When Mike Freeman took office as Hennepin County attorney in 1990, his political rise appeared to put him on track to one day sit in the governor's office once occupied by his father.

Instead, Freeman has become the longest serving Hennepin County attorney.

During his tenure he has been at the center of some of the most divisive law enforcement issues facing the city and the region, including gangs, gun violence, drug trafficking and alleged sexual assault by University of Minnesota athletes.

Facing the prospect of a rugged campaign next year, when he will be 70, Freeman insists he is eager to take on what could be his final political fight.

"I honestly think I'm at the top of my game," Freeman said in a recent interview, his deep, confident voice filling his office. "I think I have better judgment and more experience."

In nearly 20 years as the county's top lawyer, Freeman has taken a hard stance on gun crimes, generally seeking higher sentences in violent crimes when guns are involved. He has also led programs to reduce truancy, crack down on domestic violence and expand services for abuse victims.

But Freeman is facing stiff opposition from the NAACP and other advocacy groups for his decision last year not to prosecute the two police officers involved in the killing of Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man in north Minneapolis. Clark's death in November 2015 prompted weeks of protest, including an 18-day siege of the Fourth Precinct police headquarters in north Minneapolis.

Freeman's decision not to prosecute the two officers came after he took the unprecedented step of reviewing the evidence personally rather than submitting it to a grand jury. His conclusion that the shooting was justified provoked the NAACP, normally a reliable ally for DFLers like Freeman, to actively seek to recruit a challenger to oppose him in 2018.

"In the criminal justice system, he doesn't value everybody the same," said Jason Sole, head of the Minneapolis NAACP.

'Do justice every day'

On a January day this year, coffee and pastries were served in the Hennepin County grand jury room. It was the only space in the office large enough to accommodate the throng of media, friends and family there to witness the swearing in of three new assistant attorneys.

To the new attorneys, Freeman explained the massive scope of his office. He oversees a staff of 425, including 189 attorneys who in 2015 reviewed just over 10,000 cases, as well as provided legal advice for Hennepin County, "a 1.9 billion dollar business," he said.

"What do we expect? We expect you to do justice every day. We want you to do the right thing every day," Freeman said.

His reverence for the office is shared by his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

"The job is an unbelievable job because you have a lot of power over people's lives," Klobuchar said. The county attorney is "the minister of justice. That means you convict the guilty, but you also protect the innocent," she said.

For Freeman, that duty meant exonerating the two officers in Clark's death. His decision has united a coalition of black leaders who say he didn't do his duty, and that it signals a larger problem with how his office deals with race.

Black leaders say Freeman knowingly lied about what led to the fatal encounter to justify lethal force by police. Freeman is incensed by the accusation.

"That's bullshit," he says.

Since he took office, race has remained one of the biggest issues confronting Freeman.

Critics have zeroed in on rampant racial disparities in Hennepin County's criminal courts. According to court data, Freeman's office has charged blacks with roughly 44 percent of all felonies, despite that group accounting for roughly 12 percent of the county's population.

Whites, on other hand, have been charged with about 27 percent of all felonies, though they make up 75 percent of the county's population.

Freeman said he's spent several years working to reduce the disparities. He has cut the number of juveniles given curfew violations. He was one of the first to start a push for drug sentencing reform, which finally went into effect last year and will see lower sentences for drug possessions.

He's also increased the number of minorities in his office from 2 percent to 20 percent.

Despite those steps, the fallout from the Clark case has posed a new public test for Freeman, perhaps his toughest.

When the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension finished its investigation of Clark's death, Freeman had several of his attorneys review the work and gathered them in his office. Each person wrote down what they would do on a note card and turned it face down.

Then, beginning with the most junior staffer, Freeman asked each of them to explain their decision.

When it was his turn, Freeman turned over his card. It said no, there was no case to prosecute. Everyone else had come to the same verdict.

In a packed news conference on March 30, 2016, Freeman said there was no indication that the 24-year-old Clark was handcuffed when he was shot, contradicting accounts from witnesses who reported seeing police handcuff Clark beforehand.

Clark's DNA was found on an officer's gun and belt, confirming police accounts that Clark had tried to grab a gun. The officers were in fear for their lives, Freeman said, and they heard Clark say, "I'm ready to die."

Nekima Levy-Pounds, now a Minneapolis mayoral candidate, was head of the local chapter of the NAACP at the time. She attended Freeman's news conference and immediately disputed his account.

Others joined in. Why did Freeman bring up what Clark allegedly said about being ready to die? None of the witnesses heard that — only the police.

Frustrated, Freeman ended the hourlong news conference and walked out.

Pounds and other members of the NAACP and Black Lives Matter gathered outside in a hallway.

"I hope that Mike Freeman knows he is on notice, that he will not get re-elected, that he will be looking for a new job, because we are coming for him," said Mica Grimm of Black Lives Matter.

Freeman has twice run unopposed, so he could face his first major challenge in more than a decade.

A tense sit-down

The rancor over the Clark case has lingered.

Sole of the NAACP said that after a number of attempts, he and Freeman finally met in late February.

The sit-down in Freeman's 20th floor office of the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis started cordially. Then Sole, referring to the Clark case, asked Freeman if he had a conscience.

Freeman defended his decision, saying repeatedly that the DNA showed Clark reached for the officer's gun and that he wasn't handcuffed.

Freeman did concede that he shouldn't have repeated at the news conference the officers' accounts that Clark said he was ready to die.

"It wasn't necessary for me to say that," Freeman said.

Sole appreciated the sentiment, "but beyond that, we were just going around and around."

After an hour, the meeting ended.

Sole said he left with no new trust or respect for Freeman. Black leaders have yet to identify a candidate to challenge Freeman, but they remain determined.

"He understands," Sole said, "that we won't be going away."

For his part, Freeman says he's at peace waging a campaign to keep his office while under fire from people who might normally be his allies. And he's content to end his career short of the governorship that some once thought was his destiny.

"I'd love to be governor," said Freeman. "But that's not gonna happen. And I'm OK with that. I love this job and have a chance to do an awful lot of good things."

Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626