EDITED TO ADD: Looking for an alternative to Keith Ellison in light of the domestic abuse allegations? My recommendation would be Mike Rothman: he seems solid and competent, and the lawyers who’ve worked with him all seem to like him. Debra Hilstrom has close ties to Lori Swanson, which is even less appealing now than it was when I wrote this post last month; Matt Pelikan still has a resume I’d consider thin even for a seat in the legislature; and Tom Foley’s defamation lawsuit against WCCO really ticks me off. Mike Rothman looks fine to me, and I’m probably going to vote for him on Tuesday.
Here’s the post I originally wrote about this race:
This is a statewide race. Thanks in part to our ongoing national nightmare, I think people are more aware now than they were for a while that this is an extremely important job.
I’ve never been a fan of Lori Swanson. She was a Mike Hatch protege, and I really didn’t like Mike Hatch. When I saw Pelikan was challenging Swanson for the endorsement, at my SD convention, I grabbed one of his stickers and slapped it on, although there was no “uncommitted for governor, Pelikan for AG” walking subcaucus to join so I thought this was probably pretty quixotic. At the state convention, Pelikan got enough votes to prevent a first-ballot endorsement of Swanson — it was 52% Swanson, 48% (I assume) Pelikan — at which point Swanson dropped out of the race entirely and announced she was running for governor, instead. The convention endorsed Pelikan, and then a bunch of other people, starting with Keith Ellison, jumped into the AG race.
What a year. Anyway, here’s who’s on the ballot:
All five of these people are qualified, legitimate candidates. All of them are lawyers, all of them have relevant experience, none of them are actually Republicans and none of them are loons. (Sharon Anderson is running in the Republican primary, and don’t count her out, she beat Charlie Weaver in the GOP primary back in 1994 and was the Republican AG candidate on the general election ballot.)
After skimming everyone’s website, I watched the TPT Almanac debate between the candidates the aired in late June. It’s a half hour long, so not a huge time investment if you’re feeling flummoxed by this race. A couple of things that caught my attention in that debate:
- There was a (relatively) long conversation about opioid addiction, and whether the AG should be filing lawsuits after the drug companies that marketed stuff like Oxycontin. Matt Pelikan was the only person to note that while it’s worth going after drug companies over opiate pushing, it’s also important to recognize that there are people with legitimate needs for opiates. (I have a number of friends who’ve talked about the consequences of the backlash against opiates on patients with severe pain.)
- Legal recreational marijuana came up: Keith Ellison and Matt Pelikan were strongly in favor of legalization. Mike Rothman mentioned criminal justice reform; Matt Pelikan mentioned pardoning people currently in prison. Debra Hilstrom sort of hedged (she thinks we are “moving in that direction” but emphasized that the AG’s office is supposed to enforce the laws on the books). Tom Foley hedged a lot, talking about unspecified problems in other states that we should look at first.
- Tom Foley came across to me as crotchety in the extreme. He kept irritably pointing out how much more experience he had than anyone else and it sort of came across like an old fart furious that he has to interview for a job. He’s only 70, which is the same age as my father, but my father looks and sounds about a decade younger.
- Matt Pelikan, on the other hand, looked and sounded ridiculously young. I dug up his resume and he graduated college in 2003, so he’s probably about 37. He only got his law degree in 2012, though. Six years from “passed the bar” to “chief lawyer for your state” is in fact kind of a leap. Good on him for challenging Lori Swanson, though. I would totally vote for him over Lori Swanson. Not sure about voting for him over all of the other four candidates.
- There was some debate on the extent to which the AG’s office should focus on local vs. national issues. Keith and Matt were particularly pro-participating-in-national issues.
Mike comes to this race from seven years serving as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Commerce. His website lists a whole bunch of consumer-friendly, citizen-friendly actions he’s taken as Commerce Commissioner, cracking down on fraud, predatory lending, and illegal debt collection. I approve strongly of all of these. (I was particularly happy to see the article about him going after “zombie debt,” as I have friends who’ve been personally victimized by people coming after them for fake or discharged debts, and this shit really pisses me off.)
He went to Carleton. I, too, went to Carleton (years later) so I’ll admit I consider that a point in his favor.
His website outlines his priorities as follows: (1) Protecting seniors from abuse and exploitation. (Anyone who’s stepped in to help an older person with cognitive impairment knows how critical this is.) (2) Going after pharmaceuticals both for opioid marketing and overpricing their drugs. (“On day one as AG, I will take immediate action to hold opioid companies accountable for their deceitful marketing practices. … I will also take action against outrageously priced drugs.”) (3) Conservation/Climate change. (4) Supporting rural Minnesota (“I will defend our laws that prohibit corporate farming and fight against anti-competitive corporate mergers that threaten family farms.”) (5) Workers’ rights. (6) Standing up to Trump, with the caveat, “My focus will always be with Minnesotans first.”
