Attorney general candidate Lori Swanson touts her experience

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This weekend, DFL State Central Committee members will be asked to endorse one of three candidates who are running for Minnesota Attorney General. Inside Minnesota Politics has already interviewed Senator Steve Kelley and will speak with former Congressman Bill Luther later this week. Today we talk with Solicitor General Lori Swanson.

Would you want your boss’s job? For today’s guest I’m going to assume the answer to that question is yes since she’s running to replace Attorney General Mike Hatch. We’re honored today to have Solicitor General Lori Swanson in our studio. Lori, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to our audience today.
Well thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

Lori is one of three candidates vying for the DFL slot on the November ballot. The other two are State Senator Steve Kelley and former Congressman Bill Luther. Lori, you’ve been with the Attorney General’s office ever since Mike Hatch took office seven years ago…
Correct. 1999.

1999, so you’ve certainly had time to take a close look at the job. Can you tell me what is the job of the Attorney General?
Sure. The Attorney General wears a number of different hats. The Attorney General really is the state’s chief legal officer, which means that the Attorney General represents the state of Minnesota in court on legal affairs that can range from the state being sued and the Attorney General defends the state in court. Those lawsuits can range from constitutional challenges over school funding to more routine cases if somebody is walking down the capitol steps. It’s snowy. The capitol security didn’t shovel well enough. They fall down. The State of Minnesota is the one who would defend that kind of lawsuit. The Attorney General would defend that lawsuit.

The Attorney General is better known for, however, its consumer advocacy, its plaintiff advocacy. The Attorney General is the chief one to enforce the consumer protection laws, charity laws, anti-trust laws, and really is, I believe, should be the people’s lawyer in terms of advocating for the public, being the people’s champion, standing up for people when there have been corporate abuses.

So you’ve had a good chance… you’ve been involved in many of the lawsuits as the Solicitor General. In fact, I think the Solicitor General kind of does a lot of the heavy lifting, as one would say, in the office…getting these things done?
I’ve been very involved in many of the more high-profile cases of the office, ranging from HMO reform to financial services reform. Cases where HMOs have broken the law by not properly paying benefits. Cases where banks have broken the law by selling social security numbers and account balances to telemarketers, who then use that information to go out and slam consumers with products they never ordered and never wanted. Cases involving equity strippers who stole the home equity out from under consumers in foreclosure. Literally ripping away from the American dream of home ownership. And so I think the Attorney General serves an incredibly important role for the State and for its people.

We’re in an era where many people feel like, I think rightfully so, that the government doesn’t always represent them. That the government doesn’t care, doesn’t hear, doesn’t listen to what their concerns are. The Attorney General’s office has been the one office in government at all levels that the people have been able to count on to listen to them, to be their advocate, to be their champion, and that’s the kind of work I would like to continue as Attorney General.

I know I’ve always had great response from the Attorney General’s office when I’ve called up and I’ve had telemarketer problems or what not. I always get a call returned. I always get a letter filed. So the office does very good work. Now I have to ask you, what do you think are the qualities that an Attorney General should have?
I think there are many qualities an Attorney General should have. One is the Attorney General needs to be tough. These cases that I’m talking about are not easy cases to bring. They’re not easy cases to litigate. When you sue a major national corporation for ripping off your state’s citizens, you get an army of lawyers on the other side. Sometimes they’re not Minnesota lawyers. They ship them in from some of the biggest law firms in southern Manhattan. And they litigate them very aggressively. Often times they’ll pull out all the stops and take a, not just a kind of a heavy litigation strategy, but we’ve had cases where HMOs, for example, have formed war rooms to fight the Attorney General’s office—conducting polling and focus groups and opposition research.

