Feb 1, 2022 - Politics

County attorney races heat up early across Twin Cities metro

mike freeman at a podium
Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman, picured at a 2019 news conference, is retiring. Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

County attorney races are already heating up across the metro.

The big picture: Retirement announcements by longtime prosecutors are creating open β€” and unusually competitive β€” races.

  • Well-known names are already jockeying for endorsements in some counties.

Why it matters: Decisions made by county attorneys can have a big impact on the criminal justice system, including which cases are β€” or are not β€” prosecuted in local communities.

State of play: Paul Ostrow, a former Minneapolis council president, last week became the fifth candidate in the race to succeed outgoing Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman.

  • Other candidates, including House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler and former Hennepin County chief public defender Mary Moriarty, are already battling for support ahead of tonight's caucuses, when the DFL endorsement process gets underway.

Plus: At least four candidates are running for Dakota County's top prosecutor following longtime County Attorney James Backstrom's decision to retire after three decades last year, per the Pioneer Press.

  • The field is expected to include interim County Attorney Kathryn Keena and former DFL state Sen. Matt Little.

And in Washington County, assistant county attorney Kevin Magnuson is already running for the seat his boss Pete Orput recently announced he'll leave next year.

Driving the trend: Open races often attract more candidates, but the role and power of local prosecutors is also getting more attention amid debates over charging police officers accused of wrongdoing and addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

  • "Generally these are incredibly sleepy races," David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University, told Axios. "[But] they're being held accountable now in ways that they never used to be held accountable before."

Between the lines: These seats can be stepping stones to higher offices (See: U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a former Hennepin County attorney), though records can also become a political liability.

The bottom line: Schultz expects a key tension in these races and the terms that follow to be balancing prioritizing law and order amid rising crime with addressing police misconduct and racial justice issues.

  • "Right now is really fascinating because I think they're being pulled in two very different directions," he said.
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