So, a couple of thoughts on those. I’m solidly in favor of protecting seniors from fraud, although protecting seniors in general is a trickier line to walk than you’d think from the outside. (That’s kind of its own long, rambling essay, though.) When he talked about “outrageously priced drugs” I kind of wanted to know (a) which drugs he’s talking about and (b) what he’s planning to do. I’m more outraged by the price of insulin than, for example, the price of Kymriah, but I’m not sure from his website whether he’s more focused on one or the other or if he considers these situations equivalent. (Given how we’ve set up the system, a new drug has to be ridiculously priced in order to recoup the cost of developing it. There’s no excuse for the price of insulin.)
I’m the opposite of expert on rural issues but I was sort of startled to see that we have laws to defend against corporate farming. Here’s a nice, readable document about this. Super interesting!
(I will have more to say about this when I write about the governor’s race, but: like many people from the Twin Cities, my knowledge of the issues in rural Minnesota tends to be an unfortunate mix of stereotype, superstition, and tea-leaf-reading. I have no clear idea what people in (or around) Bemidji or East Grand Forks or Marshall want in their statewide elected officials, although I found out recently from some friends on Twitter that they do not like to be referred to as “outstate” and might not be wild about “Greater Minnesota,” either.)
In digging around trying to figure out if he’s overly cozy with the NRA (Lori Swanson has an A+ NRA rating) I ran across an article about the Commerce department getting sued by a corporation and losing, so if you want to know what he looks like when he (maybe) oversteps, this is probably a good example. I don’t think Mike’s been rated by the NRA because he was appointed, rather than elected. I turned up neither coziness, nor history of a fight.
I think Mike would be solidly good at the Minnesotan parts of the job. I’d say that he’s making it pretty clear that when all you need do to participate in a national fight is sign on, he’d be up for it; if it would require actual resources, probably not.
Debra Hilstrom has been a City Council rep, a state legislator, and an Assistant County Attorney. While in the legislator, during the foreclosure crisis, she authored a bill that would have required lenders to have a mediation session with homeowners before foreclosing; this was vetoed by Pawlenty. (Several other consumer-friendly bills she pushed didn’t get passed.) She also helped to create an 800 number to report elder abuse and exploitation. Her website doesn’t really address future priorities but in this interview she emphasized the opioid epidemic and protecting vulnerable adults.
She has a blue-collar background: she’s the first in her family to get a four-year degree and her husband is a carpenter. She got into politics after accompanying her father to testify before the City Council, only to have a Council rep humiliate her father.
As a strike against her, I’ll note that she’s endorsed by the Police union. She’s also Lori Swanson’s protege, and I’m not a Lori Swanson fan. (Although I liked Lori better than I liked Mike Hatch, so I might like Debra more than I liked Lori.)
On the question of how much of a role the MN AG should play with national stuff, she had a really interesting perspective:
Hilstrom said there are legal strategies at play that make it less likely that a state like Minnesota will be in the lead. That is because it is in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals with a more conservative set of judges. It is common, therefore, that states like Hawaii, California and Washington take the lead because appeals would be argued at the more liberal 9th Circuit.
“One of the reasons you join lawsuits instead of bringing them is, even if you win in Minnesota and you go to the 8th Circuit and they overturn it, you have set a bad precedent for the rest of the country,” she said. “So you want to be strategic where you bring cases.”
These sound like legitimate strategic concerns, and that’s definitely something I want in an AG: the ability to identify cases where our participation is helpful, vs. situations where it would be symbolically nice but ultimately detrimental.
Because she’s been in the legislature for decades, quite a lot comes up about her if you look through old news articles. She supported the penny-per-pill fee for opioids. (This is popular among Democrats. I dislike this proposal because it’s not like the drug companies are going to pay that penny; they’ll simply jack up prices and it’ll get passed along to a bunch of people taking opioids because they’re in severe pain, i.e., probably not people with a lot of spare money under the couch cushions.) She sponsored a bill to remove cameras from courtrooms. She proposed an amendment to a bill to ban private prisons in MN. (I would be super in favor of that one.) She introduced a bill to make it illegal to harass someone online by pretending to be them. (Okay, you know what? That is possibly the biggest point in her favor so far.)
