The race to succeed Hennepin County's longtime top prosecutor pits a former judge against the county's former chief public defender in a heated contest that will shape the direction of criminal justice in the Minneapolis-centered Fourth Judicial District.

Former prosecutor and retired Hennepin County District Court Judge Martha Holton Dimick, 69, and criminal defense educator and attorney Mary Moriarty, 58, are on the Nov. 8 ballot after winning a seven-candidate primary that illustrated mounting interest in who runs the state's largest public law office the next four years.

The winner in November will oversee 200 attorneys, 260 support staff and a $69 million budget. More than numbers, however, they will head criminal prosecutions, deciding who and what to charge, in the office's first election since George Floyd's murder by police.

Holton Dimick is campaigning as an aggressive prosecutor, backed by endorsements from the sheriff's office and Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, while Moriarty is running as a reformer who earned the DFL endorsement — despite running in August against five Democrats and the party's House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler — and a landslide primary victory.

"When you're in a leadership role for a long time, you tend to do the same thing that you've done for decades. Yet we have a lot of data and research and science that's telling us that there is a better way to prosecute, and which will keep people safer," Moriarty said.

Holton Dimick said she will prioritize prosecuting violent, repeat offenders and use her position to lobby for education funding in areas of high crime rates.

"I want to send a message to violent criminals that if you break the law — you kill, maim, rape, commit aggravated robberies, use dangerous weapons to harm victims — we are coming after you," she said. "And if you're convicted, you're going to prison."

In Holton Dimick's neighborhood of north Minneapolis, plagued with the city's worst rates of gun violence, Moriarty won every precinct. Holton Dimick, who held a news conference this fall to announce the endorsement of 30 suburban mayors and Minneapolis' Jacob Frey, won 10 cities while Moriarty was the top vote-getter in the rest of the county's 45 cities.

About a third of Hennepin County residents live in Minneapolis. The overarching issue from the heart of downtown to Lake Minnetonka is addressing crime, and the candidates have different ideas for achieving public safety.

The race has become the latest flashpoint in a larger battle over the direction of law enforcement in many cities across the country.

"Given the fact that Minneapolis and Hennepin County have become a national microcosm on police reform — but at the same time, as a result of that, on law and order issues — it's just a race that's almost outsized in its importance," said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University and a law professor at the University of Minnesota.

Since 1991, the office has had only two leaders: Mike Freeman and Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Before their tenures, the county's longest-serving commissioner Randy Johnson said the office was considered a dead-end political job.

"There's more attention paid this year to the Hennepin County attorney's race than in the 60 years that I've followed Minnesota politics," Johnson said.

About the candidates

Holton Dimick would be the first Black woman and Moriarty would be the first openly gay woman to run the office if elected.

Moriarty grew up in Greater Minnesota in a divorced family. She lived in a trailer park in Grand Rapids where her mom was an English teacher, and New Ulm where her dad was a lawyer and part-time public defender.

"I knew all the police officers there, and he used to take me to the jail," she said of her father. "I knew judges and personally it gave me a really helpful perspective that I certainly have brought here."

Holton Dimick was raised in Milwaukee. She became pregnant on the brink of attending college. The single mother earned an RN certificate and worked in health care to provide for her daughter, then went back to school to earn a law degree. Klobuchar later appointed her as the first North Minneapolis community prosecutor to combat juvenile crime.

"We were able to bring crime down to a significant level because we collaborated with law enforcement, community organizations, the clergy, with anyone who wanted to be eyes on the streets 365 days of the year," Holton Dimick said. "And that worked."

The county attorney holds a lot of discretion in deciding how to charge a case. Typically this is done behind closed doors. Both candidates say the office will be more transparent with them at the helm.

Moriarty said she will have a victim- and data-based approach to the office, sharing policies and more statistics to build trust and make decisions. The office already has a data dashboard, but she wants to add racial and gender data on charging decisions and criteria for juvenile diversion to address disparities.

Candidates say addressing gun violence is most pressing. Holton Dimick wants to form a gun task force while strengthening bail requirements. Moriarty said she wants to get at the root cause of shootings like Attorney General Keith Ellison did recently by suing Fleet Farm for selling guns to straw buyers. Ellison endorsed Moriarty, and the offices work closely together on criminal and civil cases.

Suspensions, overturned rulings

Moriarty was suspended as chief public defender in 2019 after five years on the job. The state board declined to reappoint her, though former Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo supported her reinstatement.

A report found that she posted "inappropriate and offensive" content online, "fractured" relationships with criminal justice leaders and created a fear of retaliation in her office, among other issues. Last year she won a $300,000 settlement, to avoid a looming discrimination lawsuit, she said. Part of the settlement agreement is that she can no longer work as a public defender in Minnesota.

Moriarty said she was let go because of her advocacy for racial justice and salary parity. But a takeaway from the report was that she doesn't work well with others — something Moriarty contests.

"I suppose if you want to define get along with others as I was speaking out publicly about harmful policies, I wouldn't define it that way," she said.

Recently, Holton Dimick came under fire on social media when it was revealed her law license was not active but in good standing when the retired judge filed to run for office. State law requires county attorneys to hold a valid law license. She has since updated the status to active.

Holton Dimick responded to the controversy on social media by saying she deactivated her license to save money (about $50), which drew even more criticism. Her campaign manager, Jacob Hill, said opponents are trumping up false claims to distract from the real issues. "She has nothing to hide," he said.

Throughout her campaign, Holton Dimick has faced scrutiny for rulings overturned by higher courts during her 10 years on the bench.

The political fund People Over Prosecution, which endorsed Moriarty and whose organizers were behind an unsuccessful effort to recall Freeman in 2020, shined a light on several cases Holton Dimick presided over that went to the appellate or Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, the Court of Appeals reversed her decision in a DWI case of a 70-year-old-man who violated probation and was sent to the workhouse. The court said in its ruling that Holton Dimick based her decision in part because she said people would see her face on the front page of the news and "complain when the courts let people like Mr. O'Brien out and then he goes out and kills somebody."

Holton Dimick said she oversaw thousands of cases as a judge and it is not uncommon to be reversed.

For both candidates, the stakes are high in the final weeks of what has been a bruising campaign.

"Even outside Hennepin County, what happens there reverberates," Schultz said.

Staff writers Rochelle Olson and Tom Nehil contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this report misstated the police organization that endorsed Martha Holton Dimick and David Schultz's title. He is a political science professor at Hamline University and a law professor at the University of Minnesota. She is endorsed by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.