Green banner raised, Dawkins presses unconventional AG campaign

Former DFL Rep. Andy Dawkins
Former DFL Rep. Andy Dawkins talks to reporters on June 3, 2014, after filing as a Green Party candidate for Attorney General.
Tim Pugmire / MPR News

Andy Dawkins wants to be Minnesota's next attorney general. But don't expect him to follow the usual script.

He supports legalizing marijuana, wants to limit money in politics, protect private data and stop copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota. He's been speaking out on civil rights, environmental issues and what he sees as the shortcomings of his former party.

He may also be the Green Party's best chance in years to regain major-party status. With six candidates in the attorney general race this fall, he's making the most noise in what is typically a quiet contest.

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An attorney and former DFL state representative from St. Paul, Dawkins believes many dissatisfied Democrats are now looking for a viable alternative. He's critical of incumbent DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson on several environmental issues, including her vote last year on the state executive council to approve mineral leases.

He also sees himself as a potential spoiler. "Even if the Republican wins, it's not a disaster, because the bar is really so low with our incumbent attorney general," he said. "She has done that bad a job that it might be better to have a Republican in there. So, I don't feel bad about doing that."

Swanson and her campaign declined to comment for this story. DFL Chair Ken Martin also declined an interview request.

The Green Party was designated a major party in Minnesota after consumer advocate Ralph Nader captured 5.2 percent of the vote in the 2000 presidential election. The status was short-lived. Greens failed to reach the required 5 percent threshold in the next two elections. They then lost state certification as a minor party after missing a paperwork deadline.

Those thresholds aren't just bragging rights. They can be critical to the survival of third-party groups like the Greens.

Minor parties and major parties qualify for campaign subsidies under the state income tax check-off and can issue political contribution refund receipts. Major parties choose candidates in the state partisan primary. They can have election judges appointed from their members and may place challengers in polling places.

Dawkins said his relationship with the Green Party began through advocacy for ranked-choice voting.

He later worked as the Green's lawyer in an unsuccessful attempt to get the Minnesota Supreme Court to restore the Green's minor-party status.

The only statewide candidate for the Green Party this year, Dawkins needs to win 1 percent of the vote to reclaim minor party standing. But the party's state chair, Amber Garlan, said she believes Dawkins' candidacy is the path back to being a major party.

"Yes. Absolutely, and more important, we see this as an opportunity to give people a chance to vote their hopes instead of their fears. We want to really let people know about the Green Party and about our values."

Others are less optimistic about a Green Party resurgence.

Reaching 5 percent to restore major-party status is a steep climb for any third party candidate in a non-presidential election, said Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

"I think it would be quite a challenge to achieve major-party status in a statewide election, where most voters are relying on their party identification for voting for offices that aren't at the top of the ticket," she said. "There's an incumbent on the ballot, and incumbents also benefit in races that don't get a lot of attention."

The last time the Green Party had an attorney general candidate on the ballot was in 2006. That year, Papa John Kolstad received less than 2 percent of the vote in a four-way race.

Dawkins, though, is undeterred and believes his views will draw voters looking for a different kind of attorney general.

Recent confrontations between police and citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, had him thinking about race, poverty and law enforcement.

"I think that the issues that are being raised in Ferguson are real issues everywhere in the country, in terms of the issues of poverty and racism that we're seeing getting played out down there," he said. "A police force that's mostly white, a police force that's armed to the hilt with federal government anti-terrorism kind of equipment -- it's the not the right reaction to have, and so I think I need to speak out about it."