It has become a campaign trail mantra for Republican Doug Wardlow: He will take politics out of the attorney general’s office.
But a deeply partisan past has left some questioning whether he would live up to that vow. From his recent work at the Christian nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom to his term in the Legislature, Wardlow’s staunch conservative values have guided his work, his opponents say. But Wardlow said he would leave behind policy advocacy if he gets the job.
“I understand that the attorney general’s office is an office that is not a policymaking position and we need to have a separation of powers,” Wardlow said. “I’m going to be very careful not to do anything, in terms of policymaking, that is legislative in scope.”
Wardlow faces U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison in the Nov. 6 election. Wardlow frequently describes his Democratic opponent as too far left to be Minnesota’s next chief legal officer. But Ellison’s campaign has argued that it’s Wardlow who is extreme, claiming he would use the office to push President Donald Trump’s agenda and oppose President Barack Obama’s health care law.
That’s not true, Wardlow said. He would not join other Republican attorneys general who sued to overturn the Affordable Care Act, he said.
“I’m going to be focusing on the problems in Minnesota and addressing needs in Minnesota, and restoring the rule of law, and law and order in our state. And I’m not certain that is a good use of the resources of the office,” he said of the suit.
Wardlow said the trend of state attorneys general using the court system to push policies is troubling and often their legal standing is “tenuous.”
Wardlow, a 40-year-old Eagan resident, has a broad legal background. He worked on constitutional law cases, international trade law and other practice areas since graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 2004. He spent nearly half of his law career at the private firm Parker Rosen LLC, where he litigated everything from eminent domain to employment and labor cases.
His boss there, Andrew Parker, described Wardlow as a prolific writer with an “outstanding analytical ability” who was good at thinking outside the box. Wardlow worked at the firm when he ran for the Legislature. Parker said his politics didn’t creep into his private work, and he’s confident Wardlow could separate the two if elected attorney general.
“At least when he was at our office, that never interfered at all with any of the work he did,” Parker said.
But at Alliance Defending Freedom, politics permeate the organization’s legal work. Wardlow said he left the group around the time he launched his campaign last year.
His work for the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based organization included arguing in favor of allowing a controversial statue of a soldier kneeling before a cross in a Belle Plaine park. The city, concerned about a lawsuit over the separation of church and state, had removed it. He also opposed policies allowing transgender students in Minnesota and Ohio to use the bathrooms or locker rooms of their choice.
“Adopting any policy that would threaten to expose children to members of the opposite sex in restrooms or in locker rooms would violate the privacy rights and the dignity of all students,” Wardlow told the Anoka-Hennepin school board at a 2017 meeting.
Wardlow worked with the organization to fight same-sex marriage. They argued the marriage of a man and woman is critical to link children to both biological parents.
Wardlow said he is proud of his work with the Alliance but declined to comment on his views on same-sex marriage or transgender rights, saying they are not relevant to the job he would perform as attorney general. He said he would defend all laws, including same-sex marriage.
“It’s the law of the land in Minnesota right now,” he said. “And it was something the Legislature here put into place, not the Supreme Court, and I will be enforcing all the laws, including that one.”
In a Minnesota case set to come before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, a couple that owns a videography business has argued the Constitution protects them from having to film same-sex weddings. The Alliance Defending Freedom has represented them. In that case, current Attorney General Lori Swanson is defending the state’s Human Rights Act, which prohibits businesses from discrimination.
Wardlow said it would be improper to comment on a case he may have to handle if elected. “I can say this much, however: Minnesota’s nondiscrimination laws play an important role in our society and legal system,” he said.
At the Alliance, Parker Rosen and elsewhere, Wardlow said he managed groups of attorneys and had a wide range of trial experience. However, he said he hasn’t handled criminal prosecution or defense. That’s an area he said he would focus on as attorney general.
One of the attorney general’s duties is assisting rural county attorneys with limited resources in prosecuting major felonies. The office’s criminal division has shrunk during the past couple administrations, and Wardlow said he would bolster it and focus on human trafficking and opioid addiction.
The attorney general’s office also needs to tackle voter fraud and welfare fraud, he said. Republican legislators pushed for stronger prevention and penalties during the past session, after a Fox 9 report raised concerns about fraudulent use of state child care subsidies.
Another of the attorney general’s responsibilities is to provide legal counsel to state agencies. Wardlow said he would watch for regulations, such as Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration’s buffer strip law, that he sees as “patently unconstitutional.” The law requires cropland to be converted to protect waters, and Wardlow said farmers were not justly compensated for their private property. He would advise agencies to take another course.
In one term in the Legislature, Wardlow was chief author of some controversial legislation. He unsuccessfully pushed a measure to prohibit the creation or existence of a health insurance exchange, as required under the Affordable Care Act.
Wardlow also was not able to get a so-called “right-to-work” constitutional amendment on the ballot. It would have let Minnesota voters decide whether to bar labor unions and employers from requiring employees to be union members and pay dues. Wardlow said as attorney general he would not address right-to-work legislation, calling it a policy question for the Legislature.
Brad Lehto was chief of staff for the Minnesota AFL-CIO at the time Wardlow was in office. He said the freshman legislator received a rare “0 percent” rating from the organization, which rates state lawmakers on whether their votes align with the AFL-CIO’s stances.
“He was definitely anti-labor. In fact, he was difficult to talk to,” Lehto said. He said Wardlow would have to “change immensely” to manage the office in the manner he is promising.
“I can’t imagine him being nonpolitical running the office. ... No, I just don’t believe it,” Lehto said.
Republican Rep. Kathy Lohmer, of Stillwater, disagreed. She said Wardlow is a public servant who will aim to do the right thing, not follow a political agenda. Lohmer took office in 2011, the same year as Wardlow, and said she was impressed by his passion and work ethic on issues like right-to-work.
“He just had some very deeply held convictions that he was not afraid to stand for and take heat,” she said. “And to be able to do that and not to cave or fold, that was very impressive to me.”