She also faced down a whole lot of snickering, much of it from fellow DFLers, when she proposed a law to make it a crime to ejaculate in someone’s food. An excerpt, because it’s got one hell of a mic drop:
Assured that spitting in your own soup would not be a felony, Kahn asked if a kid who tried to spit in his own soup, but spit in someone else’s soup instead, would face a felony.
Hilstrom, who remained impressively calm through the questioning, said the bill would not make that a felony.
”If saliva is the part that gives the body heartburn, I’m happy to delete saliva from the bill,” Hilstrom said. “If members are OK with people spitting in their food and eating it, we can amend the bill.”
Spit was indeed deleted from the final version of the bill: it’s now a gross misdemeanor to put blood, semen, vaginal fluid, pee, or poop into someone else’s food, on purpose, but it’s still legal(ish) to spit. (She took up this issue because of an actual case where a woman caught a coworker ejaculating into her coffee, and found out he’d been doing this for months, and yet the worst thing he could be charged with was a misdemeanor.)
Back in 2013, she introduced a super-weaksauce gun safety bill in the hopes of finding “common ground”; this was a rival to Paymar’s bill that would have required universal background checks. It’s not clear to me whether this was coming from a place of “let’s all try to work together and past something,” or a willingness to pander to the gun lobby. One way or another, the attempt to get any meaningful gun control passed that session crashed and burned. I’ll note that a bulletin board full of gun fetishists viewed Hilstrom as all that stood between them and actual gun control, so take that for what it’s worth. She did support a red flag law another year, I think.
Digging into her record, I liked her a lot more than I’d expected to from her endorsement by the police federation. I am really struck by the fact that she takes issues of women’s safety seriously, and extends that to stuff like “sometimes women in the workplace get treated to genuinely disgusting and horrifying behavior, and it should be possible to prosecute it” (the bodily fluids law isn’t a gendered law, but this is a heavily gendered form of harassment most of the time when it occurs) and “it can be a really big deal to impersonate someone online, if you’re doing it to harass and endanger them” (and again, this happens way more to women). I think for AG I’d prefer someone who would be more interested in challenging the current administration and more interested in gun control, but I hope she stays in politics, or maybe that our next DFL governor considers her for a cabinet appointment.
The original candidate to challenge Lori Swanson, which is arguably a bad thing: because she didn’t get endorsed on the first ballot, she withdrew and jumped into the governor’s race, setting off that whole ridiculous cascade. (I’m inclined to just blame Lori for that, not Matt.)
Graduated college in 2003 and law school in 2012. Here’s his work experience and background, quoted in its entirety from the website:
After college, Matt went to work for progressive candidates and causes around the country.
Matt then went to law school at the University of Minnesota. In law school, Matt served as Editor-in-Chief of the Minnesota Law Review and continued working for progressive causes, including trying to fight the big banks ripping off homeowners who were underwater on their mortgages after the housing crisis.
After law school, Matt worked for the Minnesota Supreme Court, clerking for Justices Paul H. Anderson and then David L. Lillehaug. As an attorney, Matt focuses on consumer issues, large, complex civil cases for some of Minnesota’s largest companies, and pro bono work. In 2016, Matt worked full time in the 2016 presidential election to fight voter fraud.
So, here are some things I don’t see here.
- A regular private-sector job. He went immediately into “working for progressive causes across the country” which I have to admit, especially without further details, makes me think he was probably doing door-to-door canvassing and while that’s a perfectly respectable way to spend a miserable summer while you’re in college, if that was your life after college it makes me think you’ve spent a lot of time inside a particularly weird kind of bubble.Consulting his LinkedIn resume, I was able to determine that it wasn’t that, but I’m not super far off. He started out as “Finance Staff” for Wellstone; he moved on to be a Deputy Finance Director for Dayton’s Senate re-election campaign and was then Finance Director for a series of unsuccessful campaigns all over the US, culminating in defeating the apparently more-competitive candidate in a primary, outraising her 4-1, only to go down in massive flames in the general. He then went to law school.
I’m going to say the “weird sort of bubble” is probably not unfair. He then went to law school.
- Private-sector attorney work. But that’s just because he left it out: he was an associate at Robins Kaplan for three years, quit to spend 2016 doing voter protection in Ohio (…I hate to say this, because he seems like such a geniunely progressive and decent human being, but having looked at his resume I think he might have been cursed at birth) and now he works for Madel PA.
I went digging through news archives from before this political cycle and found a naturalist who shares his name and this article about him moving into a luxury apartment building in downtown Minneapolis.
