Seven candidates vying for the office of Hennepin County attorney are making the first primary for the seat in the 21st century perhaps the most competitive ever.
The candidates range from retired judges and former public defenders to prosecutors and state lawmakers. As violent crime increases and scrutiny around police brutality remains heightened following the killing of George Floyd, each say their experience and vision is ideal.
Primary voters will narrow the field seeking to replace outgoing County Attorney Mike Freeman , the longest-serving top prosecutor in Hennepin County's history. The top two vote-getters in the primary will head to the general election. Whoever wins in November will make charging decisions related to a wide range of crimes while overseeing nearly 500 employees and a $65 million budget.
Retired Hennepin County District Judge Martha Holton Dimick, 69, of Minneapolis said that there are growing concerns about rising gun violence in her north Minneapolis community. But a focus of her campaign, she said, has been to get out in the suburbs to tell residents that "we're not ignoring them."
A former community prosecutor under then-County Attorney Amy Klobuchar, Dimick said she resigned from the judgeship she held for 10 years in order to run for county attorney.
"My neighbors and constituents over in north Minneapolis believe that we need a police department but we need one that's made up of very good police officers," Dimick said. "And we'd like to see reform and you can't see reform if you don't have a police department."
Jarvis Jones, 63 of Edina is the former president of the Hennepin County and Minnesota bar associations. He called himself an underdog in the race but said he's been that his whole life.
"I was told I couldn't become a lawyer and become the president of Minnesota State Bar Association. I was told that you're not going to get these lawyers across this whole state to take Continuing Legal Education courses on ethics and eliminating bias," Jones said.
He said voters are being given a "false choice between safe streets and social justice reform." He said both can be done while treating people with dignity and respect. He said it starts by reducing the "oversized footprint of mass incarceration" of those who are homeless or have committed low-level offenses such as marijuana possession.
Tad Jude, 70, of Maple Grove is a former Washington County judge, state legislator and county commissioner.
He said there needs to be a crackdown on crime while filling the gaps for the mentally ill and juveniles in the system. A former DFL state representative, Jude switched parties in 1992, and more recently he sought the GOP endorsement for state attorney general.
"It's the same highway, but I'm running in a different lane," Jude said. "Many of the issues are the same: the issues of homicides and carjackings and what we're going to do to address that."
He said a "sense of lawlessness has pervaded a considerable amount of Hennepin County." He criticized what he called a "catch-and-release" approach to policing and to make Metro Transit "inviting and welcoming. We just need to have some of the basics taken care of."
Mary Moriarty, 58, of Minneapolis served as chief Hennepin County public defender for six years. While public safety is a key issue for this position, she said, the prosecutor's office will also need to work with the state attorney general on reproductive rights.
Moriarty said the findings from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department indicate that "prosecutors have a hard time prosecuting violent crimes at times because of the behavior captured on camera of some officers."
"We need accountability for both people in the community and police officers," she said, adding "tough on crime" isn't the way to achieve public safety.
"It assumes that if you make people afraid and assure them that you're going to put the bad guys away, that will keep them safe. ... It has not kept us safe, will not keep us safe and will continue to increase the racial disparities that we've seen."
Paul Ostrow, 63, of Minneapolis is an assistant Anoka County attorney and former Minneapolis City Council president. When he was on the council, Ostrow said, there was broad consensus among colleagues on public safety and supporting police.
"We didn't have those suggesting we needed a smaller police department," Ostrow said. All issues have become nationalized and elected officials "moved from the politics of problem-solving to political theater," he said.
Ostrow said a "tyranny of the minority" currently jeopardizes public safety in the county, among other factors.
"We have two crises going on at the same time," Ostrow said. "We have a crisis of violent crime and people's concern for public safety. But at the same time, we have a crisis in terms of people's trust in the criminal justice system."
Saraswati Singh, 38, of Minneapolis serves as a Ramsey County prosecutor. She's worked for two federal judges, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Attorney General's Office and Hennepin County District Court on violent crime cases.
"I was purposely getting experiences so I'd be more than qualified for this job," she said.
"The community is willing to vote for women and people of color that have the skills and experience to do the job," Singh said. "They don't need as many years under their belt, because people want someone who is real."
She wants to move prosecutors from the drug unit to the violent crime unit to address a backlog of cases and racial inequities. She said a big role of her job is earning the trust of witnesses and victims: "We can't win at trial unless witnesses come and testify. And if they don't trust us, we can't prevail."
Ryan Winkler, 46, of Golden Valley serves as Minnesota House majority leader. He said he's the only candidate with significant electoral leadership, with the past few years spent grappling with the pandemic and passing police reform in a divided government.
With a limited number of officers, Winkler said, all departments in the metro need to coordinate resources to solve crimes such as carjackings and gun violence.
"If people don't feel safe in their homes, if they don't feel safe personally, none of that work to make this state more inclusive and accepting of everyone and sharing its opportunity with everyone will be successful," Winkler said. "If people don't feel safe, they are not open to working on justice for others. And so I see it as a condition, precedent and necessary problem to solve in order to continue our work for the kind of Minnesota that I grew up believing in."