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 – INDEPENDENCE
SCOTT NEWMAN – REPUBLICAN
LORI SWANSON – DEMOCRATIC-FARMER-LABOR
ANDY DAWKINS – GREEN PARTY
MARY O’CONNOR – LIBERTARIAN PARTY
DAN R. VACEK – LEGAL MARIJUANA NOW

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!”

DOWN WITH THE EPA. TO HELL WITH CLEAN WATER. YAY MINES.

Next!

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.

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Election 2014: Governor’s Race: Republican candidate Jeff Johnson

Right. Hannah Nicollet was interesting enough to write about that she got her own stand-alone blog post. Turns out Jeff Johnson also gets his own. Here’s the ballot, just to remind you:

HANNAH NICOLLET AND TIM GIESEKE – INDEPENDENCE
JEFF JOHNSON AND BILL KUISLE – REPUBLICAN
MARK DAYTON AND TINA SMITH – DEMOCRATIC-FARMER-LABOR
CHRIS HOLBROOK AND CHRIS DOCK – LIBERTARIAN PARTY
CHRIS WRIGHT AND DAVID DANIELS – GRASSROOTS – LEGALIZE CANNABIS

Jeff Johnson

So, just as I wanted to give you a little recap of Jessecrat politics over the years, I want to start by mentioning a few highlights about Minnesota’s GOP. In 1994, for example, there was a solidly popular incumbent Republican governor, Arne Carlson. The delegates to the Republican Party State Convention loathed Carlson, though, because he was too liberal (specifically he was pro-choice, but there was some other stuff, too), and endorsed Allen Quist, instead. Carlson handily defeated Quist in the primary and then crushed the sacrificial Democrat, John Marty, so it’s not like he was held back much by his party refusing to endorse him.

More recently, let’s talk about the 2012 Presidential Primaries. Minnesota doesn’t have primaries; we have caucuses. There’s a binding straw poll held at the caucus that functions as a primary, and Santorum surged in Minnesota. As I explained at the time, caucuses don’t draw your every-day casual party members, but the party FAITHFUL, the people who are willing to give up an entire evening to crowd into classrooms and listen to speeches. Not surprisingly, the Republicans willing to do this tend to be very, very conservative. Historically — by which I mean, “since I started paying attention to Minnesota politics at some point in the early 1990s” — the most consistent thing about Minnesota Republicans who turn up at caucuses is that they tend to be socially conservative purist ideologues and they tend not to be at all quiet about it.

Which is why it is SO WEIRD that Jeff Johnson’s website has almost nothing on it at all about social issues: it’s wall to wall taxes and economic growth. Curious about whether there was a bit more openness about social conservatism in the primary, I actually sat down and watched an entire video of Republican candidates vying for endorsement debating back in January and there was not a single question about abortion or marriage equality, and no one seized an opportunity to bring anything like that up.

It’s like they had a meeting sometime in 2013 and pinky-swore to just sweep the social issues under the rug and leave them there.

In the debate I linked above, Jeff Johnson described himself as “an unapologetic fiscal — and social — conservative, although not in a loud or obnoxious sort of way, but more in a Norwegian Lutheran from northern Minnesota sort of way” — in his opening statement, he also urged Primary voters to view the candidates through the lens of the non-Republican voters they’d need to win over. (“Try on your neighbor’s shoes for a few minutes because they’re going to be crucial for us winning in November.”)

There were a couple of other really striking moments in that debate, actually. (I should note that I didn’t watch the whole thing straight through. If you hit the right-arrow key on your keyboard it’ll skip 5 seconds in a YouTube video, which makes it easy to fast-forward through the candidates you don’t care about.) About 40 minutes in, there’s a question about the fact that the GOP is seen as the party of rich white men, and did they have any thoughts about how to fix that? Johnson, along with a couple others, talked about reaching out to immigrants: “A lot of the new immigrants coming in are entrepreneurs…and they are socially conservative! But they are told by their leadership that WE ALL HATE THEM and we don’t want them to succeed. […] It’s not about giving them a seat at our table. It’s about trying to get a seat at their table….that will help more than anything else we can do.”