So it’s very important that the Attorney General have a backbone. Be very strong and tough. Not worry about alienating powerful interests. And be willing to stand up to those powerful interests and not back down. Because they do put an enormous amount of pressure on the Attorney General when you bring those kinds of cases. Mounting kind of this whole overall litigation strategy plus other strategies that really try to get the Attorney General to cave in. So it’s incredibly important that the AG be strong, tough, vigilant. Know what’s right. Do what’s right. Take strong action on behalf of the public.

I think the Attorney General should also be a good lawyer. I think it’s very important that the Attorney General have strong legal skills and be a good lawyer. You are the head of essentially a very large law firm. What I’ve been doing in the Attorney General’s office is, in addition to being involved in some of the cases we’ve talked about myself, is essentially manage the state’s litigation. I’m responsible for the lawsuits filed by the Attorney General. Managing the professional staff of the office, because with a big law firm at any given time we have hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits pending and it’s important that the Attorney General know what those lawsuits are. Be able to help drive the legal strategy and participate in the setting of the legal strategy because the AG is the chief legal officer for the state.

And then I would also say it’s really important for the Attorney General to exercise what’s called prosecutorial discretion. And that is, what cases do you bring? What issues do you push forward? At any given time with the hundreds of complaints that are coming in, the Attorney General has to make judgment calls on what areas to focus in. And it’s important that the Attorney General have that right balance and, you know, exercise the appropriate judgment to take the kind of cases that I think should be brought.

And in terms of the plaintiff’s cases that I think are important are going to be health care and HMO reform. It’s been an area I’ve spent a very large amount of time in. Whether it’s filing lawsuits against HMOs that deny claims for kids who are at risk and they need treatment and the HMO is saying “too bad, we’re not going to give you your chemical dependency treatment or your mental health treatment.” Or whether it’s some of the audits that I’ve been involved in where we’ve looked at how the nonprofit health care companies are spending the “charitable dollar” and have found that rather than either using that money to lower premiums or improve patient care, they’ve squandered the money with excessive executive compensation—you know, junkets around the world and trips to the Venetian Inn for $90,000 to study health care reform. Literally, in one case, we found a health care company that was getting—having masseuses come into the board meetings and give directors massages at company expense—at nonprofit expense.

So health care reform is an area that the Attorney General’s office has been very active in and I want to continue to be incredibly active in. It’s an issue that I think is going to get worse, not better, for the public in terms of problems that we see in the marketplace. You see, for instance, attempts to preempt the ability of states to regulate health care. There’s a bill—Senate File 1955—sponsored by a Republican of Wyoming, Senator Enzi, who coincidentally if you look at where he gets his money, it comes from HMOs and insurance companies

It’s always interesting to see where the money comes from.
It is. It is. And he got an inordinate amount from HMOs and insurance companies and financial interests. He sponsored this bill in the US Senate saying essentially that the Congress would pre-empt the states’ ability to regulate health insurance rates, claims-handling practices, and I think that’s wrong.

I think if the federal government wants to try to set some minimums in a particular area, we can talk about that. But states tend to be laboratories of democracy. A lot of times it’s the states who lead the way. And I think it’s highly arrogant for the federal government to try to regulate the states by telling them “you can’t do better for your people. You can’t do better for your citizens” That we’re going to have some federal bottom line. I think there will be more attempts like that at the federal level to try to rip power away from the states and state Attorneys General.

In terms of the health care area, another problem area is going to be Medicare Part D, where we’ve essentially passed this Medicare Prescription Part D plan. But there are going to be a lot of problems because the federal government and Congress have essentially turned over the implementation of Part D to private insurance companies and HMOs, and we have started to see some problems. Through the Attorney General’s office one where these dual eligibles—people who are on Medicaid and Medicare—fell through the cracks and weren’t signed up and we had to get involved there. Another one where one insurance company “forgot” or didn’t bill people for their Medicare Part-D premiums for a number of months and then what happened was they wanted to debit their social security account for the entire … essentially entire balance at once.

