Republican tries to make AG race a referendum on Hatch

Offering their visions
Johnson, solicitor general Lori Swanson and Independence Party candidate John James sketched out competing visions for the office during their first debate, sponsored by the Twin West Chamber of Commerce.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

The three attorney general candidates talked a lot about business during their first debate, which was sponsored by the Twin West Chamber of Commerce. But Republican Jeff Johnson, a state representative from Plymouth, zeroed in on what he sees as the bad business practices of the attorney general's office.

Johnson took indirect aim at DFL candidate Lori Swanson by attacking her boss, outgoing Attorney General Mike Hatch. Swanson is state solicitor general and a key assistant to Hatch, who's the DFL candidate for governor. Johnson claims the attorney general's office moved in the wrong direction under Hatch and Swanson.

Sees AG as watchdog
Lori Swanson said she'd audit health care companies to expose excess administrative costs.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"I think it's time that we have an attorney general in Minnesota that actually tends to his or her job or protecting Minnesotans from criminals and puts an end to some of the arrogant, anti-business, self-promoting political games that we've seen for the last eight years. I think it's time for an attitude adjustment," he said.

Johnson wants to crack down on sex offenders and drug dealers. He promises less politics and more action as attorney general. But after the debate, Swanson said Johnson is putting politics ahead of the issues as a candidate. She criticized Johnson and the Republican Party for personal attacks. A GOP statement released just minutes after her DFL primary win described Swanson as a "Hatch crony."

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"I have been in the attorney general's office as solicitor general and deputy attorney general. I'm very proud of the work that I've done in that office. But I'm running as my own candidate too. And I've got ideas about the attorney general's office. I've got ideas for what I would do for the people of Minnesota. And I think it's unfortunate that Mr. Johnson is trying to politicize this," she said.

The Independence Party's candidate is former revenue commissioner John James, who agrees with Jeff Johnson on at least one point. He believes the attorney general's office has de-emphasized public safety issues in recent years.

Jeff Johnson
Jeff Johnson suggested the attorney general's office had become too abrasive and fostered an antibusiness mind-set.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"I don't think we should be running against Mike Hatch, though, except to the extent that Lori Swanson gives clear indication that she's going to continue to do whatever it was that you would object to in what Hatch did. I think we should run on what we'd do in that office," James said.

Johnson insists he's been critical of the current attorney general since he started campaigning a year and a half ago. He sees no reason to change that approach with Lori Swanson as an opponent.

"Most of what I hear her say is how she's been integral in that office and essentially run it for the last eight years. And so if she comes out and says 'we should change the way we do things,' then it's not much of the issue, but I didn't hear any of that today. I only heard that from me and John James to a certain extent," Johnson said.

During the debate the three candidates managed to highlight the issues they'd like to pursue as attorney general. John James talked about stopping the use of unwarranted government fees.

Stresses experience
At a debate on September 15, 2006, John James stressed his experience in the public and private sectors.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"Fees and taxes folks are not the same. I know the difference. Our leaders are deceiving us. I will insist on basic honesty in the relationship between our leaders and the public on revenue raising. And I will blow the whistle on deception," he said.

With an audience that included many suburban business owners, Lori Swanson offered a way to help them deal with rising health care costs. She pledged to keep the pressure on big drug companies.

"Health care costs are squeezing businesses," she said. "It's the largest cost to businesses if you look at the expense. I think we've filed two dozen lawsuits against the pharmaceutical industry in about eight years, or had two dozen settlements, and there's a reason for that. Pharmaceutical costs comprise about 15 to 20 percent of the health dollar, they're a leading cost driver of health care and there's been a lot of anti-competitive conduct in that area that needs to be curbed."

The debate was limited to the three major party candidates for attorney general. Papa John Kolstad, the candidate of the Green Party, was not invited.