Election 2014: MN Attorney General

The Attorney General is the state’s chief legal officer, and represents the state in court on legal affairs that can range from defending against slip-and-fall lawsuits to appealing Supreme Court decisions that one of our laws is unconstitutional. The office is probably best known for its consumer protection and consumer advocacy.

Mike Hatch was our AG for a while; he scored enormous political points by going after the local HMOs like a rabid pit bull. I specifically remember two things that he got exercised about that I thought were BS: (1) Allina had hired a masseuse to give chair massages to a bunch of employees as a random perk during a busy season. You know what, there are thousands of corporations that spend money on random little perks every now and then, ranging from chair massages to free turkeys. Of all the things you could complain about an HMO doing, if this is what you’re going after, you are really stretching. (2) They also paid for their doctors to go to medical conferences that were held outside the midwest. As it happens, most of the big medical conferences are held in states with better weather, and doctors hear about a lot of new research at these things, it’s not a vacation. As irritating as all that was, I also remember chatting with another parent at the playground years ago whose very small private ambulance business had been driven under by a lawsuit from the AG’s office claiming that he’d overbilled, or something. (I can’t remember the exact details.) He said that he would never ever ever vote for Hatch for anything, or for anyone associated with Hatch.

Lori Swanson was Hatch’s protege. I am pretty sure that the first time she ran, I didn’t vote for her. (Which means it’s possible I voted for our current gubernatorial candidate, Jeff Johnson! Or maybe I went for the Jessecrat, I’m not sure.)

That said, I’m mostly fine with the job she’s done. But, if you’re inclined to vote for a third-party candidate in one race, this would be the one I’d pick for you, I think.

Who’s running:


Brandan Borgos

Brandan has a JD from the University of St. Thomas. He doesn’t mention whether he works as a lawyer, or what exactly he does for a living, though he does mention he lives in Whittier, enjoys reading and martial arts, and does fundraising for the Children’s Tumor Foundation. I was curious whether he does work as a lawyer, so I looked on LinkedIn. Per LinkedIn, he graduated from UST in 2010 and works at “Borgos Law, PLLC,” which suggests to me that he’s in solo practice. Except you might think his solo practice would have a web page, which it does not (at least that I could find). The Chamber of Commerce website believes that Borgos Law, PLLC is at 898 Galtier St. in Saint Paul. I looked this up in Google Maps and from street view (which admittedly has its issues) this appears to be a vacant lot.

His platform, on his website, is unobjectionable. In the sense that there’s nothing in it that anyone from either the DFL or the Republican party would hesitate to put on their own website. He believes in evolving leadership; transparency; building community partnerships; and protecting civil rights. That said, just as an outsider I think he’s probably a bit more serious about protecting privacy and civil rights than the major party candidates. (On the other hand, as someone who may or may not have significant legal experience, I’m not sure he’d be at all successful in that goal.)

His Twitter actually has a bit more character than his campaign website: “Using the sword of justice on predatory lenders, student loans, polluters, & backroom government deals. Alter ego of @JutSao: fighter of cannabis prohibition.” His @JutSao page mentions that he’s the former Minnesota NORML chair. (NORML = National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, if you’re unfamiliar with it.) Maybe that’s what he was doing as his day job?

Not surprisingly for someone who used to work for NORML, he strongly supports legalizing pot. It would be interesting, you know, if an AG got elected who supported marijuana legalization but the governor did not. I am not sure he’d be able to do anything to undermine existing state laws, but he might be able to come up with something.

Scott Newman

Apparently the Republicans have decided to make themselves THE PARTY OF MINING because — like their auditor candidate — this guy has a whole bit dedicated to how awesome mining is. In fact, why don’t I quote it: “First, Northeastern Minnesota has experienced a lagging economy for too long. I lived on the Iron Range for many years. These hard working folks are not looking for a handout. They want a good job that provides for their families. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an arm of the federal government. For years it has been holding up permission to get non-ferrous mining operating on the Range. As your Attorney General, I will do all I can through the legal system to push back against the federal government and get our people back to work!”



