A conference room in the attorney general's state Capitol office is covered with the framed photographs of Lori Swanson's predecessors. From Charles H. Berry to Mike Hatch, there's an obvious common thread among Minnesota's 28 attorneys general -- they've all been men.
Swanson sidestepped the gender issue as a candidate for office. And even now, she reluctantly acknowledges her historic standing.
"We've been a state for 148 years. We've not had a female attorney general before; I'm the first. And I'm just humbled and honored to have the opportunity. And I want to work really, really hard to serve the people well," Swanson said.
Swanson has been working hard in advance of her inauguration, outlining an ambitious agenda of legislative initiatives. In the past three weeks, she's held four news conferences. Her topics: predatory lending, cell phone contracts, veterans benefits and Internet crime.
Swanson says she's also sifting through the mail, reading thousand of messages from average citizens looking for legal help.
"You can't possibly in this job take every case," she acknowledged. "That's a lot, 700 phone calls a day coming in from the public, over 100 letters a day. They all are raising concerns, to them, which are very legitimate. You can't possibly take every case, or every case can't turn into a lawsuit. So a big part of of the job and one of the more important parts of the job is that discretion, where do you push, what do you push? So, I want to be very hands on there."
The attorney general is the state's top lawyer, and the legal advisor to the governor, constitutional officers, state departments and agencies.
Swanson is better prepared than most, having already served as solicitor general and a deputy to Mike Hatch, the outgoing attorney general. Their professional relationship began in 1989 in the Minnesota Department of Commerce, when Hatch was commissioner and Swanson investigated workers compensation cases.
"She's a populist," according to Hatch. "She cares about people. She is a remarkable, remarkable public official. And I think you're going to find -- all Minnesota will find there's nobody better."
Hatch says he always wanted Swanson to be attorney general. He insists the decision to run was all hers and that she won on her own merits. Hatch, who failed in his bid for governor, says Swanson has all the right characteristics -- compassion, determination and intellegence.
She will have a velvet glove. I have a habit of -- if somebody comes in the office and smarts off, I'll smart off back to them. She'll do it with a lot more class.Outgoing AG Mike Hatch
During his eight years as attorney general, Hatch was known for stepping on a few toes. He says there are a few similarities between himself and Swanson. He also sees a big difference.
"She won't make the mistakes I made," he said. "She will have a velvet glove. I mean I have a habit of -- if somebody comes in the office and smarts off, I'll smart off back to them. She'll do it with a lot more class. And I think that's important. It's an attribute I didn't have but she does have. And that makes a difference."
Hatch's immediate future is unclear. He's still considering an offer from Swanson to stay on in the attorney general's office, at least temporarily, to help form a complex-litigation unit. Swanson says Hatch has a lot to offer.
"When you have a team, you try to find the best and brightest people possible, and he's a fantastic attorney," according to Swanson. "And I'm very committed to having a great attorney general's office that's going to look everywhere it can to find the best and the brightest lawyers who can help fulfill the work."
Swanson's job offer to Hatch has raised a few eyebrows at the Capitol. Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, the new House minority leader, says the job would raise questions in his mind about who's really in charge.
"I just think personally it's probably not a good choice for her," Seifert said. "But if she thinks that's something she has to do, either to give him a job or to have some help because he understands more about how to run the office, then certainly she has the right to do that."
Swanson says such criticism is off base. She insists she'll be in complete charge of the attorney general's office as of Jan. 2, 2007, and wants to hire the best lawyers she can find.