Mike Freeman has broad name recognition and two decades of experience as Hennepin County attorney. Mark Haase is a criminal justice advocate who believes county residents are clamoring for a fresh approach to prosecution.

But this year Haase won the DFL Party endorsement, a seal of approval that Freeman has counted on in the past. And Freeman, who carries the name of Minnesota’s first DFL governor — his father, Orville — is weathering sharp criticism from some in the party for charging decisions involving police officers and black criminal suspects.

Add it up, and this year’s race for Hennepin County attorney is drawing intense interest throughout the county and beyond.

It’s been 12 years since Freeman, 70, has even faced an opponent. He called the competition “good for democracy” and said the voters will get to decide Nov. 6.

“I love being county attorney,” he said. “And do you want to make your day worthwhile? Come work for our office.”

Haase, 50, government relations director for information technology at the Department of Human Services, said he is running to rebuild trust in the criminal justice system, provide more accountability and offer second chances for defendants.

As county attorney, he said, he would work across department lines to reduce racial disparities. “Mike’s leadership style is to keep the county attorney’s office in a silo,” he said.

The campaign platforms for Freeman and Haase address similar issues. Both say they want to reduce the number of defendants charged with low-level marijuana offenses, improve sex crime investigations and expand veterans court services.

Freeman has raised about $162,000 for his campaign, and Haase about $108,000, 10 percent of which is a personal loan to his campaign.

‘All about the evidence’

As the top prosecutor in the state’s largest county, the Hennepin County attorney — officially a nonpartisan office — sets the standard for criminal punishment. Beyond prosecuting adult and juvenile criminal cases, the office handles civil and child protection cases and serves as general counsel for the County Board. The office has a budget of more than $55 million and employs about 400 people.

Freeman, a University of Minnesota Law School graduate and former state senator from Richfield, was elected county attorney in 1990 and served two terms before stepping down to run for governor. He didn’t win that race, but after his successor, Amy Klobuchar, successfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006, Freeman ran again and reclaimed his old seat.

He said that police-involved deaths have made the past couple years the most challenging of his nearly 20-year tenure. To improve accountability, he made the decision himself to charge the officers rather than use a grand jury, but he still took considerable heat from people of color.

He consulted with black leaders before he declined to charge two white Minneapolis police officers in the 2015 shooting death of Jamar Clark, who was black. This summer he charged Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who is Somali, in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who was white.

“Some people said race played a role, and that had nothing to do with [it],” Freeman said. “It was all about the evidence.”

Civil rights activist Nekima Levy Armstrong said Freeman should be voted out of office because of what she said was his disregard for communities of color and sexual assault victims. “He’s out of touch,” she said.

Freeman said his office does better than the national average in charging sex crime cases and getting plea deals or convictions, but he wants to improve on that by embedding two attorneys with the Minneapolis police to work on sex crimes. He disputed Haase’s contention that he doesn’t partner with other agencies, saying that he has worked with the state on an undocumented laborer ring and with the suburbs on sex trafficking.

In the past six years, Freeman’s office has seen an increase of more than 100 percent in first-degree murder indictments and gun case charges and a hike of more than 30 percent in child and domestic abuse cases, according to statistics compiled by his office.

Michael Christenson, who works for Hennepin County’s workforce development program, praised Freeman’s ethics, his diverse staff and his mentorship of younger attorneys. He said that Freeman, a former law partner, has created a national model for county attorneys by providing swift and thorough information on police-involved shootings.

“The greatest test of a public official often involves the hardest questions,” Christenson said.

Services instead of jail

Haase graduated from the University of St. Thomas Law School and became a lawyer in 2003 after doing advocacy work for a young woman who received a 16-year prison sentence for a low-level drug conviction. An officer in the U.S. Coast Guard and later a captain in the Army Reserve, he’s helped change drug sentencing guidelines and laws for expungement and felons’ voting rights.

Haase points to bipartisan support he has received for work on legislative proposals. He was head lobbyist for the Council on Crime and Justice, where he worked to enact criminal justice changes, and co-chairman of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, where he led lobbying efforts to pass “Ban the Box” legislation limiting the use of criminal record questions on job applications.

As county attorney, Haase said, he would work on eliminating cash bail, limit cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and create an advisory board for police accountability.

“Instead of giving someone an arrest record, we will divert them to the counseling, addiction services or mental health resources they need,” Haase said. “Freeman’s approach continues to be what it was in the 1990s — overly focused on punishment and incarceration.”

Haase won backing last week from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who is chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and state Rep. Jerry Hertaus, a Republican who represents west Hennepin County.

In a Facebook posting, Hertaus wrote that he worked with Haase on criminal justice issues at the State Capitol. “Every bill he has worked on has been strongly bipartisan, I’ve been the author on several of them,” Hertaus wrote. “I know that he will be a County Attorney that will maintain the public trust.”

John Baker, a law enforcement professor at St. Cloud State University who has trained police statewide, has known Haase since they worked together on veterans issues more than a decade ago.

“He’s being smart on crime or I wouldn’t support him,” Baker said. “He will be more accountable and progressive.”

Haase said his litigation experience began in law school, when he represented the state in felony sentencing and probation violation hearings. After law school he started his own practice doing civil litigation and has done appellate court work including at the Minnesota Supreme Court. His policy work over 10 years, he said, has given him a deep and broad understanding of criminal law.

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