Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman won't seek re-election when his term expires next year, ending a 24-year tenure in the post.
Freeman's announcement Wednesday comes near the end of a tumultuous year that saw his office criticized by activists immediately after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and caps a career that he said saw changes for the better.
Freeman said turning age 74 next year was a key factor in his decision. "When you turn 70, you have a little less energy and a little less capacity to do things," he said in an interview, adding that his family's input and his accomplishments in the job were also deciding factors.
Freeman is Hennepin County's longest-serving county attorney — and an unpopular figure among some activists who say his policies have unfairly penalized people of color.
First elected in 1990, Freeman served from 1991 to 1999. He was re-elected in 2006 after then-Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar ran for the U.S. Senate. He also served in the Minnesota Senate and twice ran unsuccessfully for governor.
While several names have been floated as potential candidates to replace Freeman, three prospects have confirmed they are exploring possible campaigns: former Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Saraswati Singh and Richfield City Council Member Simon Trautmann.
"People have lost trust in that office, if they ever had trust to begin with," said Moriarty, who sparred frequently with Freeman. "Now more than ever people in our community need to be able to trust that people in charge of our institutions have the ability and vision to create meaningful change. People have the right to feel safe, and they don't feel safe right now. We have a system that is very expensive, it's costly, and it's not keeping people safe."
Singh described herself as progressive and an Asian American woman of Indian descent interested in gender and racial equity. She prosecutes sexual assaults, domestic assaults and murders, among other cases. She previously worked for the Minnesota Attorney General's Office.
"I think the community needs someone that … knows the system, and at the same time knows and appreciates the flaws and instead of running away from it, wants to make it better," Singh said. "We need a county attorney who is not only willing to talk about [equity], but has lived experiences with racism, gender equality."
Trautmann is a Minneapolis native of Puerto Rican descent who helps run a general practice law firm in downtown Minneapolis.
"There's never been another time in our community when there has been such an urgency for … justice," he said. "Every conversation that I've had has been rooted in the urgency of economic justice and racial justice."
Mark Haase, the Minnesota Department of Corrections ombudsman who ran against Freeman in 2018, said he is not planning to run. But, he said, "never say never."
"It could depend on who else runs, but it's not my plan at the moment," Haase said.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison's name has surfaced in some circles as a possible candidate.
His office took the lead in prosecuting four former Minneapolis officers charged in Floyd's death in 2020, earning convictions in April against Derek Chauvin. The other co-defendants are scheduled to be tried next March.
Ellison will announce his plans for next year "soon," said his spokesman, John Stiles.
The Hennepin County Attorney's Office is the largest of its kind in Minnesota and has prosecuted some of the state's biggest cases, including the 2019 murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor.
Noor's conviction in the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond was the first time in modern Minnesota history that an officer was convicted of an on-the-job killing.
Freeman said his office's accomplishments include increasing diversity in grand juries, embedding prosecutors with police to work on sexual assault cases and making expungement laws fairer, among others.
Retired Hennepin County District Judge Robert Small, who serves as the executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, credited Freeman with diversifying his attorney ranks and lending help to other county attorneys with smaller staffs.
"His success … in diversifying the prosecutors was a huge accomplishment for him and the office," Small said. "The quality of his staff … every county attorney was well-prepared, they had the highest professional standards and ethics."
Freeman said Wednesday that his staff will be his biggest legacy, adding that when he took the job in 1991, people of color made up 3% of the attorneys and now make up 30%.
"It's something we worked on very hard and we're proud of," he said, noting that two of his former prosecutors are women of color who are now judges.
Small said Freeman also worked well with federal authorities on gun cases to put violent offenders behind bars.
Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger, whose office worked closely with Freeman on drug cases, credited him with expanding the county's prosecution of white-collar crimes, human and sex trafficking and child porn.
"It's a huge responsibility and it's a huge challenge to try to staff an office that can meet all the constituents' needs," Small said of the job, noting that the office handles a host of responsibilities beyond criminal prosecution.
Freeman said he's proud of his office for developing protocols to ensure that the investigation of officer-involved killings was "as thorough as possible."
However, Freeman, who is seen as a traditionalist by many, has come under fire in recent years for his handling of such cases.
The Noor conviction did little to quell the criticism, with many activists noting that the case involved a Somali American officer and a white victim while police killings of Black men had not been prosecuted.
In 2015, Freeman came under fire for not prosecuting the two Minneapolis police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark, a Black man who was killed in north Minneapolis.
But Freeman stood by his decision in the Clark case, calling it "one of the toughest decisions I made."
"The police conduct was wrong and is not acceptable, but it was not criminal," he said. "That is my job: to charge those whose conduct is criminal and can be proven to a jury with admissible facts."
Critics didn't accept Freeman's reasoning.
"For too long, we've been forced to accept a Hennepin County prosecutor who's been unwilling to hold police accountable, who restates police statements as if they're facts," said Kathleen Cole, an activist with the group Recall Freeman that campaigned to remove him from office.
Recall Freeman is reforming as a new organization, People Over Prosecution, which plans to educate voters in hopes of electing a "transformative" prosecutor next November.
When Floyd was killed last year after Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes, Freeman drew the ire of activists when he said at a news conference, "There is other evidence that does not support a criminal charge."
His office later said he had intended to say it was critical to review all evidence and that some may not be favorable to the prosecution's case.
The clarification and eventual charging of all four officers involved in Floyd's arrest didn't stop Freeman's critics from holding several protests outside his south Minneapolis home, which sustained several thousands of dollars in damage. Amid the protests, Freeman put his home up for sale and eventually sold it for $149,000 below the asking price.
Freeman said that while the protests and criticism he endured after Floyd's death were stressful, they were not major factors in his decision not to seek re-election.
"All of the stress and the demonstrations outside my house, that didn't help," he said. "I don't think having people outside your house — a thousand people at a time screaming at you — help you make better decisions. That wasn't the deciding factor."
Freeman said he plans to continue working on several issues, including bail reform, before his term expires at the end of next year. He hasn't made any decisions yet about his life after that, other than to rule out running for any kind of public office. He said he's keeping his options open, and that everything from working for a nonprofit to consulting are possibilities.
"I'm a pretty avid fisherman," Freeman said. "I could see a new career as a part-time fishing guide."
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708