Republican attorney general challenger Chris Barden's résumé is certainly impressive: a Harvard law degree, a doctorate in clinical psychology, and prestigious consulting gigs. But whether he's a good fit for this powerful Minnesota office is an entirely different question.
After a wide-ranging interview, the Editorial Board's conclusion is that he is not the right candidate and that DFL incumbent Lori Swanson merits a second four-year term. Barden looks good on paper, but in person he's clearly an ideologue who sees the office as a way to accomplish the GOP's shopworn wish list: challenging federal health care reform's constitutionality, reigniting 2008 Minnesota Senate recount doubts, pushing photo identification voting requirements, and continuing to stir up controversy about the now-defunct ACORN advocacy organization. So much for a forward-looking agenda.
In fact, Barden's intensity in talking about the Minnesota Senate recount and photo ID raised questions about whether he's running for the right office. This political newcomer perhaps should have sought a legislative seat or run for secretary of state, which administers elections.
Swanson is unlikely to win a "Boss of the Year" award, but she has continued the Minnesota attorney general office's long tradition of consumer advocacy and watchdog work. In contrast to Barden's partisan agenda, Swanson is more grounded in issues affecting Minnesotans' everyday lives. She and her attorneys have rooted out foreclosure scams, cracked down on arbitration abuses by credit card companies, and dug into utility rate hike requests. Work by her office uncovered luxurious travel by Xcel Energy executives, which helped push that company to implement new, cost-conscious policies.
Swanson also gets good marks from officials who work with her office on more routine business taking care of the state's legal needs. From their perspective, the office is responsive and professional.
Swanson also smartly turned down the governor's politically motivated request to file a lawsuit challenging health reform's constitutionality. This battle has been taken up elsewhere, and there are far more productive ways for Swanson and her staff to spend their time. If Barden becomes attorney general, it's not clear how getting involved in this fight would change the outcome or benefit Minnesotans. Tellingly, Barden could not name a single state health care organization endorsing him.
Swanson had a rocky start when she took over from her mentor, fiery former Attorney General Mike Hatch. Swanson should have cut off his official involvement with the office much sooner than she did. Her management style also alienated some staff attorneys, a problem highlighted on these pages. While things are smoother, the hardworking Swanson should be more considerate of staff morale.
Barden, however, has seriously undercut his credibility with his hyperbolic criticism of Swanson's management. His most serious error: omitting key information. Barden has spouted off repeatedly about a 2008 investigative report in which seven members of Swanson's staff who were interviewed under oath said they were pressured to file lawsuits garnering favorable publicity. What he neglects to say: They also stated under oath that "no inappropriate, unethical or illegal actions resulted from the pressure,'' according to the report.
As far as Barden's claim that he'd be more business-friendly, Minnesota firms should consider who they're dealing with. Barden, a native who moved back to Minnesota in 2007, has been a successful trial attorney. His campaign literature boasts about his "clients receiving record jury verdicts and settlements." He's the kind of lawyer who businesses typically blame for driving up insurance rates.
Swanson still needs to improve staff relations, but her practical leadership for the attorney general's office is right on. She deserves Minnesotans' vote.