Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

An unusually packed field of candidates is running for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, including three experienced lawyers vying to become the first person of color to lead the office.

The seven candidates range in age from 37 to 70, and bring a wealth of experience. They include retired judges, prosecutors, a former city council member, a state lawmaker, and a former public defender who spent three decades on the other side of the table.

Most fall within close proximity of each other on many social and criminal justice issues, unlike the 2018 election that pitted progressive Mark Haase against incumbent Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who is viewed by many as a traditionalist.

“They’re all pretty progressive,” said Haase, who lost to Freeman. “In the end, it’s going to be about who people feel more comfortable with based on their background and who they are. But it’s such a large race, I’m not sure how we’ll get to that point.”

In a follow-up conversation, Haase added that the average voter may see similarities in the candidate’s published positions—with the exception of Jude.* He also commented on what he sees as “fear-mongering” from Jude and, to a lesser extent, another candidate, Ostrow. 

“To the typical voter, those platforms as stated on their websites look pretty progressive, especially compared to what we’ve seen in the past in Hennepin County,” Haase added. “That could make it difficult for a typical voter to know who to vote for.”

The two candidates who receive the most votes during the August 9 primaries will continue on to the November 8 general election, when voters will determine who becomes the next Hennepin County attorney. The four-year term is a nonpartisan position, but candidate Mary Moriarty beat out five challengers last month to receive the DFL endorsement.

The office is the state’s largest of its kind, and had an annual budget of $61.9 million for fiscal year 2021. The county attorney earned $195,065 as of late 2021. Freeman announced last year that he wouldn’t run for reelection after serving 24 years.

The county attorney sets policies and priorities for criminal prosecution, and touches many other facets of everyday life beyond crime. That includes overseeing child protection and child support cases, and providing legal advice to county government, among other responsibilities.

It’s one of the few elected positions with direct power in the criminal justice system, and is considered by many as one of the most powerful roles in the county.

Rob Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, told Sahan Journal he has never seen seven candidates running for a county attorney position in the state.

The candidates running for Hennepin County attorney are:

  • Martha Holton Dimick, 60’s, a retired Hennepin County district judge who lives in north Minneapolis. Holton Dimick’s campaign has raised $134,797.
  • Jarvis Jones, 63, an attorney and stock investor who lives in Edina. His campaign finances were not immediately available.
  • Thaddeus “Tad” Jude, 70, a former Washington County judge and state legislator. He lives in Maple Grove. Jude’s campaign has raised $11,999.
  • Mary Moriarty, 58, the former chief Hennepin County public defender who lives in  Minneapolis. Moriarty’s campaign has raised $165,739.
  • Paul Ostrow, 63, an assistant county attorney in Anoka County and former Minneapolis City Council president. He lives in northeast Minneapolis. Ostrow has raised $25,320 in campaign finances.
  • Saraswati Singh, 37, an assistant Ramsey County attorney who lives in Minneapolis’ Cedar–Riverside neighborhood. Singh’s campaign has raised $44,530.
  • Ryan Winkler, 46, an attorney and the majority leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives. He lives in Golden Valley. Winkler’s campaign has raised $233,618.

Richfield City Council Member Simon Trautmann dropped out of the race in mid-May after Moriarty beat him, Holton Dimick, Jones, Singh, and Winkler to earn the DFL endorsement.

Haase, an assistant county attorney and executive officer to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, said his campaign differentiated itself from Freeman’s campaign by garnering support for progressive change. He said public support for criminal justice reform remained consistent until after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in 2020.

There was a public shift back to supporting more punishment after some people committed arson and looting in the wake of Floyd’s death, and after a general increase in violent crime, Haase said.

The race for Hennepin County attorney is “highly competitive” because of the crowded field and the large number of voters candidates must reach in Minnesota’s busiest court district, Haase said. The candidates with the best organizational support and most money tend to have an advantage, he said, adding that Moriarty and Winkler are ahead in that regard.

Haase advised voters to get to know the candidates.

“Who do you trust to do the right thing?” Haase said voters should ask themselves, “Would I trust them to deal with somebody in my family who is a victim of a crime? Or has been alleged of committing a crime?

Sahan Journal asked the candidates about their priorities and what they bring to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. They discussed what immigrants, people of color, and young people should know about the office.

“In terms of the young people, I would say, if you’re upset by the system, go to law school and then come join my office,” Singh said. “There are plenty of attorneys out there of the old type of mindset of, ‘Let’s charge people with the most number of crimes and the most serious number of crimes,’ rather than looking at the equities of the case.”

Six candidates unequivocally said that if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which protects a person’s right to an abortion, they would not prosecute anyone who undergoes the procedure. A draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that was leaked in early May indicated that the conservative-majority bench was poised to upend nearly half a century of abortion rights.

Holton Dimick was a single mother at age 19 before Roe v. Wade was passed, when “back-alley” abortions were the alternative. “I will not interfere with any woman’s choice,” she said.

Asked if he would prosecute someone who sought an abortion were Roe v. Wade overturned, Jude said, “We would have to follow the law.” But, he added, he didn’t expect the law to change within the next four years. A separate Minnesota Supreme Court decision also protects abortion rights in the state.

Candidates were also asked how they would address equity issues in prosecution.

“The county attorney’s office has to examine its own internal bias to ensure that decisions regarding charging, bail, upward departures, certification of juveniles as adults, and sentence requests are not discriminatory,” Winkler said. 

They talked about the balance between combating rising violent crime and reforming the criminal justice system. 

“This has been falsely presented as a choice—that somehow we can’t be tough on violent crime and hold people accountable while at the same time reforming the criminal justice system,” Ostrow said. “We can and must do both.”

County attorneys have the power to prosecute or clear police officers who kill civilians on the job. Freeman came under scrutiny for his handling of the case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was charged for killing George Floyd. Freeman initially charged Chauvin, but the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office eventually took over the case with assistance from Freeman’s office.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office and fellow counterparts in the metro have employed a variety of methods to review officer-involved killings: they decide the cases themselves, refer the cases to other county attorneys to decide, or, work with the attorney general’s office to reach a resolution. The seven candidates had equally diverse answers for how they would handle the sensitive and explosive cases, which have often eroded trust between the public and county attorneys.

“Transparency, accountability, and accessibility in the community is really important to me,” Moriarty said. “If I am elected as a county attorney, I need to be making those decisions.

Lastly, the candidates discussed how they plan to vet police testimony and evidence in light of the Jaleel Stallings case. Based on evidence presented by Minneapolis police, Freeman’s office charged Stallings with attempted murder for shooting at police in 2020 during protests about Floyd’s death.

A jury later acquitted Stallings, who said he was acting in self-defense when police in an unmarked vehicle fired less-lethal ammunition at him. Stallings’ attorney released police video that showed officers striking Stallings after he lay down in an attempt to surrender. Stallings sued the city, arguing that police used excessive force and filed false reports, and received a $1.5 million settlement in May. 

“Under my plan, an officer who has perjured or engaged in some bad behavior, or made statements of bias that show a disregard for people of color will not testify, because I believe that goes against their credibility,” Jones said.

You can learn more about the candidates here. Each candidate’s responses have been edited for length and clarity.

*UPDATE (Thursday, July 28, 12:30 p.m.): After publication, Mark Haase contacted Sahan Journal to elaborate on his original quote about the array of candidates in the Hennepin County attorney’s race and how voters may differentiate between them. This story has been updated to reflect those comments. 

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...