Primary will narrow the field of seven Hennepin County Attorney hopefuls

The Hennepin County Courthouse
The Hennepin County Courthouse pictured in 2021.
AP Photo | Christian Monterrosa

Voters in Hennepin County are going to the polls Tuesday to pare down a field of candidates seeking to become the next head prosecutor in the state’s most populous county. 

Seven candidates have campaigned on concerns about crimes like carjackings and shootings, while also trying to address the public’s demands for police accountability in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

The election is the first time in almost a quarter century that there’s been a competitive primary for the position of Hennepin County Attorney. Mike Freeman is not seeking re-election for the position he first filled in 1990 and returned to in 2007. 

Hennepin is the largest county attorney’s office in the state, handling more than 13,000 adult and juvenile cases last year. The office has a budget of more than $65 million this year and 500 full time employees. 

The field of seven candidates include people who’ve held elected and appointed positions, and who’ve practiced law in both the public and private sectors. The top two candidates in the non-partisan race will proceed to the general election in November. 

Mary Moriarty, of Minneapolis, served as chief public defender in Hennepin County from 2014 to 2020. She’s the DFL-endorsed candidate, and has received the support of prominent politicians like U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and State Attorney General Keith Ellison, among others. 

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Moriarty said in an interview with MPR News’ Minnesota Today that there’s a difference between “meaningful accountability” in the criminal justice system and rhetoric about being ‘tough on crime.’ 

”My goal is to make everybody safer. My goal is to reduce racial disparities because we have huge racial disparities in our criminal system,” Moriarty said. “We need to have a just system so that people in the community trust what’s going to happen, which will actually make them cooperate more with the police.”

Moriarty said in order to achieve public safety, there needs to be “accountability both for people who violate the law and police.”

State House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, of Golden Valley, received one of the Star Tribune editorial board’s endorsements in the race. He’s also been endorsed by a number of state lawmakers including DFL state House Speaker Melissa Hortman. 

Winkler said the level of violent crime in the Twin Cities is unacceptable. 

“We’re almost getting calloused as we see person after person harmed. It could be homicides, shootings, carjackings,” Winkler said. “The public is demanding a difference. They want to be safe. We need to have a justice system that people want to believe in and trust.”

Winkler said the next county attorney will need to work closely with law enforcement and community leaders to ensure both safety and police accountability. 

In particular, the level of violent crime in Hennepin County has been addressed by most of the candidates.  

Retired Hennepin County Judge Martha Holton Dimick, of Minneapolis, received one of the endorsements from the Star Tribune’s editorial board and the support of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. 

Dimick said her goal is to rebuild the public’s trust in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, and to make prosecutors more effective. 

“Public safety is not a political slogan to me, as a community prosecutor and as a serious crimes judge, it was my profession,” Dimick said. “As someone who lives in north Minneapolis and has seen the effects of the increase in violence in my community, it’s my life.”

Former Minneapolis City Council President Paul Ostrow, of northeast Minneapolis, serves as a prosecutor in Anoka County. He’s endorsed by former Gov. Arne Carlson and former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger. 

Ostrow said prosecutors need to hold people accountable for crimes, as well as “limit the collateral consequences of people who come into contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system.”

”I’m not a fan of slogans, and I’m not a fan of ‘tough on crime,’” Ostrow said. “I think these simplistic types of slogans probably have done us more harm than good.”

Saraswati Singh is a Ramsey County prosecutor endorsed by Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. She said prosecutors can allocate resources in a way that addresses issues of racial disparities in areas like drug prosecutions while also addressing serious crime. 

”When I’m Hennepin County Attorney, I plan on moving prosecutors from the drug unit to the violence crime unit because we have a violent crime issue,” Singh said. “It’s been rising within the last couple of years, during the pandemic, and we’re still charging low-level cases like marijuana at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.”

Some candidates are betting on their outsider status. 

Jarvis Jones is the former president of the Hennepin County Bar Association and the Minnesota State Bar Association, and lives in Edina. Jones has worked mostly in corporate law, and said he’s a fresh voice from outside the criminal justice system.  

“We need to make cultural, systemic and organizational changes. As a change agent, that’s something I do,” Jones said. “I’m also a bridge builder to reach out to people of color and the broader community, not people of color, to bring us together so we can start resolving some of the problems.”

Former legislator, Hennepin County commissioner and Washington County judge Tad Jude, of Maple Grove, is running under the slogan that he wants to “make crime illegal again.” The former DFLer turned Republican lawmaker is endorsed by former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. 

“What we need to do is get back to having the county attorney do its job. Follow the facts, the evidence, apply the law,” Jude said. ”Just have the county attorney basically represent the citizens of the county, empower the victims, make sure that victims have restitution if at all possible.”  

In-person voting in the primary election in the Hennepin County Attorney’s race starts at 7 a.m. Tuesday and polls close at 8 p.m.

Cathy Wurzer and Ellen Finn contributed to this story.