County attorney candidates have similar goals, different ways to achieve them

A side-by-side of two profile pictures of two candidates.
Retired judge Martha Holton Dimick (left) will face former chief public defender Mary Moriarty in the November general election for Hennepin County attorney.
Jaida Grey Eagle and Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

With the race for Hennepin County Attorney narrowed to two candidates after last week’s primary, the campaigns are gearing up for the November general election where police reform and violent crime promise to yet again be the central issues of the race. 

Although both candidates say they want the same results — public safety and police accountability — they disagree on how to get there. 

Mary Moriarty, former head of the Hennepin County Public Defender’s office, came in first in a field of seven candidates during Tuesday’s primary, with 36 percent of the vote. She attributes her win to the broad coalition she built of people who believe the status quo is not working. 

“They're excited about the possibility of implementing changes that will lead to public safety and racial equity and a more just system,” she said. ”People understand what I am about, what I have valued in the past, what I've spoken out about, what I've had the courage to speak out about, and that is what they can expect from me.“ 

Coming in second in the primary with 18 percent of the vote and making the cut for the general election was former judge and prosecutor Martha Holton Dimick. She said the narrative of “defund the police” after George Floyd’s murder sent the wrong message to the public — and to criminals.  

Rising violent crime across the country

After an uptick in shootings and murders during the pandemic, Dimick wants to send a different message: ”If you’re going to commit a violent serious crime, and gun violence, then there are consequences and if you’re arrested and convicted you’re looking at a prison sentence.” 

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Neither candidate said they support a purely punitive approach to the job. Dimick said she’d also embrace the use of specialized courts to handle cases involving veterans or drugs to divert people from prison. 

”Yes, we will be prosecuting offenders. Yes, we will have consequences when people break the law,” she said. “And yes, we will have services available for those folks that need it. “

But Dimick’s opponent, Moriarty, says that the sort of “tough on crime” rhetoric traditionally used by prosecutors has failed to create public safety for everyone. 

“Yes, we can have public safety, and we need reform to get public safety,” Moriarty said. “We need to implement the things that we know work using data and research. And if something isn't working, we need a new approach.” 

As Hennepin County attorney, Moriarty said she’d focus on prosecuting violent and dangerous offenses. But she’d also offer options like restorative justice when victims prefer them to a prison sentence.

“Now with COVID, with gun violence, seeing people killed in the community, their friends and neighbors being afraid to walk to school, they are carrying around a lot of trauma,” Moriarty said. “Somebody who's harmed today, who doesn't heal, who doesn't get the trauma services that they need, may very well turn out to be the person who harms somebody else tomorrow.”

Bringing change to the Minneapolis police

Both candidates say the Minneapolis Police Department needs to change. Dimick said the department’s “culture is damaged” and they need to be reformed. 

“How is that done?” she asked. “We need to sit down with law enforcement, we need to sit down with the city, with the city council members, we need to sit down with all of our justice partners and figure that out. Now, of course, the final say will be up to the police department themselves.” 

As county attorney, Dimick said she’d like to see the police department develop a more effective disciplinary process and bring in outside administrators, but that it doesn’t help to “keep pointing fingers and playing the blame game.” 

“We will prosecute any police officer that violates a law, violates civil rights, violates a person's civil liberties to the fullest extent of the law,” Dimick said. “We will prosecute them just like we would prosecute anyone who violates a law.”

Moriarty said a prosecutor needs to hold both police officers and community members criminally accountable when necessary. She said she’d use her position to help improve the department in practical ways, including refusing to call officers with a history of lying as witnesses and sharing body camera footage of officers engaging in misconduct with police leadership. 

“That's the kind of change that the county attorney can help police departments make,” Moriarty said. “I’m a big believer that everybody needs to step up in this system and help create reform, because we're not going to get it if just the police department is trying to do it on its own.”

Familiar themes at the heart of county attorney race

The key themes of the Hennepin County Attorney election echo those in last year’s Minneapolis mayoral election, and even in last week’s congressional primary between U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and former city council member Don Samuels, which Omar won.  

Hamline University political science professor David Schultz said it makes sense that the city has become the poster child for police reform following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. 

”What we’re seeing playing out here over a two-year period is, I’m going to say, the question of whether the momentum over George Floyd’s murder continues,” Schultz said. “What's the best way of addressing law and order and public safety issues, while at the same time dealing with legitimate concerns regarding policing in Minneapolis and across Hennepin County?”  

Further complicating matters, the push for police reform since 2020 has been complicated by a surge in violent crime during the pandemic in cities across the country, including Minneapolis. 

Moriarty is often lumped in with a movement of so-called ‘progressive prosecutors,’ who have run for office across the country in recent years, some of whom have faced pushback from people blaming them for crime. Moriarty said she doesn’t tend to “go with labels,” and believes Hennepin County has unique circumstances.  

This new generation of prosecutors was inspired to run for office partly after watching how the war on drugs led to deep harm for people receiving long sentences, with Black men hit especially hard, said Mark Godsey, a professor of law at the University of Cincinnati College of Law and director of the Ohio Innocence Project.

”A lot of it has been caused by sort of the old guard who doesn't want to change using fear as a tactic,” Godsey said. “Even though there might be pushback now, I think more and more people are going to realize the way we did things in the 1950s [in the criminal justice system] just doesn't really fit modern society.” 

In the Twin Cities, some politicians appear to have chosen their sides. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who opposed a failed charter amendment to create a new Department of Public Safety, backed Dimick. While Omar and some groups that campaigned for the amendment have supported Moriarty. 

At times, the differences have escalated into Democratic infighting. The mayor and congresswoman recently sniped at one another on social media and in the media, with Frey accusing Omar of calling to “defund and get rid of police.” Omar responded by chiding the mayor for failures while he was solely in charge of the police, and said the city is suffering “because of his poor leadership.” 

Schultz said disagreements between the two sides are largely about the pace and scope of police reform. He said one side wants to re-envision public safety by putting more resources into alternatives to policing and social programs. While the other side believes we can build better police departments by improving training, recruitment and community relations. 

So far, Schultz said, the two sides seem to be at a draw. 

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