Hennepin County attorney candidates Mary Moriarty and Martha Holton Dimick.
Hennepin County attorney candidates Mary Moriarty and Martha Holton Dimick. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Voters narrowed a crowded field of candidates running for Hennepin County attorney to two choices Tuesday night: Mary Moriarty and Martha Holton Dimick will advance to November’s general election to determine who will lead Minnesota’s largest public law office.

In a series of victory tweets, Moriarty praised the community members, leaders, and organizations that backed her campaign. She also took time to thank her opponents.

“They brought different perspectives, and their presence in this race helped to elevate the importance of this office,” Moriarty tweeted. “Tonight is a night to celebrate all of our hard work. Then, it’s back to work so we can win again in November.”

Moriarty led by a wide margin early in the night and held onto it through the finish, earning 36 percent of the vote against six challengers.

Holton Dimick earned 18 percent of the vote.

“I’m excited to continue our conversation with Hennepin County voters to share my experience, approach, and vision for seeking safety and justice,” Holton Dimick said in a written statement issued late Tuesday.

Minnesota House Majority Speaker Ryan Winkler finished third with 16 percent of the vote. His campaign said Tuesday night that he would release a statement Wednesday.

The county attorney sets policies and priorities for criminal prosecution, oversees child protection and child support cases, and provides legal advice to county government, among many other responsibilities. It’s one of the only elected positions with direct power over the criminal justice system, and is considered by many as one of the most powerful seats in the county.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is the largest in the state, with an annual budget of $61.9 million for fiscal year 2021.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who was first elected to the post in 1990, announced last fall that he would not seek reelection. Freeman has served a total of 24 non-consecutive years in the role.

Advocates for criminal justice reform, others who want strong crackdowns on violent crime, and some who want both have long eyed the seat as a potential target of change. 

The county attorney is a nonpartisan position, so voters of all political parties cast ballots for the same candidates in the primary. The top two advance to the general election on November 8.

Moriarty, 58, the former chief Hennepin County public defender, told Sahan Journal earlier this year that if elected, she plans to bring a data-centered approach to reform, looking at racial disparities in charging decisions and child protection.

“The county attorney’s office is the most powerful office in the system—more powerful than the judge,” she told Sahan Journal before the primary. “They decide who to charge, who not to charge, what to charge them with, whether to ask for bail, whether to offer them diversion, what to offer them.

“Because those are subjective decisions and everybody has unconscious bias, there are going to be racial disparities. But to my knowledge, we don’t have those numbers, and I would keep those numbers on race data and gender and put in policies that would keep that from happening.”

Moriarty, who received the DFL endorsement, said she also wanted to bring a data-oriented approach to identifying reasons for low case closure for violent crimes like carjacking. She also thinks the juvenile justice system needs to better incorporate an understanding of adolescent brain development in its decisions, and wants to provide more trauma-based supervision programs for young people. She sees these strategies as integral to reducing crime, she explained.

“We can’t address violent crime unless we have reform,” she said.

If elected in November, Holton Dimick, who is Black, would become the first person of color to lead the office. She retired from her post as a Hennepin County judge to run for county attorney.

Holton Dimick previously worked as Minneapolis deputy city attorney, the Northside community prosecutor for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, and in private practice. She told Sahan Journal earlier this year that if elected, she would prioritize reducing violent crime, particularly in North Minneapolis, where she lives. 

“We have got to put our emphasis on violent crime such as murders, rapes, aggravated robberies, assault with a dangerous weapon, and carjackings,” Holton Dimick said in an interview before the primary. “We need to be in the communities so that people know that we work for them.”

She said she planned to work closely with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who endorsed her, and Minneapolis’ next police chief to recruit better officers, especially from north Minneapolis, where she lives. She also said she wanted to create a standardized process to address police misconduct, while maintaining a focus on violent crime.

“We have to send messages that we will prosecute violent criminals,” she said. “With that effort to defund the police, people sent the wrong message.”

The five Hennepin County attorney candidates who did not advance, in order from most to least votes, are: Winkler, Tad Jude, Paul Ostrow, Saraswati Singh, and Jarvis Jones.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.