So. He is staunchly progressive, but so are others in the race. If I had to choose between experience and progressivism, I might go for the inexperienced progressive, but I don’t. I’m ruling him out. And I want to recognize that he’s in an awkward situation, because he’s endorsed! If Keith Ellison had been in this race from the get-go, I would strongly suspect that Matt wouldn’t have gotten into it. But yeah. I would want to see more experience that’s not revolving around running campaigns, before I’d vote for him for any but an entry-level office. (And frankly, even legislative seats in the Twin Cities tend to go to people with more substantive experience — my House Rep is a County Prosecutor.)
Tom Foley is at the extreme opposite end: he has age and experience to spare, and has emphasized (and emphasized and emphasized) his experience: “I’ve essentially done this job.” That article gives a better overview of his experience than his website does:
Foley ended his 16-year tenure as Ramsey County attorney 25 years ago, having previously worked as a deputy Corrections Department commissioner and special assistant Minnesota attorney general.
He has tried to move up the electoral food chain before. In 1994, having beefed up his DFL bona fides as Bill Clinton’s Minnesota campaign director, he ran for U.S. Senate. Early in that race he had the strongest name recognition among DFLers. He nonetheless got trounced by Ann Wynia, who then lost to Republican Rod Grams.
There once was prior talk of Foley running for attorney general, but incumbent Skip Humphrey declined to leave for a U.S. Senate run as rumored. Foley did sign on as running mate to 1998 gubernatorial candidate Doug Johnson, DFL-Cook, but the ticket foundered, finishing third in that DFL primary.
In those days, politically ambitious Minnesota attorneys could peer into the future and see Foley’s face everywhere, or so wrote a Star Tribune reporter in September 1993. People don’t talk about Foley that way these days.
Yet if his political star has faded, it’s not because he disappeared; he’s never even been that far from public view. From 1995 to 1998, Foley served on Clinton’s National Indian Gaming Commission, eventually becoming its vice chair; the job became a springboard for his future private practice.
He also was Washington, D.C., office director for Gov. Jesse Ventura and served as a district representative on the Metropolitan Airports Commission, a gig he kept until 2009. He squeezed in a 10-month stint as Washington County attorney in 1998, filling out Dick Arney’s term after Arney died.
His long-standing ties to the Indian reservations in the state drive his concerns about the opioid crisis: he says that the rural reservations have been hit harder than any other part of Minnesota, and opioid litigation is one of his high priorities, along with health care. He would also “use the office to target sex traffickers and fight sexual assault, particularly on Minnesota’s reservations,” and would work to protect seniors specifically from abuse in nursing homes.
He is probably the most explicit about wanting to focus on local issues: “If all Congressman Ellison wants is to criticize Trump, I think he is neglecting a whole portion of what the office should be doing on behalf of Minnesota values. I’d bring independent, effective leadership. I don’t just want a megaphone to criticize Trump.”
In his interview with Minnpost, he said he got into the race because Pelikan was such a lightweight. (He got in at the very last possible minute, though, so I’m not sure if he thought that Mike Rothman and Debra Hilstrom were also total lightweights, or if he just didn’t think they could beat Keith Ellison.) He also mentions there that as part of the Alliance for Tribal Justice, he’s already started suing drugmakers over opioids.
In his op-ed for the Star Tribune about why you should vote for him, his snark was clearly aimed at Keith but maybe also at Lori Swanson: “Minnesotans have been pushed aside by the political opportunists who are more interested in advancing radical political agendas. But I, like you, have had enough.”
He’s been around forever but also has a very common name, which makes it hard to dig up old info on him. I can tell you, however, that while serving as Ramsey County Attorney from 1979-1994, he defended an early hate crimes law (and lost), prosecuted a really complex cold-case murder that required figuring out whether you could use modern evidentiary laws to prosecute a crime committed decades earlier, and his then-deputy Susan Gaertner presented the first DNA evidence to a Minnesota jury. He also sued WCCO for defaming him when they asked why he didn’t pursue a very weird homicide in which one of his donors was a chief suspect.
I’d say that he sounds like a liberal version of your cranky grandpa on Twitter, but on reflection, too many people’s grandpas adhere to batshit conspiracy theories, so that’s sort of misleading. He’s perfectly sensible, just uses a lot of exclamation points in a “cranky grandpa on social media” kind of way.