And, I mean, I’ll give him credit for being smart enough to notice that. Of course, the reason why immigrants generally don’t vote for Republicans (despite often being relatively socially conservative) is that so many Republicans are vitriolically anti-immigrant. The Tea Party groups have been particularly nativist (which is a rather wholesome-sounding word for “bigoted”)….and when he wasn’t appearing at debates and talking about how the GOP needed to reach out to immigrant groups, Johnson was scooting around to every Tea Party group asking for their support. AWKWARD.

So, okay. Elsewhere in the debate (59 minutes in) everyone got asked about their faith; Johnson said, “I’m a Norwegian Lutheran so I don’t wear it on my sleeve very well.” (I’m curious what variety of Lutheran Johnson is. Lutherans range from the very-liberal mainline ELCA sort of Lutheran to the somewhat-more-conservative Missouri Synod to the much-more-conservative Wisconsin Synod to some totally off-the-wall groups of genuine kooks, although there are certain things they all have in common, like Jell-O salad, Reformation Sunday, and Norway, making his “Norwegian Lutheran” claim pretty non-specific. Anyway, his website — sensibly enough — doesn’t tell you.)

Moving on! I took a look at his website. I’ll note that in addition to the usual social media options (Twitter and Facebook), Jeff has a Google+ account, a YouTube channel, and a Pinterest board you can follow. He doesn’t have a ton of followers on any of these things; FB has about 7,000 people following, Twitter has 2,625, and Pinterest has less than 30. Over on his YouTube channel, only 433 people have watched his Ice Bucket challenge. (For comparison, the video my kids made with some friends from 4-H in which they did a Bad Demonstration of fashion tips has 104 views. Admittedly, about half of those may have been my kids watching themselves over and over again.)

On his Issues page, taxes are at the top — no surprise there, he thinks they’re too high — followed by education. He complains about the achievement gap and says: To do this we must reform our system to have the money follow the child to any school option their parents choose as the best choice for their child. That’s a call for vouchers, though he doesn’t say this. Right now, in Minnesota, the money already follows the child to any public school option their parents choose, and you can enroll your kid in any school where there’s space. If we wanted our kids to go to school in Eagan and were willing to drive them down there, we could just move them. I strongly support this system; funding everyone at the state level based on student population has some flaws but in general is a decent system. We do not, however, let you turn that money into a tuition voucher and take it to a private school. I’m not in favor of vouchers, but it’s a perennial Republican idea. The funny thing here is that he’s so careful not to say “voucher” even though that’s clearly what he’s supporting. He goes on to say that he will “reject programs like Common Core and No Child Left Behind.” Can I just say that it is a relief to see that the Republicans have finally come around to rejecting NCLB as vigorously as the Democrats.

He moves on to health care, parroting various Republican talking points. “Government has been messing up health care for decades” — in what respects? is he objecting here to EMTALA? — “and Obamacare will break the system altogether if we don’t get rid of it. I will work to eliminate MNsure and move toward a market-based healthcare system in Minnesota where consumers have more options and government is not making decisions for patients and doctors.” Naturally, he gives no details.

Under Family Issues, he says, “I believe that parents know best how to raise their children and that government should not undermine their right to do so.” For some of his statements I can suss out the tune he’s playing on his Republican dogwhistle but this one left me baffled. I sent him an e-mail, asking simply, “Can you expand on that a little? In what ways do you believe that the government is currently undermining the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, or in what ways do you see that right being threatened?” I’ve gotten no response. So, feel free to speculate. Maybe he was pre-emptively defending Adrian Peterson! (If a 200-pound man can’t beat a four-year-old child bloody with a stick, WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO?)

In that same section he notes he’s anti-abortion and anti-marriage-equality. Elsewhere, he elaborates on both of these a bit. On abortion, he says that if the legislature puts anti-abortion legislation on his desk, he will sign it. On marriage equality, he says he has no interest in repealing the marriage-equality law signed last year.

Transportation: yay cars, screw transit. (I’m summarizing.) Agriculture and natural resources: yay mining, screw regulations. “I believe the people whose livelihood depends upon using those natural resources are better stewards of the land than any bureaucrat in St Paul.” Yeah, that never ends badly. Second Amendment: yay guns. (I’m sure you’re shocked by this.)

