Entenza opens up about 2006, UnitedHealth connections


When I first spoke with Matt Entenza back in March, I didn’t ask about the calamitous end to his campaign for Attorney General or concerns about connections to United Health Group. At the time, my goal was to meet candidates, talk issues with them, and get a good feel for their positions and how they discussed those positions down for bloggy posterity.

But those concerns persisted, and led to some degree of continuing consternation among readers and colleagues. After that interview, I contacted Entenza’s staff to ask if addressing those questions would be a possibility, and the response was “yes, absolutely, but not right now.”

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The right time arrived this weekend, when I met with Entenza at his home in St. Paul to discuss those issues. When asked “why now?” communications staffer Bridget Cusick told me “The time is right. People are engaging in the race. DFLers in particular want to hear from Matt on this because they want to know they’re picking a candidate who’s going to win back the governor’s office at long last. They want to know Matt’s absolutely ready to do this. He is.”

Readers can translate that as they will — however, what follows is as exact a transcription of my conversation with Entenza as can be produced from my audio recording. I wanted to make sure that there’s no dispute over what he actually said, because it’s important that we have accurate first-hand accounts of issues about which so many people care so deeply. Having now heard it first hand, I think it’s a story that’s worth hearing for people paying attention to the DFL gubernatorial field. So here goes.

The first half of our conversation focused on 2006 and what happened in the AG’s race, then we shifted over to 2010 and the questions about the work done by his wife, Lois Quam, in the private health insurance industry and in the ongoing debate about how to reform that system. I’ll post health insurance money/Lois Quam/etc discussion tomorrow — read below on the 2006 AG’s race.

JB: Let’s start with 2006: the AG’s race, you ran for the endorsement, got the endorsement, and suddenly exited the race. I think for a lot of people there are still questions about what happened, what Mike Hatch’s role in all of that was, what actually went on for you. Let’s start there. What actually happened to precipitate that?

ME: I don’t think it’s any surprise to anybody that Mike Hatch wanted Lori Swanson, his deputy at the time, to be AG. He was the top candidate on our ticket, so there was no question that he was going to be at the top of the ticket. The issue I had to deal with was, we were clearly going to have a big conflict because it’s the top of the ticket who wanted a different candidate, and someone whose biggest strength as attorney general had been someone who was willing to have a lot of conflict. Our AG led on a lot of cases, and I think that was a huge asset for him as AG, his willingness to sort of jump in where others wouldn’t led to a lot of good results. Unfortunately, your biggest strength sometimes is your biggest weakness. So the choice I had to make was, was I going to be in a race with a lot of conflict.




ME: Now there were a couple of issues that floated around at the end…the biggest one was that I had done research on the AG’s office.

[Entenza’s comms staffer handed me a copy of a piece from ’06 by Rachel Stassen-Berger about oppo research, noting that while the GOP was insisting that Entenza reveal all his research into Hatch, the GOP wouldn’t release theirs.]

ME: There’s some folks who say “why were you doing research?” and “did Mike Hatch know about it?” When you run for office, you have to do research. Research means you get public records and public documents. That’s what bloggers do, that’s what newspaper reporters do, and that’s what campaigns do. Getting public documents is something that is a requirement for elections because you have to know what the lay of the land is. But some folks still said “why would you need to know stuff about the AG’s office?”

So, just as a few practical examples: when I was doing fundraising, running for Attorney General, one of the big groups, not surprisingly, you raise money from, because a lot of people don’t really care about the race…you call up a lot of lawyers. If I didn’t have a sense of what litigation the AG’s office was involved in, and the the newspaper picks up a fraction of that, I could be calling up a lawyer who it turns out is litigating against the Attorney General’s office. And then I could have been accused at that point of maybe trying to gain favor with them, because I’d be taking over the office, or potentially saying to them “you’d better be giving me some money.” And likewise, in doing fundraisers, you wind up intersecting with people who are in non-profits or in for-profit agencies that may have issues with the AG’s office.

And of course, I was an Assistant AG for a bunch of years, and my job there was, I sued on consumer fraud cases.  I shut down non-profits…I shut down a lot of non-profits, actually. So I was aware of just, there’s all kinds of potential conflicts and things sort of laying in the weeds that you wouldn’t necessarily know about.

JB: So this is the kind of research that Gragert’s charter was to research?

ME:Yeah. And they’re a firm that has worked for hundreds of different Democrats…folks who know a lot of politics know how these firms work, but just to dig a little deeper: basically they’re an office in Chicago. Fortunately in modern society all these documents are either available on the internet, or you can request them because they’re public  documents for public taxpayer-supported offices. That’s what they do, they don’t do anything beyond that.

JB:So … FOIA requests?

ME: That’s what they do. In Minnesota it’s called Data Practices Requests. They put in a request and they ask for documents. When I was a member of the State House of Representatives, probably at least once a year we would get requests – voluminous requests – about all kinds of things I was involved with. I remember when Amy Klobuchar was HCA, it was right after I got elected the leader of the Democrats in the House, Amy Klobuchar’s office contacted me and said “we just got a request for all the documents on every case that you were involved in when you were a Hennepin County Attorney.”

Because I was an assistant Hennepin County Attorney, I prosecuted white collar felonies, and they wanted all the public data involving my pay, compensation, vacation leave, hours that I worked on all my cases, and that request came in from a research firm with links to the Republican Party, and I presume all that stuff is now sitting in a folder somewhere…pretty boring stuff – every complaint I ever signed off on…Amy’s office said “we just wanted to give you a heads up, because obviously we have to comply with this because these are public documents.” And likewise at the House, Central Administration would call us from time to time and say “yup, there’s another request in for every piece of paper you’ve ever touched.” But you know what? They’re public documents, and they’re legitimate things, and they’re part of the record, and that’s what folks do.

