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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A lifelong public defender and a retired judge vying to become the next Hennepin County attorney both call for criminal justice reform, but disagree about how much power the office has over police accountability.

Mary Moriarty and Martha Holton Dimick bested five other candidates in the August primary to advance to the November 8 general election. Voters in Hennepin County will choose which one leads the county attorney’s office, the largest public law office in the state.

Moriarty, who is the DFL-endorsed candidate, received 36 percent of the primary vote. Holton Dimick came in second with 18 percent.

Moriarty, 58, is a former chief Hennepin County public defender and headed one of the largest public law offices, second to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. Moriarty would be the first openly gay woman to hold the position if elected. Moriarty is campaigning on a criminal justice reform agenda that promises to hold police accountable. The county attorney has the power to prosecute police officers in officer-involved shootings and other cases.

“I believe in addressing the entire criminal legal system from a public health perspective, and not continuing to do the same failed policies. People in the community and police need to be held accountable,” Moriarty said in a recent interview with Sahan Journal. “Accountability is really important because to prosecute violent crime, I need to have good police work.”

Holton Dimick, 69, is a retired Hennepin County judge and prosecutor. If elected, she would become the first person of color to serve as the Hennepin County attorney. A resident of north Minneapolis, Holton Dimick’s campaign prioritizes cracking down on violent crime in the city. She also said criminal justice and police reform are important to her, but in a different way from her opponent’s agenda.

“I believe in a balanced approach,” Holton Dimick told Sahan Journal in late October. “I believe that violent offenders should be aggressively prosecuted, whereas crime prevention and early intervention efforts should be used for less serious offenders.”

The county attorney’s office has a proposed budget of $69 million for 2023 and employs 460 people. The office sets policies and priorities for prosecuting criminal cases, oversees child protection and child support cases, and provides legal advice to county government, among many other responsibilities. The county attorney is one of the only elected officials with direct power over the criminal justice system, and is considered by many as one of the most powerful seats in the country.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced last year that he would not seek reelection. Freeman served 24 non-consecutive years in the role and was first elected in 1990.

A heated debate ahead of elections

In a recent debate between the two candidates on TPT’s Almanac, Moriarty and Holton Dimick clashed on a question that has increasingly divided community leaders and advocates in Minneapolis since police killed George Floyd in 2020: Is the future of Hennepin County’s criminal justice system one of progress and reform, or traditional law and order?

“We need something different. And what I bring to this race is a data-based approach based on research,” Moriarty responded in the debate. “The system has never been held accountable for certain prosecutorial practices.”

That would involve reform, she explained, by keeping data on race and gender and sticking to solutions that have historically worked. 

Moriarty added that she would also prioritize holding police accountable through this new data-driven system. But Holton Dimick said she sees a more urgent priority—addressing violent crime.

“They’re both important issues, but only one is the purview of the prosecutor’s office,” Holton Dimick said. 

“It is not actually,” Moriarty responded. “Police accountability is incredibly important. Police officers will tell you that the way they solve a lot of crimes is by community involvement … Holding people accountable, both community members and police officers, will help with that trust in the community and make us safer.”

“We have a serious crime issue in Minneapolis and Hennepin County in the last year,” Holton Dimick said. “Contrary to what my opponent believes, I believe that we have to have good police officers and I also believe that we have to have good prosecution.”

Holton Dimick said later in the debate that she would prosecute officers accused of crimes “the same way I would approach anyone who committed a crime.”

About the candidates

Moriarty attended Macalester College and graduated from the University of Minnesota law school in 1989. She said she shifted the culture during her time in the county public defender’s office to be more client-centered. 

“I bring in over 20 years of actual trial experience—sitting in the courtroom in Hennepin County, watching what prosecutors did on a day-to-day basis, watching body cam and other video from police departments around Hennepin County,” Moriarty told Sahan Journal in May.

In addition to reforming the criminal legal system through a public health perspective, Moriarty added that, if elected, she will develop a policy requiring county attorneys to consider potential immigration consequences when charging individuals to insulate them from potential deportation.

Moriarty was placed on leave in 2019 as chief public defender and was not reappointed to the post after an investigation found that she created a hostile work environment, among other findings. Moriarty refuted the allegations and received a $300,000 settlement from the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, which oversees the state’s public defense offices. As part of the settlement, Moriarty retired from the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office and agreed that she would no longer work as a public defender in Minnesota.

“I think the number speaks for itself,” Moriarty said of the settlement in an interview with the Star Tribune in June 2021. “Public defenders play a really critical role in criminal system reform because we see everyday injustices. I really worry about the ability of Minnesota public defenders to speak candidly about racial injustice and the policies and practices of prosecutors and justices after what happened to me.”

Moriarty added in a recent interview with Sahan Journal: “I was not fired. I was not reappointed as chief public defender for the state, but that just meant I went back to being a Hennepin county public defender. I decided to retire because of the hostile work environment there.”

In her run for county attorney, Moriarty received endorsements from the Minnesota DFL, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Hennepin County Commissioners Angela Conley and Irene Fernando, and Hennepin County Board Chair Marion Greene. 

Holton Dimick has received endorsements from Congressman Dean Phillips, former Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels, and the mayors of 30 cities in the county, including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. She’s also been endorsed by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Deputies Association, and the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.

If elected, Holton Dimick said that she will work closely with Frey and police leaders to recruit better officers, particularly from north Minneapolis where she’s concerned about rising violent crime. Holton Dimick also hopes to implement rehabilitative programs to address repeat offenses and juvenile justice. 

“When we’re dealing with such a large number of people that come through the criminal justice system, that process is very complex and it really should be tailored to individuals on a case-by-case basis,” Holton Dimick said in an interview with Sahan Journal. “The process also has to include multiple state agencies, local organizations, families, corrections, probation, and more.”

Holton Dimick served as a district court judge in Hennepin County for 10 years until she retired in January to run for county attorney. She worked as the Minneapolis deputy city attorney prior to that, where she said she played a key role in reducing crime in Minneapolis.

“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 told Sahan Journal in May. “We need to be in the communities so that people know that we work for them.”

Holton Dimick attracted criticism on social media in October after some questioned whether she had an active law license, which is required by state law to run for county attorney.

Screenshots of the Minnesota Attorney Registration system at the time showed she was “not authorized” to practice law. 

The Minnesota Reformer reported in October that she submitted an expired license when she filed for office and deactivated it in August to avoid a renewal fee. The license Holton Dimick filed in May had expired in April 2019. She reactivated her license in October and is now marked as “authorized” to practice law in the Minnesota attorney registration system

Holton Dimick told Sahan Journal that she was licensed when she filed for candidacy, but she switched from having an active license to an inactive one, and then back to active again. 

“What that means is I don’t practice law, I have no clients, I’m not on the bench. So I basically went on inactive,” Holton Dimick said. “It ended up being a bigger deal than it needed to be.

Holton Dimick’s campaign spokesperson Jacob Hill told the Reformer in October: “She pulled out one of her old cards instead of the current one.” Hill confirmed that she had an active license. 

Holton Dimick said she was the first community prosecutor assigned to north Minneapolis when she worked as a prosecutor for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office in 1999. At the time, Holton Dimick said there were only a few attorneys of color who scrutinized how a person of color was treated upon arrest. She took an unorthodox path into the legal world. She worked as a nurse in Milwaukee for 12 years before enrolling at the Marquette University Law School.

Hennepin county residents can cast their ballots during the state’s early voting period, which ends November 7. General elections will be held November 8.

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal and corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of...