A veteran prosecutor is facing off against the third generation in the Johnson family.
Tony Palumbo and Brad Johnson can't recall "the-time- is-finally-right" moment when they decided to run for Anoka County attorney.
Both candidates in next week's election have had markedly different career paths. Palumbo, 58, has spent more than 30 years as an assistant Anoka County attorney, prosecuting every type of criminal and civil case. Johnson, 40, worked for two large law firms, handling state and federal cases, before joining the Hennepin County attorney's office in 2007.
Another distinctive note in the race: Johnson's father and grandfather have been Anoka County's only county attorneys over the past 60 years.
"They were the best mentors that anyone could have for the job," Johnson said. "But they never asked me to run or suggested it."
While some might think having that kind of name recognition behind you would be a huge advantage, Palumbo said he isn't sure how it's playing with voters.
"Some voters, after so long, may want to see a change," he said. "We will find out how many want that change on Tuesday."
Johnson, of Coon Rapids, made it clear he has sought to create his own independent reputation and "legacy" since he was certified to try cases for the Anoka County attorney's office while in law school. Since then, he has worked for Gray Plant Moody law firm in Minneapolis and Womble Carlyle, based in North Carolina. He argued cases in State Supreme and federal Appeals Courts, winning several cases with the largest verdicts in North Carolina in the mid- 2000s.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman recruited Johnson to handle complex mortgage fraud cases, a relatively new crime trend. The cases often take months to litigate. Johnson says that, since 2007, he has tried more mortgage fraud cases in state and federal court than any other lawyer in Minnesot history.
Palumbo, of Blaine, spent the first half of his career mainly on criminal cases, but has been a lead civil attorney for the county since 1993. He advises the Sheriff's Office and many county boards, and defended the county in federal court in a defamation case that he said saved the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Like Johnson's, Palumbo's priorities are to work more with schools and senior citizens. Domestic abuse, a problem for years, will also receive more attention. Six of the county's last eight homicides were committed by the victim's partner, Palumbo said.
During his door-knocking, Palumbo said, he was surprised that 90 percent of the people he met didn't know what a county attorney does (the person serves as a chief prosecutor who manages a staff of more than 100 people who prosecute criminal and civil cases and guides criminal justice policies). Palumbo hopes to change that with improved community outreach by his office.
Johnson says he wants to use his expertise in fraud crimes and ramp up the county's ability to prosecute such cases. Other specific goals include assigning an attorney from the office to each police department and high school and develop a court specifically for military veterans to reintegrate into the community. Deterring repeated offenders must be the overreaching mission of his office, Johnson said.
"I'm at the cutting edge of criminal prosecution right now," he said. "I want to take that experience and put to work for my own community and shape criminal justice policy and increase public safety."
Besides current County Attorney Bob Johnson, Palumbo has the longest tenure in the office. When he learned Johnson wouldn't be running for reelection, Palumbo believed the relationships he had built the office would make him a good candidate. Brad Johnson said he didn't want to wait until the end of his career to run "because he wouldn't have as positive impact on the community as I know I can."
"Elections are about the future, not about the past," Johnson said.
Both candidates have a long list of endorsements from law enforcement, labor, civic groups and politicians. Palumbo is a board member at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and a local ice arena, and received the Minnesota State Bar Association Public Law Section 2010 Public Attorney Award of Excellence. Johnson was elected a council member for the state bar's policy-making body.
"I will be disappointed if I don't win," Palumbo said.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465