Lori Swanson

As noted up front, I am not a huge Lori Swanson fan but I actually think she’s done an OK job. Specifically on the health care front, rather than going after chair massages, she went after grotesquely inappropriate debt collection practices. She also opted not to defend a 101-year-old Minnesota law that could have caused me to be slapped with a large fine if the wrong person had taken issue with one of my statements about a ballot initiative. She’s sued fraudulent debt-collection companies and a patent troll.

Her website says, “Her industry-wide agreement stopped hospitals from charging uninsured patients up to four times more for the same services than insurance companies pay. (Minnesota is the only state with this agreement.)” — I had missed that! If she actually pulled that off, that is a HUGE deal, actually. It is consistently appalling how much uninsured patients get screwed over. She also went after two of the local for-profit colleges for deceptive practices. (Should’ve gone after all of them, IMO, but I’m not sure what sort of evidence she needs for that.)

On the other hand, I’m not sure she’s done anything about the collection agencies using law enforcement agencies to do their dirty work. A lot of the “Debtor’s Prison” articles that hit the media in 2010 and 2011 at least involved people who’d failed to pay fines. The Star Tribune found people arrested in Minnesota because they owed money to collection agencies. Also, the gun lobby likes her just fine.

I will probably vote for her this year because I like her better than the Republican. But if you want to vote for someone else, I’m not going to yell at you.

Andy Dawkins

Andy is my parents’ neighbor. They like him. He was a DFL legislator for 15 years and spent 35 years working as an attorney, so he has actual experience working in an office that isn’t a vacant lot.

He’s got about the positions you’d expect for someone running to the left of the Democratic incumbent: he’s pro-pot, pro-campaign donation limits, pro-privacy. He opposes pretty much all nonferrous mining. He wants to take action on climate change (which is mostly outside the domain of the AG, actually, but he wants to divest state pension funds from fossil fuel companies.)

He is the only Green running for a statewide race, and they’ve focused a lot of efforts on this one in the hopes of getting 5% of the vote and regaining major party status. This MPR piece explains some of what that means.

If you hate Lori Swanson, he’s a viable alternative, in the sense that he could do the job if elected. The risk is that you’ll get Scott “Yay Mines!” Newman instead. (The other risk is that with major-party status, the Greens will be empowered to act as a spoiler in the statewide races. The solution the Greens propose to this is instant runoff statewide — Andy has a whole bit about IRV on his website — but that’s unlikely to be implemented soon.)

Mary O’Connor

So here’s the question I have about Mary: is she actually an attorney? Does she have a JD? The state constitution does not actually require the AG to have a JD degree, but it seems like kind of a self-evidently good idea. I e-mailed Mary, left a question on the Libertarians of Minnesota facebook post about her, and Tweeted my question to the Libertarians of Minnesota. So far, radio silence. Oh, I also looked her up on LinkedIn but the Mary O’Connor in MN that I found did not look like her.

I did find some information about her on the Libertarian Party officers page. She’s the state party treasurer. According to her bio there (why on earth is there no bio on her candidacy page? they could just C&P this) she has been a Libertarian for five years, she served for three years on the Brooklyn Center City Council (05-08), and had run for “many offices over the last 11 years.” She worked for the U of M for almost 40 years and is now retired (which does not sound like a lawyer sort of job, but it’s possible she was doing that with a JD.) It also notes, “O’Connor wrote a paper on solving the healthcare problem in the United States and sent it to many elected officials. She has an interest in reducing government and rightsizing public education.” (“Rightsizing” is one of those euphemisms for “cutting” that particularly makes me twitch.)

On the issues page of her website she says that she’s anti-eminent domain (“Government should not be seizing the homes and property of Minnesotans for Light Rail Transit or other unnecessary projects”), pro-marijuana, anti-regulations of businesses (“A business owner has the right to make a living and the government should not deny this right by forcing unnecessary regulations and paperwork onto their business,”) and that as a member of the Pardon Board she’ll work to pardon offenders who’ve committed victimless crimes (I’m guessing mostly she means drug offenses here.)