We requested those in the spring of ’05, it was shortly after that that AG Hatch talked to me and said “what are you doing?” Because these requests were coming in and he knew they were coming from me. I won’t pretend that he was thrilled about it, but we had a series of conversations in the spring of ’05 and shook hands and agreed that this was why I was doing this stuff…

JB:So you met with AG Hatch on this in the spring of 2005?

ME: Spring of 2005, 14 months ahead of time. And we agreed that even though he might not be wild about it, I said “look, I’m not doing anything that’s going to be an issue for you.” And, you know, as you can see in looking at how the race and everything unfolded after that, I certainly didn’t. One of the things I’m proudest of is that I’ve been involved in races for 15 years, and you’re not going to find any record anywhere of me going after Democrats. I just don’t do that. It’s one of the first commandments. We might have a little difference on issues occasionally, but I believe you present a vision and that’s what you’re supposed to do.

But we (Entenza and Hatch) met and we talked and I said “look, you decide what you’re gonna do, and once you decide what you’re gonna do then I’ll decide what I’m gonna do, but I’m not [cross talk].

JB:So at that point it wasn’t yet clear that he was going to run for Governor?

ME:It seemed that way, and I was already beginning the process of laying a path so I could run for Attorney General, and part of what you do then is research. So he declared in the middle of October, and I declared ten day after him, it was pretty quick. And then no one else declared for AG. So he was very well aware of this. But we got into the summer of 2006, post-endorsement, we were in the middle of the filing period, and it became very clear, and he made a number of public statements where it was very clear, and I suppose it was consistent in a sense – he hadn’t supported the endorsement process for years, when he ran for endorsement, he didn’t support the endorsement process, and he was open about that. So I suppose it wasn’t inconsistent then to not want to support the endorsed candidate for other offices even though in theory we’re on a ticket together.

[CM Dana Houle walked in at this point, we shot the breeze for a bit]

ME:So obviously for me, the landscape in July all of a sudden shifted a lot because I went from thinking I was on a ticket with a team, and thinking that something that had seemed like it was not going to be an issue, all of a sudden was becoming an issue. And bluntly, we didn’t handle it well. I had a teeny staff of three people, no communications folks, but I didn’t handle it well, we didn’t answer the questions well at the time because we didn’t understand how the issue would evolve.

JB: So when the questions started coming up, the public face of it, at least from AG Hatch’s point of view was there’s research into him going on, not just the AG’s office. What happened with the firm? The statements that came out said they went off the reservation, they weren’t doing what they were supposed to…

ME:When stuff came out, we decided that the best way to handle it was just to say “well, here’s everything we got…mostly really boring documents. We dumped all the documents out there. And Hatch was aware of something I wasn’t aware of, and that’s that they had put in a public document request for his criminal record down in Dakota County – not that he had one but to see if he had one. He had a traffic ticket, or something minor that didn’t make any difference down there. And what the firm had done – and if you did through the record, you’ll see the firm immediately said “look, they [the Entenza campaign] didn’t ask for this, this is just something we normally do, and we just figured no harm no foul” and they tossed in a request for it. But it wasn’t anything that we asked for and I was certainly, I was embarrassed by how it came out, because I had made all these statements saying “all we wanted was documents just about the office” and then this additional request had been made.

But the bottom line issue was, I had spent the last four years as the leader in the House, building up a ticket, working in support, recruiting all the candidates, and all of sudden it was clear that we were going to have a race where there was going to be a lot of contention and a lot of conflict. And I, either fairly or unfairly, was going to have folks saying “you’re going to hurt the top of the ticket” which was obviously the prize Democrats were waiting for and are still waiting for. It was certainly going to hurt my opportunities, but it was also going to hurt every single person that I’d been working with for years to try and build things up in the House. And so the question was “should I stand in the middle of that?”

And I decided that I’m young enough, and care enough about party unity that rather than all of a sudden having this escalate into a bigger deal, the thing to do is just to step back, and there are plenty of ways to participate in politics where you don’t have to run for things.  And I did. And I hoped at the time what that would mean was the rest of the ticket would do well.

Unfortunately, the DFL-endorsed candidate after me – it wasn’t as public – didn’t get support from the top of the ticket, and the party lost on the endorsed level for AG, and we lost the Governor’s race because there continued to be ongoing conflict there. And that’s the issue. His biggest strength was conflict, but his biggest weakness was conflict.

JB: At what point did it become personal? Did it ever? Was there ever a personal bone to pick between you and Mike Hatch?

ME:No, I think it’s just sad, just sad. I think there’s some folks who wonder if there’s some personal issue here, but if you look in the record and look at press conferences and things all through 2005 and into 2006, we were doing press conferences and stuff together, we were working on stuff together. If you think about it, because some folks said “oh there must be some big personal issue here” if you start in the early 80s when Mike was party chair, there were some conflicts with other folks back then, in 1990 Rudy Perpich was his boss and then he decided to run for Governor, they’d been friends all through the 80s and then all of a sudden Mike ran for Governor…well, there’s some conflict at that point, as you can imagine, between the Governor and Mike…94 he ran for Governor, and at the party convention all of a sudden with Mike Freeman, there was conflict. Freeman in 98 endorsed the Republican for Attorney General.

My sense of it is that Mike and Mike had had a very fine working relationship as attorneys up through 94 and 94 changed thing. So I had never felt any particular conflict other than knowing this was a smart, hard-nosed Attorney General. So I think when I look at all of those things, I don’t think it’s personal, I just think he had something he wanted, and I was the guy who was in the way of that.D

(Drop by tomorrow for part II, in which I attempt to trancribe in a timely fashion the second part of our conversation.)