Hennepin County elected a new top prosecutor and sheriff Tuesday— two key players in its criminal justice system that's now in the midst of a regime change alongside calls for reform and rising violent crime.
Mary Moriarty handily won the race for county attorney, beating retired District Judge Martha Holton Dimick. Dawanna Witt's landslide victory over Joseph Banks in the sheriff's race makes her the first woman and person of color to lead the department.
Moriarty will replace outgoing Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who endorsed Holton Dimick in the race but said he called Moriarty on election night to congratulate her and said he is working on a transition plan with staff.
"I supported Judge Holton Dimick openly and aggressively — as did the vast majority of people in this office. But ... the voters have spoken. This is democracy," he said in an interview. "They have selected their next leader."
All senior prosecutors in the County Attorney's Office supported Holton Dimick in the race, which points to potential internal challenges with Moriarty at the helm. But Freeman said at a staff meeting Wednesday that he encouraged everyone to stick through the transition and he didn't anticipate a "mass exodus" when he retires after 24 years.
Freeman agreed it's time for a fresh set of eyes and ideas in Hennepin County.
"I think the sheriff-elect is a wonderful person; I think she'll do great. And I think Mary will fit right in," he said. "The hyperbole that comes out of a political campaign sometimes gets everybody uptight. Now it's time to settle down and get the job done."
Outgoing Sheriff David Hutchinson went on unspecified medical leave in May and his peace officer license will be suspended at the end of November for 30 days because of a drunken-driving crash with taxpayer-owned vehicle.
Witt said in an interview Wednesday that the crash put a stain on the office. And the fact that Hutchinson was absent for so long reinforces the need for strong leadership.
"We have to work together. Look at all the chaos in the county," Witt said. "We need to move the dial on public safety. The people that put us in office have sent a clear message."
Moriarty said she worked with Witt during the pandemic and they get along well. "We don't have to get to know each other. And I think we're on the same page on a lot of things," she said.
She plans to meet with newly sworn-in Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who endorsed her opponent, in the coming weeks and is already discussing her transition with Freeman.
"You can't wait until January to start working and reaching out," Moriarty said. "As you can see, it's already started last night and today. So it's really important to meet with people and hear what their needs and wants are, and figure out how we can effectively work together and what the issues are that need to be addressed immediately."
Board Chair Marion Greene, who was re-elected on Tuesday, echoed the fact that Moriarty and Witt bring tremendous leadership experience. Being the first openly gay woman and woman of color to hold the county attorney and sheriff positions, their offices will help diversify conversations at the highest level, which is needed, she said.
The board had a positive and collaborative working relationship with Freeman, said Greene, who endorsed Moriarty, and she's excited that Moriarty has stressed using data to advance public safety strategies, something the board has also championed in several recently funded initiatives.
"Every jurisdiction has their role to play," Greene said.
Commissioner Jeff Lunde has worked closely with Witt and said it's extremely comforting to have somebody taking over who has leadership experience with the sheriff's office. Witt is a major who oversees the jail, court security and investigations.
"Witt will get the focus back on the good work of the sheriff's office," he said. "And she will elevate that work."
Even though he endorsed Holton Dimick for county attorney, Lunde said he has no doubt the entire board will be able to work toward the same goals of reducing crime.
"The public needs the board to step up and work with the sheriff and county attorney. At the end of the day, our goals are the same," said Lunde, who is chair of the board's public safety committee. "They both know the system and it won't take months getting up to speed."