The line about business owners having the right to make a living free from regulations and paperwork is pretty fascinating. How far does she extend this? Should restaurants be free from inspections of whether they’re following food safety guidelines? Should food manufacturers be free from burdensome regulations requiring that they accurately label their products? Are we including minimum wage laws here? Restrictions on child labor? The requirement to pay overtime if you make someone work more than 40 hours in a week?

I would suggest that if you’re tempted to vote for her, you cast your vote instead for Brandan Borgos, instead, since the Independence party shares many of her values, and he actually has a JD.

EDITED TO ADD: I heard back from Mary. She does not, in fact, have a JD, “but justice is not hard to understand.” She added, “As Attorney General I will work to defend the rights and freedoms of Minnesotans. Government, not businesses or nonprofits, is the main entity taking away our rights and freedoms. Are any of the other candidates for Minnesota Attorney General talking about defending our rights and freedoms? Is our current Attorney General working to protect our rights and freedoms that are taken away by government? We Minnesotans can choose not to do business with fraudulent businesses or nonprofits but we risk being arrested if we choose to not obey an unconstitutional law that government imposes on us.”

I’m going to upgrade her to full-on weirdo.

Don R. Vacek

I was expecting to get to make a joke about the People’s Front of Judea vs. the Judean People’s Front (because, what, we need a Grassroots Party AND a Legal Marijuana Now party?) but as far as I can tell, Don’s not actually running. If you look at his web page, it says, “Because Minnesota does not allow citizen initiated voter referendums. Every vote represents a voice of the cannabis community.” I suppose if you really truly do not care who’s the Attorney General of MN you could try to use this, as suggested, as a referendum in favor of legalizing marijuana, except this is not going to crack 1%, so it’s kind of self-defeating.

Since he’s not actually running to try to serve as AG, I’m not sure how much it really matters whether he’s qualified or not. His Facebook page mentions a few things about him (he works for Ramsey County, he studied social work, and he lives in St. Paul). It doesn’t appear that he has a JD or any particular legal experience, which may be why he figures that the AG race is a good one to use for a symbolic “vote yes for weed” campaign.


