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Attorney General Race Tightens
By Elizabeth Stawicki
October 26, 1998
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Polls show the race for attorney general has tightened considerably since the primary, but still show a large number of voters are undecided. It's an important race, because whoever leads the attorney general's office directs 250 attorneys to file lawsuits on the public's behalf. The attorney general's office is 10 times the size of the governor's and can touch individual lives in profound ways. It's the attorney general's office that takes on con artists who swindle senior citizens out of their pensions and it's the attorney general's office that holds entire industries accountable for harming the public health.

AT LEAST ONE PUNDIT CALLS THIS YEAR'S ATTORNEY GENERAL RACE a battle for name recognition. That's due in part because both candidates are running on different - and some say safe - issues. Both candidates agree the attorney general should take a lead role in reviewing HMOs and the health-insurance industry and take a lead role in fighting violent crime. What does separate the two candidates is where they put these issues on their priority lists.

DFLer Mike Hatch wants to put health care on the front burner. Hatch, who's chaired the DFL party and twice ran for governor, is also a former commerce commissioner. He's now a trial lawyer who's represented people who believe insurance companies unfairly denied them treatment. Hatch says as attorney general, he'll propel health insurance debates into the public arena.

Hatch: It should not be done in the bowels of these corporations: Alina, Blue Cross, Health Partners. It should be done by people who are looking at public policy, not the bottom line, when making those decisions. Too often today, it's who you know. I can work the system, I know other people who can work the system, but that ought not be the way it is when it's your child that's affected.
But where Hatch emphasizes the consumer-complaint side of the attorney general office, Republican Charlie Weaver stresses traditional anti-crime themes.

Weaver, who's served in the Legislature for 10 years and is a county prosecutor in Anoka, wants the public to view him as a crime fighter. The theme that's rung throughout his campaign has been, in his words, "Keeping families safe." Weaver wants the attorney general's office to lead a charge for victim's rights, boost jail time for criminals who use guns, and toughen penalties for juvenile crime - including lowering the age to 12 at which a child could stand trial as an adult for murder.

Weaver: Ten years from now we're going to have 20 percent more juveniles on the street than we do now, so we're going to focus that office particularly in terms of crime prevention on juveniles. Opening up the juvenile justice system for example. Right now it's private. Those hearings should be public. A child who commits a crime, if you're 14, that should be public.
Crime is one issue where Hatch and Weaver disagree in the details. Hatch initially said the attorney general's office should have primary jurisdiction in prosecuting gang crimes. He now says the attorney general's office should have the option of prosecuting gang crimes. Either way, Weaver is strongly opposed, as this exchange shows during a joint campaign appearance before an anti-crime organization in St. Paul.
Weaver: What he's saying is local prosecutors are incompetent to prosecute gangs, or there's some reason or pressure locally not to prosecute gangs. The last thing we need is more government out of St. Paul. We don't need a cowboy in St. Paul saying, "I'm going to take over that case because I know better. My lawyers are smarter, so I'm going to take it from you." That's a bad idea.

Hatch: This is not a slap in the face to anybody. The idea is to coordinate and work together. Nobody should be afraid of it, and I apologize if it gets the county attorneys threatened. The fact of the matter is, I think the violence that comes from gang related crime is so important there ought to be a statewide response to it.
Hatch says he'd be more like attorney general Skip Humphrey in prosecuting consumer fraud - particularly as it relates to senior citizens. But Weaver says he'd be less like Skip Humphrey - he says he'd foster a culture which he says would work with business instead of against it.

As far as major endorsements, the AFL-CIO and Minneapolis Police Federation have endorsed Hatch. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Reform party leader Dean Barkley, and long-time DFLers Mike Freeman and State Senator Gene Merriam jumped party lines and endorsed Weaver. Political analyst Ruth Stanoch says Merriam's jump is due to a long-standing friendship between Weaver and Merriam, but she says Mike Freeman's endorsement is quite different.

Stanoch: I think there's been some bitterness since the 1994 endorsement contest when Mike lost to John Marty. I think that Mike Freeman feels that Mike Hatch was somewhat responsible for that, and it was a lot of political intrigue and machinations that happened on the floor, and I think that Mike Freeman is using this opportunity to settle an old political score.
Some analysts say Hatch probably has a slim edge over Weaver on name recognition because Hatch ran for statewide office in 1990 and 1994. But recent polls appear to show Weaver has gained ground. Still, both candidates have room to grow in support - there's a major block of voters who haven't decided who should be the next attorney general.