First-time candidate Matt Pelikan had the DFL endorsement and was the only Democrat running for attorney general, as of Monday night.
By Tuesday afternoon, he was once again the underdog, in a field of August primary competitors stocked with DFL heavy hitters.
But Pelikan, a 36-year-old attorney in private practice who bested incumbent Lori Swanson to get the DFL endorsement, said Wednesday he is sticking in the fight to become Minnesota’s top legal officer, which now features four seasoned Democrats — including U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who in recent years has become a national leader of the progressive movement.
“This is a race that has been beset from the beginning with rumors about who is in, who is out,” said Pelikan, who had been describing himself as the “progressive alternative” for the seat. “And my attitude has been: I’m in for the long haul.”
Not competitive in recent election cycles, this year’s race for state attorney general is shaping up as one of the fiercest primaries in a lineup of exciting political races. Swanson created the opening when she jumped into the governor’s race Monday, rather than running again for a seat she first won in 2006.
One big name who got in the race on Tuesday did drop out Wednesday: former Attorney General Mike Hatch, who filed for the primary in part to offer an alternative to Pelikan.
“I didn’t know so many people would go in ... if I knew they were all going to jump in, I would have saved $300,” Hatch said Wednesday, in reference to the candidate filing fee.
Hatch said he could support any of the other three candidates besides Pelikan or Ellison: State Rep. Debra Hilstrom, former Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman and former Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley. He said he might still endorse one of them.
Hatch declined to comment on Ellison. He said Pelikan does not have sufficient courtroom experience to hold the office, criticizing him at one point for never trying a case.
Pelikan’s boss, Chris Madel, founding partner of Madel P.A., said Pelikan has helped him with a number of trials. Madel said he first met Pelikan when the two were working at Robins Kaplan LLP.
“I literally put Matt on any case that I could because he’s just that smart,” Madel said.
Pelikan left the Robins Kaplan job to work in the voter protection department of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, then took a position at Madel’s firm. He works on a variety of cases, including white collar crime and commercial litigation. Madel said he believes the attorney general’s job is not about being a great trial lawyer, but about being a leader and having a wide breadth of experience, which he said Pelikan offers.
The attorney general’s office represents the state and its various boards and agencies in state and federal court and at administrative hearings. Its staff also helps enforce consumer protection and antitrust laws and can assist rural county prosecutors on criminal cases.
Republican candidates for attorney general include former state Sen. Bob Lessard, perennial candidate Sharon Anderson and former state Rep. Doug Wardlow, who has the GOP endorsement. On Tuesday, as the DFL field in the race filled up, Wardlow focused his criticism on Ellison.
Endorsement was surprise
At the DFL convention, Swanson was the only candidate who did not address the crowd before an endorsement vote, which several delegates said was a misstep.
Instead, she had supporters like Hatch talk. Despite Hatch’s criticism, Pelikan won the endorsement in a dramatic upset, securing the resources and clout that come with the party’s backing. Swanson got about 52 percent of the votes in the first round of balloting at the convention, with Pelikan at 47 percent. It takes 60 percent to win, and Swanson quickly announced she would withdraw from the endorsement battle.
Pelikan ran sharply to the left of Swanson. He noted she got the National Rifle Association’s endorsement in 2010 and said she should have done more to stand up to President Donald Trump’s administration. Swanson joined a lawsuit over Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees and travelers from predominantly Muslim countries. But she did not challenge subsequent iterations of the travel ban, Pelikan said.
He told the convention crowd he would fight for unions, paid parental leave and a free and open internet. He ended his convention speech to roaring applause as he listed popular progressive slogans often seen on yard signs across the Twin Cities.
“Black Lives Matter. Trans Lives Matter. Native Lives Matter. Climate change is real. Women’s rights are human rights. Love is love and love is the law. No human being is illegal,” said Pelikan, who if elected would be the first openly gay man to hold statewide office in Minnesota.
Pelikan also said he would focus on antitrust laws as well as using the “soft power” of his office to advocate for criminal justice reform.
Some of the issues Pelikan has mentioned align with Ellison’s priorities.
Ellison said he would seek justice for consumers, make sure the elderly are being treated fairly and address the affordable housing crisis. He said he also would engage the federal government on topics like the travel ban and climate change, and fight back against the Federal Trade Commission’s internet rules.
“I respect Congressman Ellison,” Pelikan said. “But I was in this campaign because it is the right thing to do, not because it’s what the establishment wanted. And I’m committed to continuing the fight for a strong and progressive attorney general.”