One of the state’s most competitive political races this year is not just to fill a post open for the first time in more than a decade, but also to define the role of Minnesota’s attorney general at a time when the people who hold that office around the country have become key players in the nation’s most contentious political fights.
Should the state’s chief legal officer be a bulwark against policies emanating from Washington, or more narrowly focused on protecting consumers and advising state agencies? Many Democratic attorneys general are fighting President Donald Trump’s agenda in the courts, mimicking Republican counterparts who used their offices to resist President Barack Obama’s initiatives. But those in the packed field of Minnesota candidates disagree on how much attention the “people’s lawyer” should pay the Trump administration.
“What are we supposed to do when Betsy DeVos is making student loans more expensive and is out there protecting predatory lenders?” U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a DFL candidate, asked, referring to Trump’s secretary of education. Of another administration official, he said: “What are we supposed to do when Mick Mulvaney is deconstructing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? … There is no way that we can stand by and act like these are not important things.”
Ellison is the best-known candidate in a field of five running in the Aug. 14 DFL primary. Several of his Democratic rivals have put more emphasis on Minnesota issues. Doug Wardlow, the Republican-endorsed candidate and front-runner in the GOP primary, said he would focus on “putting Minnesota first, and not the national issues.”
Wardlow said current Attorney General Lori Swanson, who is running for governor, misused the office’s resources by joining a number of national lawsuits. Still, some of Wardlow’s legal work with a conservative Christian legal nonprofit that files lawsuits around the country in favor of “religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family” suggests a drastically new direction for the state after nearly 50 years of Democratic attorneys general.
The election comes amid a national shift in how attorneys general use the office. The number of joint attorneys general lawsuits to block environmental policies started to increase during George W. Bush’s presidency, according to Marquette University political science Prof. Paul Nolette, who has been tracking the trend for more than a decade.
“They began to see the power, I think, of banding together to challenge federal policy that they didn’t like,” Nolette said, and that escalated when activist Republican attorneys general were elected in 2014. “It was really after that election that Republican AGs turned to a strategy of suing Obama and the administration on just about everything.”
Then Trump took office, and Democratic attorneys general started filing suits against his administration on everything from the family separation policy to different iterations of the Muslim travel ban to his repeal of an Affordable Care Act mandate that employers cover birth control.
Across the country, several members of Congress, including Ellison, decided to run for or accept an appointment as state attorney general instead of seeking re-election.
“Those moves speak for themselves,” said Sean Rankin, executive director of the Democratic Attorneys General Association. “ … They actually see that the action is with the state attorney general.”
‘Hold people accountable’
All five DFL candidates share similar priorities when it comes to protecting residents and the environment from bad corporate actors, but they diverge on how much attention they devote to national issues on the campaign trail.
Minneapolis attorney Matt Pelikan, the DFL-endorsed candidate, made fighting Trump a key piece of his platform. Both he and Ellison emphasized that the office’s approximately 130 attorneys can take on individual, local issues while also wading into national fights.
Competitors Mike Rothman, a former state commerce commissioner, and state Rep. Debra Hilstrom said when Trump’s policies hurt Minnesotans they would join other states in filing injunctions. But the candidates have talked more about Minnesota matters.
“You hold people accountable no matter who they are,” Hilstrom said. “Sometimes that means you have to take on the administration, too, whether that’s the president or the secretary of education or whoever else it is. But the Minnesota attorney general mostly hears from Minnesotans about real-life things.”
She cited housing problems or medication costs as two issues she’d expect to work on.
Former Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley, another DFL candidate, said he is focused on consumer protections for seniors, safe schools and the environment. He also wants to protect Minnesotans from “disastrous national policies,” but said that would be a small part of the job.
Both Foley and Wardlow frequently mention plans to bolster the attorney general’s criminal division to assist county attorneys. County offices need more resources to combat problems like sex trafficking, they said.
Wardlow, a former state representative, previously worked as an attorney for the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom. He fought to return a cross removed from a Belle Plaine park, and to reverse a Wyoming Supreme Court’s censure of a judge who refused to perform same-sex marriages.
Before that, Wardlow did international trade litigation and fought “dumped” and subsidized steel imports from China. He said as attorney general he would testify at the U.S. International Trade Commission in support of mining jobs and Minnesota industries negatively impacted by other countries’ trade practices. He supports the Twin Metals and PolyMet copper-nickel mining projects and said he would counsel state agencies to “lift the burden of regulations that exceed state authority … to alleviate the burden on job creators,” including mining companies.
Wardlow is also running in a contested primary. Former DFL state Rep. Bob Lessard is running as a Republican, as is perennial candidate Sharon Anderson. Lessard said he would take a nonpartisan approach to the office and sees candidates on both sides pushing extreme political agendas.
“The attorney general’s office is not supposed to be used as a political platform to express one’s views,” he said.
Lessard and Anderson are not authorized to practice law in Minnesota, though that’s not a legal requirement to be attorney general. Ellison, a former civil rights and defense attorney who ran the Legal Rights Center, is the only DFL candidate not currently authorized to practice law. Members of Congress can’t practice law, and Ellison said he’s now going through the authorization process.
Hilstrom, a former domestic violence survivor advocate and nine-term state representative from Brooklyn Center, fulfilled a long-held dream of becoming a lawyer in 2010. She is an Anoka County Attorney’s Office prosecutor, where she has handled cases ranging from stalking to the exploitation of vulnerable adults.
Rothman, an attorney of 30 years, ran the Minnesota Department of Commerce for seven years. He said managing a large state agency and working on consumer protection positioned him to be an effective attorney general immediately.
United on opioids
At least one issue has united candidates from both sides of the aisle: opioids. State attorneys general from both parties came together to investigate opioid manufacturers, and many Minnesota candidates said they’d consider working with other states to sue companies for their roles in the epidemic. That’s reminiscent of another joint crusade in the 1990s, when state attorneys general successfully sued the tobacco industry and won the nation’s largest class-action settlement.
That showed attorneys the impact of working together, Nolette said. But over time the Republican and Democratic attorneys general associations formed, and lawsuits slowly became more partisan.
“In the past, AG races were, if anything, kind of sleepy races, more locally focused and were generally seen as more of a steppingstone position,” Nolette said. “Now they are important in and of themselves, and they generate a lot more national discussion.”