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Matt Entenza runs for attorney general

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House Minority Leader Matt Entenza has had his eye on the Attorney general's office for years. He formed a campaign committee for the office in 2001, but disbanded the committee after Hatch decided to seek a second term. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The top Democrat in the Minnesota House has entered the race for attorney general. House Minority Leader Matt Entenza's announcement comes two days after the current attorney general, Mike Hatch, jumped into the governor's race. Entenza says he would be a consumer watchdog like Hatch, and take on big corporations. The only other candidate in the race, Republican Representative Jeff Johnson, says Entenza would politicize the office.

St. Paul, Minn. — Matt Entenza has had his eye on the job of attorney general for years. He worked in the office as an assistant attorney general in the early '90s, before being elected to the Minnesota House in 1994.

Entenza formed a campaign committee for the office four years ago, but disbanded the committee after Hatch decided to seek a second term. Entenza says as attorney general, he would take on oil companies and telemarketers who scam Minnesotans.

"Minnesota needs a watchdog, a watchdog who will stand up strong and be there to make sure all of our families are kept safe and are protected. I want to be your watchdog," he said.

Entenza made his announcement in front of his St. Paul home, surrounded by his family, supporters and more than a dozen of his House colleagues. Entenza says he would work with county attorneys to crack down on methamphetimine offenders, and also to make sure dangerous sex offenders aren't released.

As a legislator, Entenza sponsored the "do not call" law shielding consumers from telemarketers, and has brought public attention to financial problems at charter schools. Entenza says he has the advantage of having been a criminal prosecutor, unlike Republican candidate Jeff Johnson.

"I think I'm the only candidate who has the experience of being an assistant attorney general, of shutting down telemarketers, of prosecuting criminals, and I think we just have a huge difference in experience, and I think that makes a big difference in the office," he said.

Republicans wasted no time in attacking Entenza, accusing him of trying to buy the attorney general's office. Entenza's wife, Lois Quam, is the CEO of Ovations, a division of UnitedHealth Group. Quam has stock options worth millions, according to public filings, and Quam and Entenza contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns last year.

The state Republican Party accused Entenza of breaking campaign finance laws when he gave $300,000 to a national Democratic group that then helped elect DFL candidates in Minnesota. State campaign finance regulators found no wrongdoing.

Entenza says he hasn't decided whether to abide by spending limits in order to receive public campaign subsidies. He says it may be hard to get voters' attention in a year with big-money U.S. Senate and governor's races.

Republican candidate Jeff Johnson, a state representative from Plymouth, says he expects to be outspent by Entenza. He says he will stick to the spending limit of about $364,000 in 2006. Johnson has been campaigning since February, and says Entenza's entrance into the attorney general's race offers voters a clear choice.

"That office has become much too partisan, and much too politically calculating, and that's really not the proper role of that office, and I would be surprised if Matt doesn't follow at least that same role when it comes to partisanship and politics. That's kind of his style," Johnson said.

Johnson is an employment attorney. He chairs the House Civil Law Committee, and has sponsored legislation toughening penalties for meth crimes and requiring public libraries to filter Internet pornography from their computers.

"The criminal division has been de-emphasized, I think it's fair to say it's been decimated probably in favor of other things. That should be, if not the top priority, one of the top priorities, so I'm talking a lot about the meth issue, about sexual predators, about Internet online child pornography," Johnson said.

Johnson doesn't expect other Republicans to join the race, and he's picked up the backing of Gov. Pawlenty and other Republican leaders. Entenza doesn't anticipate any DFL challengers for the office, although former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug hasn't ruled out a run.

Entenza says he wants to continue as House Minority Leader until the DFL endorsing convention next spring, and says he'll drop out of the race if he isn't endorsed. Some House DFLers have expressed concern about Entenza's ability to juggle the demands of an attorney general's campaign and leading the caucus, particularly in a key election year.

Last year, Entenza helped the caucus pick up 13 seats, and DFLers are just two seats away from regaining the majority in the House.

Three Democrats have expressed interest in the Minority Leader position -- Joe Atkins of Inver Grove Heights, Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis and Loren Solberg of Grand Rapids.