2 thoughts on “Election 2014: MN Attorney General

  1. The label of “spoiler” applied to a third party like the Greens is pejorative. Third parties aren’t likely to spoil a system already corrupted by court rulings like “Citizens United” and PAC’s like Karl Rove’s and the Koch brothers’. Historically, 3rd parties have played the role of refreshers more than spoilers. Look at the People’s Party platform of 1892. Income tax, votes for women, direct election of Senators—ideas which needed to be advocated by outsiders because those inside the system weren’t listening. In ante-bellum days, we had the Liberty Party and Free Soil party who gave anti-slavery voters a way to express their protest. If you watched the recent Ken Burns shows about the Roosevelts, note that a lot of the New Deal consisted of reforms originally promoted by T.R.’s “Bull Moose” party or by the Socialists. Minnesota has the most vigorous 3rd party heritage in the nation–even our Democratic Party is still called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, recognizing the old Farmer-Labor party of Floyd B. Olson, whose statue graces the Capitol grounds.
    And really, every vote is equal to every other. Yes, 3rd parties affect the outcome of elections, in that some voters may prefer to vote for them–despite not expecting them to win. But when the major party campaigns devolve into negative personal attacks, largely devoid of substantive debate on issues that many citizens care about, then it’s gratifying to have more choices.
    And, in the end, the presence of third party candidates can tilt in unpredictable ways. If not for Dean Barkley on the ballot, Norm Coleman would have easily beaten Al Franken in 2008. If not for Tom Horner on the ballot, Tom Emmer would have won in 2010 and with a GOP legislature, done to Minnesota what the GOP did in savaging the states of Wisconsin, North Carolina, Indiana, etc. So, two close calls went to the DFL in that case. On the other hand, Peter Hutchinson probably pulled more votes away from Mike Hatch than from Tim Pawlenty, perhaps enough to make a difference. That is what happens when you let people vote for their officials. When those officials begin to think of themselves as rulers, and to resent that they need to submit to the will or whims of the electorate, then we’re in trouble.
    That’s the real story of the 2000 presidential election. Those who still blame Nader for Gore’s having lost won’t face the facts: Gore did win a half-million vote national plurality over Bush; only the Electoral College gave Bush an opening; that opening only worked because of the corrupt Florida election officials who disqualified eligible voters and who wouldn’t allow a fair recount; and whose machinations were validated by the party-line ruling of the Supreme Court, which as Gore Vidal said, “with mandibles audibly clacking” declared that Americans have no right to vote for President anyway.
    So, third parties are not by definition “spoilers.”
    As for the office of Attorney General, I’m inclined to agree with Mary O’Conner that justice should be understandable to all, not the province of legal hairsplitters. The Constitution doesn’t require a law degree, so it is a matter of preference not of prerequisite for the office. Should a non-lawyer be elected, he or she could find a qualified lawyer to act as Deputy (that’s who tends to do most of the legal heavy lifting in AG offices, lots of the time.) For a good read, see Walter Mondale’s autobiography “The Good Fight” where he tells about modernizing and mobilizing the AG’s office back in the ’60’s.
    As for Mr. Vacek, wait until the votes are counted. When he ran for Congress on the Legal Marijuana Now line, sixteen years ago, he got 2% without campaigning. Cannabis legalization is far more popular nowadays as an issue–with the public, not the paranoid politicians–despite your dismissive opinions. So, without an active campaign, let’s just see what the voters do. Of course, Dawkins, Borgos, and O’Conner are also competing for cannabis reform votes. In the marketplace of ideas, there seem to be more vendors for reform than for prohibition. That should signify something, to an unbiased observer.

  2. Regarding Lori Swanson, she’s been big on protecting privacy. Which is good. Except when it isn’t.

    I’ve been working to try to enable multifamily properties to improve energy efficiency, and one of the basics is that the single biggest predictor of how much energy a building can save is how much energy it’s using to begin with (on a size-normalized basis). It’s also pretty handy for assessing whether the savings that contractor promised you happened or not, and holding that contractor accountable. Because of the way we meter multifamily buildings, where mostly residents pay their own electric and sometimes they pay their own natural gas, the owner of the building can’t reasonably get basic information on how their building uses energy. Now, I totally agree that there are some possible privacy issues with owners knowing, say, the payment history or real-time energy use of residents. I’m not convinced that there are equal privacy issues with giving owners access to aggregated or anonymized consumption (not payment) data for their whole building.

    This issue has been before the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) for a couple of years in a long, confusing, drawn out process. I’ve been participating from a bit of an arms length position, and in this context Lori Swanson’s office has take a pretty absolutist “no data no way no how” position. I’d think that if one really cared about the residents, one would take the time to understand the trade-offs of data access for owners, but in this case, I was unimpressed with the one-dimensional position of the AG’s office.

    As an additional note, there’s a second energy efficiency issue on which she took a short-sighted position. This was about the implementation of “inverted block rates” on natural gas bills in CenterPoint territory. In theory it is a great way to ensure basic natural gas needs are affordable, and excessive gas needs are really expensive and to encourage people to conserve — and reward them financially for doing cost-effective things. There were some details about implementation that needed tweaking, which could have been addressed. However, Swanson raised a ruckus about elderly people who had been ripped off by new window sales people who swore replacing all the windows in their old homes would reduce their energy bills like crazy — which is hogwash. However, under this new billing structure, they had spent all their money on windows and still had high gas bills. Instead of going after the untrustworthy window dudes, she went after the good policy, and CenterPoint and the rest of the energy efficiency policy world backed down.

    I still don’t know how I’m going to vote, though.

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