Finally, his campaign website has a “blog” but he seems to think that means “collection of actual press releases, complete with the FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE” part. (You can pull up an identical page by going to News Room > Press Releases, although the URL is different.) This is particularly odd given that he actually has a real blog, or used to, which he kept as a Hennepin County Commissioner.

I poked through that blog to see if I found anything interesting. He complains a lot about government spending he considers wasteful. Probably the most stomach-turning bit is where he talks about how the HCMC ought to be turning away anyone who isn’t actively dying and doesn’t have documentation to prove they’re here legally. Spoken like someone who’s never waited in an urgent care clinic in a poor neighborhood, watching people arriving in obvious pain and being turned away if they didn’t have $50 cash up front. It doesn’t have to be a life-threatening condition to make your life feel like utter hell, for the record, and if you are unmoved by compassion for fellow human beings in pain, I will also note that from a public health perspective, you really do want sick people to be able to get care. It’s not like the pertussis virus is going to check someone’s immigration status before infecting them.

Anyway. Far and away the weirdest thing about browsing Johnson’s site and record is how little he talks about social issues, given that he’s a Minnesota Republican who got endorsement. Apparently McFadden is following a similar strategy, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed:

Burned before, GOP governor hopefuls quiet on abortion, gay marriage. (MPR)

MN GOP: The bargain of silence on social conservative issues (a blog over at MinnPost by someone who finishes by saying, “Don’t be fooled. We are being played on this one.”)

Fall from grace: how ‘Christian values’ became a non-issue in Minnesota elections (MinnPost again, this time written by Doug Grow — fascinatingly, he opens by quoting Allen Quist, who apparently said recently that he thinks the environment attracts more single-issue voters these days than the social issues.)

I chatted about this with my parents (because it really does almost sound like there was a secret meeting!) and my mother hypothesized that the secret meeting was convened by the Koch Brothers. (“They really don’t care about abortion or gay marriage; they just want lower taxes and no unions and NO REGULATIONS.” All that’s still firmly on the agenda, including a bunch of rhapsodizing about the Polymet Mine, although that might have been during a bit of the debate I didn’t transcribe.)

But okay, in writing all this up, I hit on another theory. Let’s go back to 2012 again, and the Santorum thing. In the end, Minnesota didn’t send delegates for Santorum to the RNC; our delegates were backing Ron Paul.

This is a story that got rather brief play, but I did catch the edges of it. From what I gather, the Santorum people had largely lost interest by the time the Senate District Conventions rolled around, because Santorum had dropped out of the race. But the Ron Paulites weren’t actually in it to win the nomination (they knew — well, most of them knew — at the outset that this wasn’t going to happen.) They were in it to make a point — to have seats at the Republican National Convention. So their delegates showed up again. And again.

And maybe THAT is the crucial piece of backstory I was missing.

Maybe the meeting where the shift took place was anything but a secret back room: maybe it was the convention hall floor in St. Cloud.

Anyway, as it happens, I am not a Ron Paul fan either. He’s a creepy little racist demagogue. This is a man who lost a full-time campaign worker not to a political rival but to pneumonia because the guy had no health insurance and no money for care. Who uses terms like “honest rape” when talking about abortion rights, who sponsored a law that would gut Griswold vs. Connecticut.

NOPE.

But, that said, I find Ron Paul’s supporters to be vastly more reasonable overall than the people who turned out for Santorum. They differ from me philosophically, but they have arguments for their positions, not just Bible verses. While I am not going to vote for Johnson, and I would encourage my readers not to vote for Johnson, if the Ron Paulites have taken over the Minnesota GOP, I look forward to a markedly better crop of candidates in the future. Some years back, John Scalzi wrote about how the Republicans seemed to be embracing the nuttiest wing-nut end of their political spectrum, and he wanted to see that STOP, because he believed that it’s good for the U.S. to have two functioning parties. (Alas, I couldn’t track that post down, though I found this one.) Maybe this is a sign that we’re going to once again see the Republicans as a party of ideas that go beyond “whatever the most powerful Democrat is doing, WE HATES IT PRECIOUS FOREVER”? Am I being overly optimistic here?

(Of course, right now Johnson and McFadden are both struggling just with name recognition, and I’m not sure their bland affability is helping them as much as they’d have hoped.)

Next up is Dayton. I feel like he should get a whole post of his own too, but I’m not sure how much I have to say about him.