For the first time in 12 years, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman faces a challenger, and the countywide race is drawing out-of-state attention.

Freeman failed to win the DFL endorsement at the party county convention last month. Instead, it went to a political newcomer, an activist lawyer named Mark Haase, who touts his progressive credentials. The two men are the only candidates for the post in this technically nonpartisan election.

Freeman also calls himself a progressive, but he's taken increasing heat from other progressives for decisions about prosecutions involving police officers and black criminal suspects. That tension flared again last week with the revelation that Freeman had been charging dozens of black men caught in a sting by Minneapolis police for selling small amounts of marijuana.

Haase blasted Freeman over the issue in a news release. Freeman said in his own statement that while his office knew about the problem, he did not, and he said he acted swiftly to address it when he was told.

The contest between the two men could be stirred further by outside forces that are considering investing in the Minnesota county attorney's race. Freeman acknowledged he's concerned about it.

Incumbent prosecutors have been targeted around the country by activist groups seeking criminal justice changes. Billionaire George Soros has made big contributions to upstart candidates. Outside groups helped the 2017 election of Philadelphia's liberal district attorney, Larry Krasner, a critic of mass incarcerations.

Real Justice, one of the activist groups, may take sides in the Hennepin County race, said Becky Bond, one of the group's founders.

"I have been watching [this election] very carefully and we are excited about the contest," she said. "Over 85 percent of county prosecutors are elected in elections where they face no challengers. We're very interested in what [Haase] has to say about how he wants to reform the criminal justice system, and we will probably be deciding our next round of endorsements in the next couple of weeks."

Both candidates have received questionnaires from Real Justice, and Bond said it will decide whom to endorse based on the responses. Support from the group would probably involve paying grass-roots organizers to mobilize volunteers to talk to voters.

"The fact there is a contested election in a major city makes this race very important to the reform movement," she said.

In two separate stints, Freeman has served 20 years — longer than any county attorney in Hennepin County history.

"I think it is inappropriate for outside interests to drop huge sums of money into a DA's race," said Freeman. "People in Hennepin County should finance and elect their local prosecutor. ... I am one of the more progressive prosecutors in the country." He said Soros has targeted very conservative prosecutors and he's not one of them.

Freeman is a time-tested name in Minnesota. His late father, Orville, was both a Minnesota governor and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Mike Freeman was county attorney from 1990 to 1998, won the DFL endorsement for governor in 1998 and lost the primary to Skip Humphrey. He ran again in 2006, when he beat DFL-endorsed Andy Luger.

This time, Freeman faces more criticism. He was denounced by many in the black community and some white activists for not charging two white police officers in the shooting death of Jamar Clark, a black man, in north Minneapolis. Freeman notes he posted the range of evidence of the Clark case on his office website and was praised in some quarters. Freeman's decision to charge Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond was applauded by some activists but has been criticized by many in the black community. Noor, who is awaiting trial, is Somali-American.

"The fallout from the Jamar Clark killing was a major influence on the outcome [of the DFL convention along with] other Black Lives Matter issues," says Jeff Spartz, a former Hennepin County commissioner who leans toward Freeman but was not involved in his campaign. "A lot of people felt that Freeman was not addressing [their concerns] in a matter that they wished."

Haase (pronounced HAH-zee) said racial justice is one of his dominant themes. "We have serious problems with our criminal justice system including unacceptably high racial disparities," he says. "We have too narrow a focus on punishment with not enough allowance for second chances.

"And we are essentially punishing things like poverty, addiction and mental illness. We have to be a lot more innovative and press harder for change in Hennepin County."

Haase said he'd "significantly limit" marijuana prosecutions and focus more on violent crime and "serious drug offenses."

Haase, who is government relations director for Minnesota IT services at the state Department of Human Services, worked for years at the now-defunct Council on Crime and Justice and was the founding co-chair of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, a group that advocates for policy changes and helps people who have criminal records find jobs and integrate back into the community. He worked to restore voting rights for former offenders and played a leading role in the "ban the box" campaign to prohibit employers from asking job applicants to check a box that asked if they had a criminal record. Freeman also says he is a strong supporter of "banning the box."

Freeman says he is running because "there are a number of reforms that we have started that I want to finish."

He said he wants to press the Legislature to make it easier for someone convicted of a crime to have their record expunged, wants to push for mandatory background checks on guns, and wants a quicker restoration of the vote for people who leave prison, rather than wait until they complete probation.

Freeman highlights his increased efforts to divert juveniles into programs that include restitution but do not result in a juvenile criminal record. Haase says that is insufficient.

Larry Jacobs, who teaches politics at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, says Freeman has the edge in name recognition, but a major influx of funds to Haase could make him more recognizable.

While ambivalent about PACS, Haase says he'd likely not oppose their support. "At the present moment we are kind of stuck with them," he said. "Because there isn't public financing, I guess it's the only way to fund elections because it costs money."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224