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As Swanson weighs run for governor, contenders line up for her AG job

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Lori Swanson
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, a DFLer more than halfway through a third term, hasn't said when she'll decide to seek re-election or run for governor.
Jon Collins | MPR News 2015

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson is keeping her friends and foes guessing about her 2018 political ambitions, causing some with designs on the state's top legal job to charge ahead in the dark.

Swanson, a DFLer more than halfway through a third term, hasn't given a timetable for deciding whether to seek re-election or run for an open governor's office next year.

It wouldn't be a shocker if Swanson attempts to trade up. The four men who preceded her — three Democrats and a Republican before them — all tried but failed to make that exact leap. 

While she decides, the scramble for the attorney general's office is in full swing, with Republican Harry Niska declaring his candidacy on Monday. A second Republican, former state Rep. Doug Wardlow, is also running. 

Two Democrats have launched campaigns so far and others say they're mulling it over.

"You're going to have to get out there now because you can't necessarily wait for other decisions. You need to start preparing now," said state Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who established a campaign committee this month that allows him to raise money and take other concrete steps just in case Swanson moves on.

The former city prosecutor turned criminal defense lawyer said he has the right seasoning.

"As far as qualifications, there's no question I have more experience in the courtroom than anyone who has talked about running so far. I have more experience as a prosecutor than anyone who has talked about running so far," Lesch said. "But also I have been more battle-tested as well."

Lesch's former House DFL colleague, Ryan Winkler, has been in the race for five months already. He, too, is running a campaign contingent on it being a vacant seat next year, saying he'll get out if Swanson goes for a fourth term.

Winkler has primarily been a corporate attorney. That's meant less time in a courtroom. But Winkler holds up other qualifications.

"The real question is what kind of work have you done in the past that sets you up as an advocate for the people," he said. "I would point to my legislative experience and my experience in the business community understanding how the state works and how the economy works and making sure that we've got a strong advocate in the office to fight on behalf of people."

If elected, Winkler said he'd set up a special unit to have the state intervene on behalf of workers claiming "wage theft" after being denied benefits or overtime pay.

Winkler left his Golden Valley seat in the Legislature in 2015 when his family moved to Brussels for career reasons. He plans to be back full-time in Minnesota by June.

Two other DFLers also have expressed interest in running if Swanson doesn't: state Rep. Debra Hilstrom of Brooklyn Center and Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman.

Niska and Wardlow, the two announced Republicans, said they'll run no matter what Swanson decides.

Niska is a business litigation attorney from Ramsey. He's the only candidate so far who hasn't held elective office yet, and he considers that an asset.

"As I look at the field, I see a number of essentially career politicians looking for another step up on the political ladder," Niska said. 

Niska said he's not ready to cede the issue of consumer protection to a DFL opponent as he thinks some past Republican candidates had.

"To protect consumers you can't just send out a press release or send a tweet at some company. You have to actually be able to fight in court against their lawyers," Niska said. "Big companies will hire the biggest and best lawyers. And that's what I've done in the private sector. I've gone up against those lawyers all over the country and achieved results for my clients, and I think I can do that in the attorney general's office."

Like Winkler, Wardlow is also reestablishing himself as a full-time Minnesota resident. He said he'll move back next month after his son's school year ends.

Wardlow served one term representing an Eagan district until five years ago. He now lives in Arizona where he's worked for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nonprofit involved in faith-based litigation and other conservative efforts. 

"That's allowed me to fight for the constitutional free speech and conscience rights of Americans in cases across the country. And that's certainly been quite exciting, including cases right in Minnesota," he said.

Wardlow said the DFL has had too tight a grip on the attorney general's office.

"It is time for change," he said. "I think 44, approximately, years is too long for any single party to hold such an important office."

It's actually been longer since Republicans won an attorney general's race. 

The last to do it was Doug Head in 1966. Head served one term then ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1970 and turned over the attorney general's office the following January to DFLer Warren Spannaus.

Spannaus tried to move up to governor in 1982 but lost in a DFL primary. His successor, Skip Humphrey, came up shy in his own gubernatorial bid in 1998, as did the next attorney general, Mike Hatch, in 2006.