Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman can’t point to a particular moment that convinced him in May that it was time to seek help for his alcoholism.
It was a series of things, he said: The long illness and death of his mother, DFL Party icon Jane Freeman; a tough re-election battle in 2018; ongoing consternation in the community over the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark; the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor.
“They were all huge stressors,” Freeman said Thursday, in his first extensive interview since returning from a medical leave in June.
“You don’t think this stuff can get to you. But guess what? It did.”
Freeman admitted that sharing his struggles with alcohol was very difficult. “I’m a human and none of us like to admit our failures,” he said.
He voluntarily sought outpatient treatment and benefited from it, he said, but will need to continue his recovery through active participation in Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Alcohol had no impact on the way I did my job,” he said. “I never got into a situation where I was drinking in the morning or during the workday. I know I didn’t make a decision while I was impaired.”
Freeman isn’t the only Minnesota elected official to deal with substance-abuse issues. Both former Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, and former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Republican, went public with their addictions.
Dayton acknowledged his alcoholism and mental health issues during his successful campaign for governor in 2010. Ramstad long has been open about his chemical dependency since a drinking binge landed him in jail in 1981, when he was a state senator.
‘Time to do something’
Freeman issued a five-paragraph statement announcing his leave on May 17. He was dealing with high blood pressure and other health issues, and a licensed assessor said he needed alcohol treatment. He said he was entering a well-respected treatment program and that he needed privacy so he could focus on his recovery.
The announcement came a day after three sources told the Star Tribune that Freeman had behaved erratically at a meeting in north Minneapolis, slapping a police squad car and making a joke about Noor’s prosecution. While he said Thursday he didn’t really want to address the incident, he said that “something happened” and that he wasn’t certain that what some of the police officers reported was what actually happened.
The incident took place at an official event he attended as county attorney. Freeman said he had been drinking beforehand.
“I’m not here to contest anything. I don’t see any value in it,” he said. “I was drinking before it and I should have not been. I think that is all that is really important.”
Freeman’s leave lasted about six weeks. Deputy County Attorney David Brown, who with Deputy Lolita Ulloa ran the office in his absence, said, “Our staff has full confidence in Mike’s leadership of the office going forward.”
“I’m most proud of the staff we’ve built. The two deputies were brilliant and led the office superbly when I was gone, and the managers and whole office stepped up,” Freeman said. “The citizens of Hennepin County weren’t shortchanged, and I’m determined to spend the next 3 ½ years of my term justifying their confidence.”
Freeman said he believes he is the kind of accountable leader that the county wants and expects. To prove that, he said, he made the decision himself whether to file charges against Noor and the officers who shot and killed Clark, rather than leave it to a grand jury as is ordinarily done.
“The facts didn’t support charges in the Jamar Clark case, and the facts simply required a charge with Mohamed Noor,” he said. “Not using a grand jury wasn’t a unanimous option in my office and elsewhere. I think I was on the right side of this one.”
For a prosecuting office the size of Hennepin County’s, Freeman said, there haven’t been the kinds of controversies in similar offices elsewhere, such as deliberately falsifying evidence. He emphasized that he’s fully on the job and also stressed his office’s priority on collaboration. On Thursday alone, he consulted on five different cases, and he frequently leans on former Hennepin County District Judge Dan Mabley for perspective.
“I started as a civil trial specialist, and our civil division is nice enough to consult with me,” Freeman said. “I need to be fresh and clear for those, and I am.”
In characterizing his drinking habits, he said he has been known to enjoy a drink or two since college. But he said he’s not especially proud of his immediate history.
“It led me to the conclusion that it was time to do something about it,” he said.
Freeman won’t completely blame any problems with alcohol on job pressures. He’s run for county attorney “a bunch of times” since 1990 and twice unsuccessfully vied for governor, his father’s old job — once losing the DFL endorsement and once winning the party’s endorsement but losing the primary to then-Attorney General Skip Humphrey. He said it’s been a privilege to serve the public and he loves the job.
“But I will be more deliberate than before,” he said. “I’m trying to make sure outside stressors are kept to a minimum.”
William Moyers, a spokesman for Hazelden Betty Ford, said Freeman should remember that nothing is more important than his recovery. Moyers called him an inspiration for his willingness to speak out, and noted that he will remain in the spotlight because he is a public figure.
“If he surrounds himself with people in a similar situation, he should be OK,” said Moyers. “He has the opportunity to be a beacon of hope for people who are struggling. Mike has had an important and successful career, and recovery is only part of his journey.”
Completing treatment has given Freeman a little more insight, he said, into people with chemical dependency who go through the criminal justice system. It’s stunning how many defendants break the law when they are under the influence of drugs and alcohol, he said.
‘Just as good as before’
Freeman said he never had any doubt he would return to the job after taking a leave. He said he’s come back “just as good as before, if not better.”
“And I don’t think anybody you would talk to would say my decisionmaking was impacted [by alcohol],” he said.
He said he has been overwhelmed by people in various walks of life who have reached out in support, and he will try to do the same.
“That’s something you owe,” he said. “That’s fulfilling the 12th Step” of the Alcoholics Anonymous program.
It’s way too soon to decide if he will run for what would be his seventh term as county attorney in 2022, Freeman said. He is 71, and there might be a time that’s good for him to step down and enjoy life, he said.
While treatment and recovery are a humbling experience, Freeman said, he remains sure that he’s the best person to be Hennepin County attorney.
“As long as I think my judgment is solid and I can give folks a full day’s work every day, I’m going to be here,” he said.