I saw that in the paper the other day.
Exactly. And that was a case where we had to jump in and say no, you’re not going to take somebody’s entire social security check and leave them with no food for you know, no room for groceries or rent and what not. So health care is going to be a very, very high priority of mine. It’s an area I’ve spent a lot of time on in the past. And is only going to get more problematic. Not to mention prescription drug companies, too, which we’ve spent a lot of time litigating against them and the abuses that they bring to bear on behalf of consumers.

Now you mentioned three qualities that an Attorney General should have. You said an Attorney General should be tough. An Attorney General should be a good lawyer and a good decision maker—to paraphrase everything. Tell me how you fit those qualities?
Sure. Well in terms of the “tough” part, I’ve been involved in a lot of these efforts. Going to court and representing the public. And again they’re not easy cases. People think, “Oh the government has a ton of resources” and that the government has a lot of power. It is true that the Attorney General does have a lot of authority to get involved in areas. But I tell you, these companies when you file these suits they will put a lot more lawyers typically on the case than the government can put on. So I’ve stood my ground, whether it’s taking action against HMOs for denying benefits. Whether it’s taking action against banks for selling private data. Whether it’s taking action against predatory lenders, equity strippers, utility companies. I have been involved in those cases and have stood my ground and not backed down and have been strong for the public.

I think that the public deserves an Attorney General who will stand up for them. Because people contact the Attorney General’s office typically as somewhat of a last resort. It’s not their first option. But they contact the office because they’ve been ripped off or they feel aggrieved. And I think that the Attorney General works for the taxpayers, works for the people and that the public deserves an Attorney General who will be their lawyer and their champion and who will stand up for them and not back down. And that’s my track record and why I’m a lawyer, what I believe in. I’ve spent my legal career standing up for people and certainly will continue to do that.

On the other qualifications, I think being a good lawyer for the public is—I think I alluded to that—ust the work that I’ve done in the Attorney General’s office, whether it’s participating in these cases or managing the state’s litigation. I’m very proud of the Attorney General’s office and the work that I’ve done.

And then three is the issue of judgment and having your head screwed on straight. Knowing how to apply judgment appropriately. That you want to be tough, but you also want to be fair. And the rule that we followed over the last seven and a half years in the Attorney General’s office is a simple one, and that’s that no interest should be so powerful that they’re above the law, nor should any person be so powerless that they don’t deserve the protection of the government. And that’s what I’m talking about when I’m talking about judgment. And I think I’ve applied that judgment pretty well in the Attorney General’s office. It’s a difficult thing to do. You can’t file every lawsuit that comes in the door. So you have to separate the wheat from the chaff and know which cases to push and which ones not to.

Sounds like a good Democratic ideal as well as a good ideal for the Attorney General’s office. Now let’s talk about being a candidate. Really there are two sets of skills here or at least there’s two jobs going on here. The (DFL) State Central Committee is trying to find somebody who is going to be a good Attorney General, but they’re also trying to find somebody who is going to be a good Attorney General candidate. Sometime those skills differ. Tell me how you’re going to be a good Attorney General candidate. What are the qualifications? What should a good Attorney General candidate do and how do you fit that?
Sure, well I think if you look throughout the country at some… I think if you look at all the Attorney Generals, there are probably about a dozen and maybe more who have backgrounds similar to mine in that they’ve been either assistant Attorney Generals, Deputy Attorney Generals, Solicitor Generals—that they come out of that kind of role. And if you also look around at some of the better Attorney Generals this country has had, you’ll see a lot of them who have had background more similar to mine. Elliot Spitzer of New York, probably one of the more recognizable Attorney Generals in the country, has a background where he had not been an elected official. Before he became Attorney General he had been in the U.S. Attorney’s office as an assistant in that office but had not been an elected official. Mike Hatch had run for office before but hadn’t held office before becoming Attorney General. He had had a background as a commerce commissioner and through the commerce commissioner role had been very aggressively involved in enforcing the banking laws and insurance laws.

