Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler announced his candidacy Tuesday for Hennepin County attorney.
The Golden Valley DFLer joins former Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty as a formal candidate in the November 2022 general election to succeed Mike Freeman, who is not seeking another term.
Other possible candidates in the nonpartisan campaign include Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Saraswati Singh and Richfield City Council Member Simon Trautmann. State Attorney General Keith Ellison has said he will not run for the office.
Winkler, 45, has worked as a lawyer for local tech companies and is now at LinkUp, which provides job market data and analytics. He also founded the Minneapolis-St. Paul chapter of the American Constitution Society, a group that works toward a progressive and inclusive legal system. He cited his years at the State Capitol, rather than in criminal court, as a key qualification for the job.
"The biggest experience that I have that helps in this position is bringing people together at the Legislature and taking on really tough issues and finding a pathway forward," Winkler said in an interview Tuesday. "I think that the county attorney, their office does not lack expertise in being trial lawyers. But we need public leadership. We need to be able to identify resources and people who want to help bring them together and solve problems."
In the Legislature, he led a successful effort to create a fund for victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, sponsored a measure to boost the state's minimum wage and sponsored an unsuccessful bill legalizing recreational marijuana.
"People in Hennepin County are frustrated that their leaders have not delivered basic public safety needs for our communities," Winkler said in a statement announcing his candidacy. "I'm running for county attorney because we need progressive leadership that will bring people together around a common vision for addressing public safety and racial justice."
In an interview, Winkler said his approach to uniting communities on public safety issues includes listening to their concerns and following through on solutions. "That also means being a partner in police accountability and building confidence in the law enforcement agencies we have and making sure that when we charge a crime and bring accountability, that we're not stopping there, but we are following through with the next steps." Those next steps could include providing resources such as mental health and social workers and chemical dependency counselors to communities to help them heal and address trauma, he said.
The post oversees the state's largest office of its kind, with 98 attorneys in the civil division and 110 attorneys in the criminal division. The office has a total staff of 208 and an annual budget of $61.9 million for fiscal year 2021. The Hennepin County attorney's current salary is $195,065.
Freeman, 73, is leaving at a time when his office has been and continues to be under intense scrutiny for its handling of cases involving police shooting civilians. His office declined to charge the Minneapolis officers involved in the shooting death of Jamar Clark in 2015; nor were police charged in the 2018 killing of Thurman Blevins. His office did charge and earn convictions against former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in the 2017 fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, but he has been criticized for not taking the same action when Black men are killed.
Freeman's office also charged former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last year in the killing of George Floyd, who is Black, but the case was quickly taken over by Ellison's office with assistance from the county. Chauvin was convicted and sentenced for murder. Trials for three other fired officers involved in Floyd's detention are pending.
"Police officers who abuse their power damage the legitimacy of law enforcement and make all of us less safe," Winkler said in his candidacy announcement. "The Hennepin County Attorney's Office should not sit on the sidelines while people are demanding that our leaders address the racial injustices in local police departments."
If elected county attorney, Winkler said Tuesday that he would create a police accountability unit at the Hennepin County Attorney's Office dedicated to evaluating police conduct, reviewing excessive force policies and strategizing police recruitment methods. It would not evaluate Hennepin County deadly force cases that need to be reviewed for criminal charges, he said.
Since prosecutors depend on police to gather facts and submit cases that should be charged, an accountability unit would ensure a trustworthy system, he said. "The way to do that is to make sure that officers who have a past history of not telling the truth go through additional layers of review when they are bringing cases."
Last week, Moriarty was the first to declare candidacy.
Among the others who may decide to run for county attorney, Singh has described herself as progressive and an Asian American of Indian descent interested in gender and racial equity. As an assistant Ramsey County attorney, she prosecutes sexual assaults, domestic assaults and homicides, among other cases. She previously worked for the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. Trautmann is a Minneapolis native of Puerto Rican descent who runs a general practice law firm in Minneapolis.
Star Tribune staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.
Christina Saint Louis • 612-673-4668
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