As a teenager growing up in St. Louis Park, Susan Segal had a poster on her bedroom wall supporting the Minnesota Eight, a group of antiwar activists who were arrested in 1970 by the FBI.
That same year, Segal joined protesters who tried to stop demolition of some Dinkytown buildings to make way for a fast-food restaurant, the Red Barn. She also demonstrated against the Honeywell Corp. for producing antipersonnel fragmentation bombs used during the Vietnam War.
These days, Segal, 61, represents the city of Minneapolis as its city attorney — something of a role reversal. She’s praised as a hardworking, reform-minded advocate by city leaders but criticized by some of the activist crowd for her stance on issues surrounding a $15-per-hour minimum wage, police accountability and the right to vote on the Vikings stadium.
“She may be a fine person, but her opinions favor powerful institutional interests,” said Bruce Nestor, an attorney who represented supporters of a charter amendment on the higher minimum wage. The state Supreme Court sided with Segal, who argued that the Minneapolis city charter did not allow a public vote on it.
But Segal disagrees with Nestor’s assessment of her work. Her job, she said, is to be the city’s lawyer.
“I don’t work on behalf of the powerful people,” she said. “I do represent the city of Minneapolis and at times that may feel like it is defending the status quo, but, heck, we are one of the most progressive cities in the country.”
Former Mayor R.T. Rybak appointed Segal to the post in 2008, and Mayor Betsy Hodges kept her on after coming into office.
“She has integrity, persistence, compassion and a sense of humor,” Hodges said. “She and I have been in many tight spots together, and she is a very good person to have at your back when you’re in a tight spot.”
Rybak concurs: “Many of the things I got credit for was because Susan was helping as a key part of the team.”
The job comes with plenty of controversy.
Segal roiled Vikings stadium critics in 2012 when she advised the City Council that a referendum was not needed on the deal, despite a charter provision requiring voters to have a say on city-financed stadiums. The stadium bill narrowly passed the council, partly because of that opinion, but a judge disagreed with her office’s reasoning after opponents sued. It was moot, however, because the Legislature voted to override the city’s charter requirements.
“If the sales taxes had been dispersed to the city, so the city had it in its coffers, then I think yes, a referendum would have been needed,” she said. “It never came back to the city, so the city never had it in its coffers.”
Activist attorney Jordan Kushner often clashes with Segal’s attorneys in court on behalf of clients — or, earlier this year, over his own arrest at a protest at the University of Minnesota.
“She makes decisions based on what she thinks is politically expected rather than operating on any core principles,” Kushner said.
Charges in Kushner’s personal case were dropped — after he vowed to fight them — but he lost an appeal on behalf of activists pushing for a charter amendment that would require police officers to carry their own liability insurance. A district judge sided with Segal, as did the state Supreme Court.
But city staff and others describe a woman with ethics and drive and cite Segal’s work on domestic violence and equity in the justice system.
Assistant Police Chief Kris Arneson said Segal helped develop training for officers on gathering evidence in domestic violence cases, which has led to more convictions. “She gets things done,” Arneson said.
Police Deputy Chief of Staff Medaria Arradondo noted Segal’s role in establishing a diversion program for first-time offenders accused of obstructing the legal process. Instead of criminal prosecution, they have a chance to meet with Arradondo to talk about what they did.
“We found it helps to build a bridge of understanding on both sides,” Arradondo said.
It can lead to better police-community relations, Segal said, and the city is considering expanding the program.
“While they may still hate the police, a lot of them feel like they’ve been heard,” Segal said.
Political family ties
Politics runs in Segal’s family. Her late mother, Gloria Segal, was a DFL state representative who authored bills to aid those with mental illness.
Susan Segal graduated from Marshall-University High and the University of California Berkeley before enrolling at the University of Michigan Law School. (Her father, Martin Segal, a retired head of pathology at Methodist Hospital, had urged her to pursue a career in science.)
After a stint in Washington, D.C., she landed back in Minneapolis at the Gray Plant Mooty law firm, which offered her a job at the urging of her mother. Segal later became a partner.
Her first marriage ended in divorce, and Segal married Myron Frans, a tax lawyer, in 1992. Today, Frans is state commissioner of management and budget — a job Segal volunteered him for without his knowledge.
Frans was president of a small company when newly elected Gov. Mark Dayton offered him a job in 2010.
“It was totally out of left field,” said Frans, who had previously been state revenue commissioner. “I was not expecting it.”
He later found out Segal urged a friend on Dayton’s transition team to contact him.
Loyalty through the years
Segal’s political links reach all the way to the nation’s capital and the office of Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Segal mentored Klobuchar as a law student doing summer work at Segal’s firm, and they became friends. In 2003, Klobuchar, then Hennepin County attorney, named Segal her chief deputy in charge of the civil division.
“She’s a very steady, positive person,” Klobuchar said. “She’s loyal. She likes the people who work with her and for her.”
City Council Member Jacob Frey said she’s also smart and pragmatic.
“I’ll come in with 10 ideas; some of them are brilliant, some are absolutely stupid. She is quick to separate the well-intentioned but idiotic ones from the ones that will genuinely make our city extraordinary,” he said. “Everybody and their mother has a vision, but Susan figures out how to execute it.”
And, Frey said, he’s working with her on the legalities of enacting a minimum wage higher than the state standard in Minneapolis.