In terms of the candidacy, it’s a natural fit for me because I think that the public wants an Attorney General who will be their champion and who will be their watchdog. And my strategy is to talk to the public about the kind of issues I’ve been involved in and the public will have to make a decision about what kind of Attorney General they want to have, what do they want their Attorney General to be.

But I’ve been out there talking to people and very much engaged at the grass roots level, and I think the public is very happy with the Attorney General’s office in this state. They like the work that the office does. They want to see an Attorney General who will be a watchdog, not a lapdog for private industry, for private corporations. So, my political strategy, if you will, is really very similar to the reasons that I’m running for Attorney General, and that’s getting out there, talking about the work of the office.

I had the opportunity to meet the Republican candidate for Attorney General (Jeff Johnson) at a debate a few weeks ago, and his philosophy is clearly very different than mine. It’s quite a contrast. He, I think, has a certainly more market-based kind of a laissez-faire approach to a lot of these issues. And I think engaging him on those issues, I think, the public would see—will see—the contrast. In addition to that, I’m doing the things that I need to do. I’m out there raising money. You know, doing the lawn signs. Trying, you know, to get the name ID up there and….

Doing interviews like this.
Doing interviews like this and doing debates and cable shows and what not and trying to get the word out. I also think, in light of kind of how circumstances developed, there’s a lot more visibility to the Attorney General’s race this time than there has been in past years. It’s not a top of the ticket in terms of like a Governor’s race or Senate race. But this year, in light of all the publicity with the Democratic candidate’s withdrawal, people know there’s an Attorney General’s race. They know who the candidates are. So having interviews and getting out there is the strategy.

Now at the (DFL) Feminist Caucus Forum, which I saw you at, you said that you were going to actively campaign in the primary even if you didn’t get the DFL endorsement. Let’s talk about the endorsement process. Are you actively seeking the DFL State Central Committee’s endorsement?
You know I have… I am going to be in the primary regardless of what happens at the Central Committee Meeting (August 12th). And if I could explain why that’s going to be the case.

I have a lot of respect for the people who play roles on the Central Committee and who participate in party politics. I think it’s incredibly important work that people be involved in. It’s the people who participate in the Central Committee and the Executive Committee who keep the party running, who do the fundraising and really do all of the grass roots work necessary to have active, vibrant political parties. So I very much respect that and had circumstances been different where I had been in the race for a year, you know I certainly would have taken a look at perhaps a different strategy.

Here, however, with the withdrawal of the Democratic nominee being so sudden and candidates jumping into the race, it really presents a different type of picture. And, first of all, nobody can get off the ballot, so the Central Committee Meeting and potential endorsement comes after the filing and withdrawal deadlines. So I’m on the ballot, the others are on the ballot. An endorsement will typically serve kind of a winnowing function where you narrow down the field and here that’s not going to occur and really can’t occur because we’re all on the ballot.

Second is, in terms of the timing, you’re going from zero to sixty in a very few weeks. I did a rough calculation. Usually these campaigns they would be yearlong campaigns. Here you’re talking a seven-week campaign. So every week in this campaign essentially amounts to two months in a normal campaign. Meaning that time is precious and it’s very difficult to do all of the raising of the money and the outreach and the shows like this one and interviews and try to mount any effort in terms of an endorsement. So that was my thought process. It’s the reason I’ll be in the Primary regardless of the outcome at the Central Committee.

But are you seeking the Central Committee’s endorsement?
You know, I have not… I’ll be kind of figuring out where things stand. I actually haven’t even talked to the party yet about what the plans are for Saturday and hopefully will be doing that here in the next little while.

Your supporters. I assume you have supporters within the party. Do they have a strategy of asking for no endorsement or are you encouraging that or do you think the endorsement process should go through?
Ultimately the Central Committee is going to need to make up its mind about what to do. I know there is a lot of discussion that I’ve heard of and seen about whether it even makes sense to endorse. Ultimately, the Central Committee is going to have to make a decision about whether to endorse. I can see where it makes sense not to endorse given that you have three Democrats who all believe in what they’re doing and that the primary will resolve things.

