Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton now share one major headache: The vexing politics of sex offender policies.
Finding the right solutions for dealing with the worst sex offenders in the state has long eluded the highest elected official in the land.
The leader this time, Dayton, has been hit hard by rivals for the state’s role in potentially moving some civilly committed sex offenders and for not opposing the release of another.
Serial rapist Thomas Duvall, who served his prison term, has long been locked in a state hospital. Duvall’s crimes, confessions and fantasies were aired in news reports as he approaches release. Like most of the 700 sex offenders now civilly committed in hospitals, the horrific accounts cause nightmares for politicians and voters alike.
But, the legal thinking goes, grave constitutional questions arise if the state never releases any sex offender from civil commitment after their prison terms, creating de facto life sentences. The state is allowed to keep them locked up only because it promises to be treating them. If no one ever completes treatment, the courts could strike down the whole program.
After enduring a steady bashing for not taking a tougher stand, particularly from Republican gubernatorial contender Kurt Zellers and the state Republican Party, the governor hit back.
Saying “political grandstanding” and gamesmanship were destroying fruitful discussion, he closed the door on support for future release of sex offenders until legislative proposals emerge to fix the befuddling system.
Much of Dayton’s experience is reminiscent of the way the issue roiled parts of Pawlenty’s term.
Pawlenty, like Dayton, had a strong law-and-order reputation. But he spent years grappling with criticism over his handling of sex offenders and proposing policies to find solutions for dealing with offenders.
A decade ago, Pawlenty and then-DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch led newscasts and newspapers with their bitter sparring over the issue. At one point, three years before Hatch narrowly lost the governor’s election to Pawlenty, Hatch told the Star Tribune that Pawlenty was about to unveil a plan to release the worst offenders from secure hospitals.
The publicly jovial and calm Pawlenty lashed out: “We haven’t proposed it. We will not propose it. And in fact we oppose it,” a clearly agitated Pawlenty said in 2003. “It is fiction. … This allegation has now been elevated into a political debate, primarily involving the attorney general.”
He later proposed a plan to impose the death penalty for sex offenders, which Minnesotans have long rejected.
Echoing Pawlenty, Dayton said this week: “The political partisanship has made it clear that this is an issue that will be seized upon and abused by some who don’t mind scaring the people of Minnesota for their own advantage.”
This month, the brickbats are swinging in all directions.
DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson and the governor have publicly differed on Duvall’s case. Swanson has said he should not be released; Dayton has backed his human services commissioner in not opposing Duvall’s release.
And Zellers, who bashed Duvall’s proposed release, has taken some big hits from his own party.
Zellers professed outrage that Dayton would not stop Duvall’s release. He did it at a Capitol news conference. He did it in a message to supporters of his gubernatorial campaign, titled “When Leaders Lie.” And he has done it for days on Twitter.
That’s when Zellers’ Republican gubernatorial rivals struck back.
“A serious public safety issue, such as dangerous sex offenders, shouldn’t be the subject of the usual political games,” said Scott Honour.
The political ado has again netted headlines, but it is far from certain it will net a safer Minnesota.