I like Keith Ellison a bunch, FWIW. He is endorsed by almost everyone other than the DFL itself: Mark Dayton, Tina Smith, Jacob Frey, Melvin Carter, almost the entire Minneapolis City Council, almost the entire Minneapolis legislative delegation, an impressive contingent of suburbanites, and Bernie Sanders. And Walter Mondale. (Every time I see Walter Mondale endorsing someone I’m a little surprised that he’s still alive.) I was curious if he had any endorsements from Minnesotans outside the metro area, and I found three: two council representatives from Duluth, and Rep. David Bly from 20B. He campaigned in Duluth recently along with Bernie.
Past experience: well, he’s been in Congress for over a decade. Prior to that, he was a legislator and an attorney.
His issues page is worth a look as it includes a fair number of issues that other candidates aren’t talking about much. He calls out the following:
- Wage theft (okay, others are talking about wage theft).
- Health care (again, he covers some of the same issues others mention, like opioids and drug prices; he specifically mentions drug companies trying to keep generic-brand drugs off the market. He also talks about abortion rights and protecting the ACA.)
- Workplace safety, which he notes is particularly important in Greater Minnesota, and that farms have a really high death rate. He’s not wrong, although partly this is because farmers have historically resisted regulation.
- Union rights and employment nondiscrimination.
- Student loans. Here’s one I didn’t see anyone else talk about. He notes that there are a couple of big lenders that steer people into programs that take years more to pay off, and some students were straight-up scammed. “As Attorney General, I would side with consumers with student loans and fight for fairness and debt relief.”
- Fair competition. (Again, this one stood out.) He mentions anti-competitive practices that stifle small businesses; family farms; employers that use monopoly power to keep wages low; and non-compete agreements that some employers force workers to sign. (Did you know that there are fast food chains that force their workers to sign non-compete agreements that prevent them from leaving to work at other fast food chains on the grounds that they’ve invested so much in training them that it’s not fair if they leave?)
- Predatory lending and exploitation of seniors.
- Predatory mortgage practices (which again ties into the exploitation of seniors), enforcement of fair housing laws, and he will “work to level the playing field between landlords and tenants and combat the eviction crisis that is putting too many Minnesota families out on the street.” I have mixed feelings about that last one. Do we have an eviction crisis, or do we have an affordable housing crisis (where people wind up evicted because they weren’t able to pay the rent they could only barely afford?) The more annoying you make it to evict people who aren’t paying rent, the fewer people will take chances on renters who don’t look great on paper, at least while renters are plentiful and apartments are few.
- Immigration justice (fighting the Muslim ban, deportations of DACA recipients, and mistreatment of detainees).
- Partnering with counties to fight sex trafficking; to work to reintegrate ex-cons into their communities; and to reduce incarceration.
- Fight bad federal legislation that undermines our own gun laws.
- Eliminate cash bail laws where possible (that’s another one I’m a fan of, that no one else mentioned that I saw).
- Support public defenders
- Climate justice.
In an interview with MinnPost, he explained his motivation for running for AG as follows: “As attorney general, you get to enforce the law, and you get to make sure the powerful follow the rules. There’s some things a member of Congress can’t do. You cannot take immediate action to protect rights of people. A member of Congress can introduce legislation, try to make the law better, but an attorney general can very pragmatically sue to make sure people’s credit card companies are not taking advantage of them.”
MinnPost offered some additional analysis, noting that the top Democratic leadership posts in the House are held by a bunch of old people who show no particular interest in retiring; as a result, a lot of ambitious younger Congressional representatives are looking for other options that would let them fill that bench every pundit was talking about a few months ago. Ellison pretty explicitly denied this theory in an interview with the Guardian: “I am not looking to climb some career ladder. I don’t give a damn about that. What I care about is how can I help the most people. How can I be maximally effective in defense of people’s economic and social rights, that’s what I care about.”
I started this analysis inclined to vote for Keith Ellison, and I think I’m going to vote for Keith Ellison. I am worried about his ability to win statewide, but fundamentally, it’s not like I actually know what’s going to draw rural swing voters. Democrats in Minnesota turn out more strongly for candidates who excite them, and I know a lot of people who are excited about voting for Keith Ellison. Would the other candidates be okay? Any of these candidates would certainly be better than the Republican, and I think I’d be happy with Mike Rothman or Debra Hilstrom, as well. (I liked Debra a lot more than I was expecting to after seeing she had the police endorsement.) Right now, I think I want the person that everyone’s afraid will spend too many resources challenging Trump, especially since he’s got a lot of other ideas that are more focused on people within the state. (Like his desire to push back against noncompete agreement.)
If you don’t like Keith Ellison, or want an AG who’s focused on consumer protection and not pushing back on the White House agenda, you have a wealth of good options. This is a really strong field.