Just taking your logic on it though that every week here is worth a couple months. If somebody’s given an endorsement, not only does it carry more press visibility with it but it also carries the strength of the DFL’s fundraising machine and all the things that go with that. Is that something we should not be doing for a couple weeks and waiting to see if the primary determines a winner or should somebody be privy to those resources right now?
Well, you know, again I’m not exactly sure what would come with an endorsement. I’m not exactly sure, I mean, given that essentially that primary comes four weeks after any Central Committee meeting in any event and I’m not sure what that would mean. We all have our strategies in terms of how we’re going to reach out to the voters in terms of money and what not.

This has all been a very impromptu race. When (Representative) Matt Entenza decided he was not going to run you had to make a decision relatively quickly. Did you consult with your boss, Mike Hatch, about this before deciding to run?
I did. I talked to a number of different people. People started calling me that morning indicating that kind of rumors were circulating that Matt Entenza may be dropping out of the race and I didn’t make a whole lot of them.

Most rumors aren’t worth anything.
Most rumors aren’t. I don’t pay a lot of attention to them. And I didn’t then. Of course, Matt Entenza withdrew the day that filings closed. So it was a ..kind of a … real quick decision-making. I did talk to the Attorney General (Mike Hatch). He indicated, you know, at that point, Mr. Entenza had withdrawn and if I wanted to run for Attorney General I should take a look at it and file. And I thought about it and made a decision that I would like to throw my hat in the ring.

At that point the Democratic Party was without a candidate and I very much feel strongly that this is an incredibly important office. It’s an office that’s been in Democratic hands for 40 years now. And I think there’s a reason for that. I think that people tend to think that Democrats will represent people and I very much want to continue…continue that tradition of representing people through the Attorney General’s office. I think that there’s a lot of powerful interests out there who have plenty of ability to do their own advocacy. But the people don’t always have that ability. The deck is often times stacked against them. So that’s why I’m running.

Speaking of rumors, before Matt Entenza left the race, there were rumors, I can’t remember if anything was confirmed, but that Mike Hatch was trying to solicit other people to run against Matt Entenza. Did he ever talk to you about something like that?
Going back several years he’s been very complementary about my legal work, and he has said—even going back several years to the 2002 election—that you know, if I ever wanted to run for Attorney General he was complementary about that, but those weren’t active discussions.

I’ve seen him encourage, you know, younger Republicans to get into public service, younger Democrats to get into public service, and he’s very good that way regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on. Public service is a noble thing. And he certainly told me that if I ever, you know, wanted to run that it’s a worthwhile, noble endeavor and I, I believe that it is.

With the demands of your current job, I mean you are doing a lot, and I know Mike Hatch does a lot when he’s working as the Attorney General. How are you going to be able to campaign between now and the Primary? How much time are you going to have to be able to do that?
Well I actually have taken a leave. So I am on leave in terms of being able to campaign. For the reason I mentioned, we’re going from zero to sixty very very quickly, I obviously will not be able to aggressively campaign, so I did take a leave in order to do that and put the time into the campaign.

That’s why you could get here during office hours today.
Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

Former DFL Chair Mike Erlandson had a saying. He always said that “We don’t’ need Democrats that can beat Democrats. We need Democrats who can beat Republicans.” So how do you plan to beat Republican Jeff Johnson?
Sure. I plan to beat him by again talking about these issues. I think that fundamentally the general election is going to come down to what kind of Attorney General does Minnesota want to have. And in the end I think they want an Attorney General who will be a champion for the people, who will stand up for the people, who will give people without a voice, a voice in their government. And the way I plan to beat him is talking about those issues and showing what my record is on those issues. And he’ll talk about why he’s running. But in the end I think I have by far the better view of what kind of role the Attorney General ought to play on behalf of the public.

