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Opinion editor's note: Editorial endorsements represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom. The board bases its endorsement decisions on candidate interviews and other reporting.

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Sometimes-deadly encounters between police and citizens, including the tragic 2020 murder of George Floyd, have brought intense scrutiny to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office in recent years. While many are calling for criminal justice reform, the office has also been pressured to aggressively prosecute those responsible for increased crime. It'll be a critical balancing act for the county's next top prosecutor.

County Attorney Mike Freeman is not running for re-election after nearly 24 years of nonconcurrent terms since 1991. Seven candidates have stepped up to replace him, each promising a different type of leadership. From that field, voters will select one on the Aug. 9 primary ballot, and the top two vote-getters will face off in the Nov. 8 general election.

In the Star Tribune Editorial Board's view, the two candidates who should advance are Martha Holton Dimick and Ryan Winkler.

The Hennepin County attorney oversees a $65 million budget and a staff of about 460 — including about 200 attorneys. It's responsible for prosecuting felonies committed by adults and all juvenile crimes while also providing legal services for county government and advocacy for crime victims.

Dimick is a retired district judge with extensive experience handling criminal cases. She's also worked in private practice, as a prosecutor for Hennepin County and as a Minneapolis deputy city attorney.

Dimick told the Editorial Board that she would prioritize public safety by working with law enforcement to prosecute violent and repeat offenders. She values restorative justice and finding effective alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenders, but she wouldn't be soft on crime.

"We have to send the message that there are going to be consequences if you commit a crime," said Dimick, who did not endorse efforts to defund or dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.

Dimick's common-sense approach and her prosecutorial, judicial and managerial experience stand out in this field. She also has the temperament and communication skills needed to build more credibility, transparency in charging decisions, and trust in the office. She has a reputation for being tough but fair and for building relationships with law enforcement and the community.

As a longtime resident of north Minneapolis, Dimick, 69, understands firsthand that communities of color with higher crime rates want prosecutors to bring offenders to justice while also attacking racial disparities in the criminal justice system and charging bad cops.

Winkler, 46, is a practicing attorney and the current Minnesota House majority leader. He represents four suburban Hennepin County communities and has twice been elected to help lead almost 400 legislators and legislative staff. He is a thoughtful and pragmatic coalition-builder who has worked across political lines.

First elected to the House in 2006, Winkler has served seven nonconsecutive terms. While serving as majority leader, he has worked to address racial disparities in marijuana stops, arrests and convictions.

Winkler would emphasize public safety while holding police accountable and working to eliminate race-based bias and discrimination in the criminal justice system. He believes there is "a big hole in our public safety system" and a need for the county attorney "to demand a change in practices and resources across systems."

Winkler says that as county attorney he would do a top-to-bottom assessment of the office and create a police accountability unit staffed with prosecutors responsible for investigating misconduct cases and prosecuting cops who break the law.

Though Winkler lacks experience as a prosecutor, his leadership skills and understanding of the justice system make him a solid choice for county attorney.

The five other candidates on the Aug. 9 ballot — Jarvis Jones, Tad Jude, Mary Moriarty, Paul Ostrow and Saraswati Singh — would bring varied backgrounds and new perspectives to the office.

An attorney with extensive corporate litigation and executive management experience, Jones, 63, says he's running on a "sick and tired'' platform. He said he is fed up with being presented with the "false choice" between safe streets and the fair and just treatment of all residents.

As a self-described "change agent,'' Jones said he would offer short- and- long-term strategies focused on sex offenders and traffickers, establishing a hate and bias crimes unit, and targeting repeat offenders.

Jude, 70, is a former district judge, Hennepin County commissioner and state legislator who is running on a "Make crime illegal again'' theme. Although he interviewed with the Editorial Board, he doesn't seem as engaged as the other candidates.

Moriarty, 58, is a former Hennepin County chief public defender who worked in that office for 30 years. She helped reveal some critical information about officers and racial bias after deeply diving into data about who gets stopped by officers and why. She said that if elected she would set up a police accountability unit within the prosecutor's office and ban untrustworthy officers from testifying in court.

Though she has experience managing attorneys and passion for reform, we're concerned that her approach doesn't adequately emphasize public safety. Moriarty also brings baggage after her stint as chief public defender ended in controversy related to social media posts, her managerial style, and tense relationships with other leaders in the criminal justice system. Although she says she learned much from that chapter of her career — and won a $300,000 settlement in a lawsuit she brought against the state board that declined to reappoint her — the episode is troubling.

Ostrow, a former Minneapolis City Council president and current prosecutor in the Anoka County Attorney's Office, says he'd revive the use of grand juries to make some prosecutorial decisions but would take steps to improve transparency. Ostrow, 63, said he has a 10-point plan to more aggressively prosecute carjackings, end "catch-and-release" of repeat violent offenders and reject proposals to uniformly stop charging lower-level felonies.

Singh, 38, is a prosecutor in the Ramsey County Attorney's Office who says she is running because she "cares.'' She and her family have experienced firsthand how the system can harm people of color.

Singh says she would focus less on drug offenses and more on serious crime by moving more prosecutors from drugs to the violent crime unit. She believes that making that change would also address racial disparities because some of the most significant inequities in the system are in drug cases.

The race for Hennepin County attorney is nonpartisan, though parties have made endorsements. Except for Jude, the candidates identified themselves as Democrats on the biographical forms they returned to the Editorial Board.

For more information about the candidates, click on the hyperlinks attached to their full names above.

Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves as an adviser to the board.