No one questioned Lori Swanson's legal qualifications; she's spent more than seven years in the attorney general's office, working as Mike Hatch's deputy and state solicitor general. But when Swanson jumped into the race on July 18, just hours after DFLer Matt Entenza withdrew, there were questions raised about her lack of campaign experience.
But Swanson wasn't talking like a political novice after her surprise primary election win. "I think voters are pretty smart," she said. "I've said that all along from the time I filed. When I first filed, people said, 'Well, you might not have the name recognition of some of the other candidates in the race.' And I always maintained from the beginning that voters are smarter than they're sometimes given credit for, and they pay attention to these kind of races. I would just keep talking about issues and talking about my work, and I think that's something that people responded to."
Swanson, who lives in Eagan, edged out state Sen. Steve Kelley, the DFL Party's endorsed candidate. Former Congressman Bill Luther came in a distant third.
Kelley ran for governor earlier this year, but lost that endorsement to Mike Hatch. After Entenza's withdrawal, Kelley gave up trying to keep his seat in the state Senate to run for attorney general. He says he's not sure how much Swanson's ties to Hatch helped her win the primary.
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Kelley, who drew some criticism for sponsoring the Twins stadium bill this year, says he's also not sure where his political career might be headed now.
"I'm proud to have had the opportunity over 14 years to serve my constituents in District 44," he said. "It was a privilege they gave me and I'm proud of the accomplishments over that time. It's just too soon to tell what's next."
The next step for Lori Swanson is campaigning for the November general election. Her key issue is health care. Her chief opponent is Republican Jeff Johnson.
"I only met Jeff Johnson one time, at a candidate forum, I think, the day after I filed for office. At that debate anyway, or that meeting, he did seem to have very much of a different philosophy than I've got," Swanson said. "I have very much of a philosophy that it should be the one office in government people can go to advocate for the little guy. He seems to have a different approach to that, and I think those differences will certainly come out in the course of the campaign." "That's kind of politics 101. You paint the Republican opponent as too pro-business," Johnson countered.
Jeff Johnson says he heard the same characterization from all three DFL attorney general candidates, but to him it just doesn't ring true. Johnson is a state representative from Plymouth. He says his legislative record over six years has not always been the most friendly to business interests.
"You can look at one of the more significant identity-theft bills that we've ever passed in Minnesota, I chief authored with a Democrat. And much of the business community didn't care for that, but it was the right thing to do, so we did it," said Johnson. "The meth bill that I carried last year, the retailers, the pharmaceutical companies, they were having fits about it. We did it anyway because it was the right thing to do."
Johnson says his campaign will focus on public safety issues such as drugs and violent crime. He says the campaign enters a new phase now that he knows who he's facing in November. But now that the DFL contest is over, Johnson worries the attorney general's race might quickly fade into the background.
"Traditionally the race for attorney general has flown under the radar. It's very possible, just based on the money that will be spent in other big races, it will be hard to get people's attention than what we've seen in the last few weeks," he said.
Johnson and Swanson will try to get voters' attention during a series of debates scheduled in the coming weeks.
In the Independence Party primary, party endorsee John James appears the winner with a 300-vote victory over Richard Bullock, with a handful of precincts yet to report.