I know the Republicans, by reputation, have a habit of slinging mud and bringing out the dogs. The Karl Roves or whatever it may be. Are you concerned that you may be under attack once you are in the race here?
You know, there is a movement around the country… there’s something called the Republican Attorney General Association or RAGA. It’s a fairly new body. And essentially what it is is the oil companies and the prescription drug companies and the health insurance companies and they fund this organization, which in turns funnels money into Attorney General races — particularly open Attorney General races.

I think we have one in Minnesota.
And we have one in Minnesota. So is that kind of money going to flow Minnesota? I don’t know. I don’t have any evidence that it has. Is it possible that it will? Yes. Do some of these corporate interests want to elect Republican Attorney Generals so they can have what they view as a more friendly audience? Absolutely. We’ve seen that going around the country. Might it happen here? It could.

Four years from now, if Lori Swanson is Attorney General, elected Attorney General in November, how is Minnesota going to be different four years from now than it is right now?
I think that some of the issues that I see coming down the horizon are going to be health care and HMO reform. We have a health care system that’s undergoing a lot of change and that will continue to undergo a lot of change. The job of the Attorney General is to try to make sure that people don’t fall through the cracks while that change happens. So, over the next four years I very much want to be an advocate for patients and people who participate in the health care system to try to make sure that the playing field is level for them.

There are other issues coming down the horizon. I alluded to the notion of federal preemption. We have a federal government controlled by people who for years never wanted to pass federal legislation in important areas such as Civil Rights and others. They would basically say, “Well let’s leave it up to the states to take action.” Well, now the same crew that’s in charge of Washington, D.C., starting with (President) George Bush and going to members of Congress wants to preempt the states’ ability to regulate the health insurance industry— the employment rights. The prescription drug industry. The banking industry. They have been very, very vigorous about attempting to preempt the state’s ability to protect their workers, their patients, and their consumers. And I very much want to lead the fight against that kind of federal preemption. I’ve been involved in efforts to do that in the Attorney General’s office and I want to continue to do that. I think it’s incredibly important that states have the ability to protect their patients, their consumers, and their workers.

And it’s interesting the same Republicans who are controlling so many branches of our government in Washington, D.C. want to preempt the state’s ability not because they want to regulate these industries—they don’t—they want to preempt and then deregulate and get out of the way so the markets can run roughshod over people, over workers, over patients. So that’s an area I want to be involved in.

In addition to that, I think other new areas are going to come down the pipeline over the coming years. We have a whole bunch of homeowners who have gotten involved in these option ARMs (Adjustable Rate Mortgages), interest-only ARMs where they are literally engaged in what’s called negative amortization where you pay your monthly bill every month and your principle increases. There’s going to be a lot of people who face sticker shock where the payment jumps $800 a month to $1,400 a month. They’re not going to be able to afford that. When they can’t afford it, they’re going to go into foreclosure and that’s going to bring a host of problems ranging from damage to credit scores to people losing their homes.

I’m chairing the Federal Reserve Board’s Consumer Advisory Council. I was appointed to that council by the Allan Greenspan board. And it essentially advises the Federal Reserve Board on consumer protection matters in the financial services industry. And so I get involved a lot in issues relating to predatory lending, fair lending, and anti-discriminatory issues. And that’s an area we spend a lot of time talking about is what happens when people face that sticker shock and start falling through the cracks.

Predatory lending in general is a big problem as well for Minnesota. We see not only people put into mortgage products they can’t afford but, oftentimes companies through the guise of the American Dream of home ownership, putting people into fraudulent mortgage products. Products that they can’t afford that have false appraisals attached to them.

And so, I think, in terms of the Attorney General’s work, I’m going to spend a lot of time on the bread and butter. Basic things that effect lives. Your health care, your mortgage, your cars. Things that are big ticket items for consumers and where the playing field is not level for consumers.

“Listen to the podcast here”: http://www.timescape.us/podcasts/IMP063.mp3

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