County attorney races are generally low-key affairs, but the election for Hennepin County attorney more than two years after George Floyd was murdered by a former Minneapolis police officer shows signs of becoming increasingly contentious.
At a forum in downtown Minneapolis Thursday sponsored by business groups, former prosecutor and judge Martha Holton Dimick struck out repeatedly at her opponent, former chief Hennepin County public defender Mary Moriarty.
“My experience is a lot stronger than an experiment from someone who has just done defense attorney work and has just worked with criminals,” Dimick said.
Dimick later accused Moriarty of getting support from a “dark money” political action committee, as well as from officials like U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and State Attorney General Keith Ellison, who Dimick said are “some of the strongest ‘defund the police’” supporters.
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Both Ellison and Omar supported a failed ballot question last November that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. Mayor Jacob Frey, who opposed the ballot question, has since created a new Office of Community Safety to oversee the department.
Moriarty said she’s proud that she’s run a positive campaign that includes supporters with diverse views, and that she welcomes the endorsement of her congressperson.
Dimick also accused Moriarty of employing “police abolitionists” in her campaign, which Moriarty said was a reference to an Open Streets festival in north Minneapolis over the weekend where Dimick confronted police abolition activists unconnected to Moriarty’s campaign.
“[Dimick] responded by saying that they’re my supporters; they were an abolitionist group I didn’t know anything about,” Moriarty said. “This fear-mongering, the lies that are being told here, are something that I don’t think are playing well in this campaign.”
Dimick said she was angry that the activists at the festival were displaying photos of the finalists for the new Minneapolis police chief.
“Underneath their names were pictures of pigs. Each one of them had a different pig under their name. They were also handing out these little pigs that go ‘oink, oink,’” Dimick said. “This is my neighborhood. They don’t belong in my neighborhood.”
Dimick denied allegations made on social media that she spit on the activists.
During most of the forum, Moriarty and Dimick outlined the different approaches they’d take to the job, which oversees the largest prosecutor’s office in the state.
Moriarty said she’d make decisions as the top prosecutor in the county based on data and research.
“We can’t continue to do the things that we’ve always done, because we know that doesn’t work to keep us safe,” Moriarty said. “We need something new. We need something different than the status quo, and that’s what I bring to this race.”
Dimick said gun violence and crimes by youth are out of control in the city of Minneapolis, and that the head prosecutor could help ensure that violence doesn’t spread.
“I’m here to extoll public safety. It’s very important,” Dimick said. “We can not enable our criminals anymore. We need to protect our communities.”
Asked about how they’d approach the prosecution of a police officer who commits a crime, Dimick said she agreed with the approach of current County Attorney Mike Freeman, who in recent years has generally made charging decisions about police officers on his own. But she said that she wouldn’t send the cases to the state attorney general’s office for prosecution.
“We need to have all the evidence, all the issues. We need to know about the law, how we’re going to charge the case,” Dimick said. “We can not capitulate to these activists because they’re screaming in our faces. We need to take the time to do our job justly and thoroughly.”
Moriarty said she wouldn’t send fatal shootings by police to neighboring county attorneys or to a grand jury, a process that’s been criticized for secrecy and a lack of transparency.
“It’s a way that prosecutors have hidden behind their decisions, by having a grand jury make a decision,” Moriarty said. “To me, right now, the people of Hennepin County are electing the next county attorney to make those decisions.”
Both candidates also said they’d try to balance concerns about mass incarceration with a focus on prosecuting violent crime. They also agreed that they wouldn’t charge people for possession of marijuana.
In his final question during the forum, MPR News reporter Brian Bakst asked whether the candidates had one positive thing to say about their opponent.
Moriarty said that she respected that Dimick had worked her way through nursing and law school as a single mother and overcome challenges as a woman of color.
Dimick pointed out that Moriarty was younger than she is, yet had run an office of public defenders, which she said is extremely important in the criminal justice system.
Moriarty won the DFL endorsement in spring and a seven-way primary race last month with more than twice as many votes as Dimick. She has also been endorsed by a number of political groups and dozens of current lawmakers from Minneapolis and the Hennepin County suburbs.
Dimick has been endorsed by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, law enforcement groups, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and former and current local officials.
Correction (Sept. 16, 2022): An earlier version of this story did not define the two separate wins Moriarty had. The DFL endorsement and primary win are two separate contests.