has been active in participating in the region’s Everyone Belongs discussions, hosted by the school district and the YMCA, and co-sponsored by area cities.
Her biggest drive, though, is to build communication with her constituents. She has ideas of how she’d like to accomplish that, including setting up a regular time during which she’d be available for community members to express thoughts, but so far no plans have been determined.
“All around, it’s about making the community a great place to be,” Valento said.
Valento will be sworn into office on Jan. 11, 2021.