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Haase challenges Freeman for Hennepin County attorney

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Mark Haase is running for Hennepin County attorney.
Mark Haase is running for Hennepin County attorney, challenging long-time incumbent Mike Freeman.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

After running unopposed in his last two elections, long-time Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman is facing a challenge this year. Minneapoils attorney Mark Haase is making a bid for a DFL endorsement in the race Saturday, a test of Freeman's sometimes fraught relationship with the party.

You can't quite call it a dynasty, but the Freeman family is one of Minnesota's most politically formidable. Mike Freeman's dad, Orville, was once  governor, as well as agriculture secretary for President Kennedy. Mike Freeman made two bids to be governor himself, winning the DFL endorsement in 1998, only to lose a primary to Skip Humphrey. He's a former state senator and has won the top legal job in the state's biggest county twice, first in 1990 and again in 2006.

Now, at age 70, he's seeking a sixth term.

"I'm excited about the job, I think I'm still at the top of my game," he says. "And I want four more years to accomplish things that are on the planning docket."

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman points to a reporter
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman points to a reporter for a question inside the Hennepin County Government Center on Tuesday, March 20, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

He's got a long record of fighting gun crimes and he's part of an ongoing campaign to require universal background checks for firearms purchases and he wants to expedite the return of voting rights to felons, among other things.

"Automatic expungement is something we ought to have as a result of someone successfully completing diversion in minor crimes, be it juveniles or adults," he said. "They shouldn't have to go through all this paperwork, and they shouldn't have something that stays on their record and goes forward with them."

He's also president of the National District Attorneys Association which represents prosecuting attorneys nationwide.

But not everyone shares Freeman's excitement about his re-election.

Black activists in Minneapolis condemned his decision not to charge a pair of Minneapolis police officers in the shooting of Jamar Clark in 2015.

The shooting of Justine Ruszczyk by officer Mohammed Noor stirred more controversy. Many critics of the Jamar Clark decision noted how Freeman was willing to charge a black cop in a case where a white woman was the victim. Meanwhile, the Noor investigation strained Freeman's relationship with law enforcement.

All this has occurred as a more liberal, more activist generation is consolidating political power, with millenials like Jacob Frey and Melvin Carter taking the corner office in city halls.

Enter Mark Haase, 50, currently a government relations director in the state's information technology agency.

"I've spent the last decade plus working on making our justice system better for everyone, I've been able to use my leadership and legal skills to bring broad coalitions of people together to make significant reforms that have made a real difference in people's lives," Haase said.

Haase is a Coast Guard vet, former family law attorney and lobbyist for the state's Council on Crime and Justice. He also helped start the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition that worked on criminal expungement reform, drug sentencing reform and the Ban the Box movement to stop employers from asking about criminal records on initial job applications.

"We still have major problems in our justice system," he said. "We have unacceptable racial disparities. We continue to perpetually punish people, by not allowing them to move beyond their past. We essentially punish things like poverty, addiction, mental illness."

He wants to dial back marijuana prosecutions, and focus more on opioids, domestic violence and sex assaults.

"I believe in accountability, but accountability doesn't just mean punishing and winning a case," he said.

The two are headed into a DFL endorsing convention this weekend, a key factor in Hennepin County politics and potential turning point in the race. Haase says he'll drop out of the race if he doesn't win the endorsement. Haase says he thinks he has a good shot at it, and it'll be the boost he needs to take on a powerful incumbent.

Freeman says he's also calling delegates and seeking the party nod. But he's vexed Democrats before. Andy Luger, who later went on to be U.S. Attorney, got the endorsement for Hennepin County attorney in 2006, only to lose in an upset to Freeman, bidding to get his old job back.

And Freeman says he still wants to keep it.

"I've done a good job, 240,000 people voted for me in 2014. I think they have the right to make the ultimate decision, and regardless of what happens on Saturday, I'll be on the ballot in November," he said.

The convention is Saturday, at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis.