Tony Palumbo isn't just running against another established lawyer for Anoka County attorney. In Brad Johnson, he's running against a legacy -- a family that has held the office since 1950, an opponent who has the backing of the Hennepin County attorney as well as the retiring Anoka County attorney.

Johnson, a Hennepin County prosecutor who has specialized in mortgage-fraud cases, is the son of Robert M.A. Johnson, Anoka County attorney since 1982. The giant gavel that sits in M.A.'s office was passed to him by his father, Robert W. Johnson, who held the office the previous 32 years.

"The Johnsons are a tribe, not a dynasty," said Brad Johnson, who deeply admires his father and grandfather but is running on his own merits.

Still, the familiarity of the Johnson name goes beyond Anoka County. R.W. was a college dorm-mate of future Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman, who would be elected governor of Minnesota before serving as U.S. secretary of agriculture under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

It was Orville's son, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who lured Brad Johnson from private practice in North Carolina back to Minnesota, assigning him to prominent cases that have included the land-condemnation case involving property needed to build the Twins' new Target Field. Johnson was the prosecutor when real estate magnate Larry Maxwell was convicted last year of mortgage fraud, a trial that included testimony from high-profile witnesses including former Minnesota Vikings punter Greg Coleman, activist Spike Moss, sportswriter Larry Fitzgerald Sr. and the Rev. Jerry McAfee.

"I tell myself, I'm not running against Brad; I'm running for the office," said Palumbo. "I don't have the advantage of having a family name that's so familiar in Anoka County. It's a steep tradition."

Worked his way up

Palumbo, 57, has been a fixture at the Anoka County attorney's office longer than almost anyone not named Johnson. Hired as a law clerk 33 years ago by Robert W. Johnson, Palumbo has been an assistant county attorney since 1979. A prosecutor early in his Anoka County career, he has worked cases involving criminal, family and civil law.

"We can call Tony any time and know that he'll help us out, advise us, give us direction," said Loni Payne, chief deputy in the Anoka County sheriff's office.

"When Tony was a prosecutor, he was very aggressive," Payne said. "Very sensitive to the victim. And always wanting to make sure the offender was held accountable."

With a staff of 100, including 40 attorneys, the Anoka County attorney needs to be a top manager, willing to delegate authority. But, first and foremost, that person must be a good lawyer, said Mike Freeman, who recruited Brad Johnson, 40, because he "works hard, has a good sense of justice and has extensive experience."

'My Three Sons'

Freeman knows the blessing and curse of trying to tiptoe through the family footsteps. When he ran for governor in 1998, other DFL candidates included Hubert Humphrey III and Ted Mondale, both sons of former vice presidents. The "My Three Sons" theme got old in a hurry, Freeman said.

"I'm sure Brad's got plenty of independence," said Freeman, who recently visited with R.W. Johnson, 93. "Brad knows about public office. He's spent time with me and others and knows how we operate. He hits the ground running.

"When M.A. leaves, he leaves. You're always respectful. But it's your ball game."

When Brad Johnson left Minnesota for private practice in North Carolina, he did so, in part, to change that game. He developed an independent reputation in a place where the Johnson name meant no more than any other Smith or Jones.

The filing period for the office is between May 18 and June 1, but both Palumbo and Johnson already are campaigning. Johnson says he is running for the job, not to push this six-decade-old family tradition into its third generation. He says the job needs a strong prosecutor. For him, there's the added incentive to "come back and repay the investment" so many people in Anoka County have made in him.

Palumbo, who has done almost every other job in the county attorney's office, is running because the time is right.

"I've had a myriad of experiences through 32 years in office that help me see what works and what doesn't work in handling the duties of the county attorney's office," he said.

For many county workers, picking sides could prove awkward. Dick Lang, a five-term Anoka County commissioner, says "the most important thing for a county attorney with a big staff is how they can deal with people."

Lang says both men "are very capable." He praised Palumbo's knowledge and experience and then added, "I think Brad, possibly, is the same way."

Asked if running against the boss' son is awkward, Palumbo answered, "No, I don't think so. I think everyone involved has learned to live with the situation."

After filing, Palumbo will take a mandatory leave from office. Until then, Robert M.A. Johnson won't exactly be standing at the crossroads.

"I'm glad Brad's running," the father said.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419