Kelley: Running for attorney general ‘the right thing to do’


On August 12, 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 offered all three candidates an opportunity to talk about their campaign. Today we talk with State Senator Steve Kelley.

As DFL delegates, I’m an alternate; we have to make a decision. We’re really trying to fill two positions here. We’re trying to find somebody who is going to be a good Attorney General. And we’re also trying to find someone who is going to be a good Attorney General candidate. Because they may not absolutely always be the same thing. So that’s what I first wanted to start with, what do you think is the job of Attorney General?
Well the main job of the Attorney General is to be the state’s chief legal officer. And that has a lot of implications. I think in the recent years, certainly with Attorney General (Mike) Hatch, as well as with his predecessors we know that the Attorney General’s office has responsibility to stand up for consumers in Minnesota and to be a voice for protecting consumers whether it is respect to health care, identity theft, privacy, or a variety of concerns consumers may have. And certainly as Attorney General I would want to continue Attorney General Hatch’s efforts on protecting consumers and patients. In the health care field especially with respect to cost. But I also think there are some other things that we need to pay attention to that I’ve worked on as a state senator. Health care quality and patient safety has been important to me in my past public service and would want to make sure that the Attorney General is providing support and assisting other agencies in ensuring improvement in quality and protecting patient safety.

I also believe that we ought to be cooperating with local law enforcement agencies with county attorneys, police departments and sheriff departments to address the increase in violent crime that we’ve seen recently. I think that’s an issue in Minneapolis as well as greater Minnesota. I think we have gangs that operate across multiple jurisdictions and the AG’s office along with the bureau of criminal apprehension can play a coordinating role in assisting local agencies. And then I think overall it’s very important that we do high quality legal work for the state, that we have high expectations for the office and that deal with everybody fairly.

Well, tell me since this is sort of a job interview, what do you think are the three most important qualifications that an Attorney General should have and also an Attorney General candidate should have?
Well first with respect to the Attorney General, I certainly think experience with the law and having some courtroom experience is important because you’re supervising lawyers who frequently are in the courtroom. There are also responsibilities with respect to contracting and so forth that the Attorney General’s staff is involved in on behalf of the agencies. But I’ve been a private practicing lawyer for 27 years have represented both plaintiffs and defendants in the courtroom, Federal and state courts. So I have the experience with our legal system to supervise the work of lawyers who are representing Minnesotans as their Attorney General.

I think another key area of the Attorney General’s office is the policy work that the office does. During my 14-years as a state legislator I’ve been involved in a variety of policy areas that have overlapped with the Attorney General’s office including as I mentioned earlier, health care quality issues. But also privacy and identity security — things that I thing will continue to be important issues for the Attorney General’s office.

And then I also think that the Attorney General has a responsibility as a constitutional officer to provide leadership on a range of issues in the state. And I’m interested in a variety of things that as a state senator I’ve been concerned about — improving civic participation, encouraging young people to get involved. And I think as Attorney General that would continue to be an interest of mine as how as public leaders we encourage more people to get involved in the political process.

As a candidate, I think one of the benefits that I bring to this is recent experience campaigning all over Minnesota.

Real recent experience, yes.
Exactly. And a network of supporters who are prepared to volunteer to help out to win both the primary and General Election. I also bring a commitment. The Attorney General is not the top of the ticket. It’s a … but the Attorney General candidate can be an important contributor to the team of candidates that we put forward and I’m a firm believer in the team work aspect of political campaigns. That we are more likely to win if we are working together. It was a commitment I made in the Governor’s race and I stood by that commitment and it’s a commitment I still bring; continue to bring to the Attorney General’s campaign.

So I think that’s very important and the third thing is that I think we have an opportunity to win this race as Democrats, but we do have to bring out Democrats in some new areas. And it’s areas where I think my experience and the breadth of things that I’ve worked on will have broad appeal, especially in the third congressional district in places like Rochester and St. Cloud where I demonstrated I had a political strength during the Governor’s race.

So to sum that up, to be an Attorney General you say the experience, the policy background, the leadership. And as a candidate the recent experience, the support network, the new Democrats that you may be able to bring in to this race.

Now I have to ask. This is a change from shooting to be Governor. Can you be as enthusiastic about being Attorney General as you could be running for Governor?
Certainly the Governor’s office has a broad range of responsibilities and areas that I continue to have a passion about including education and some of the other issues that I’ve worked on. But on the Tuesday when Representative Entenza made the announcement that he was withdrawing I talked to a lot of people and the more I talked about it, it was clear that my getting into the race was the right thing to do for a variety of reasons. But as I’ve thought about it my experience representing people in a courtroom, I know how important it is for individuals without power to have an advocate standing by their side, to stand up for them and represent their views. And that what Minnesotans need in an Attorney General. And I am certainly passionate about that way of achieving justice.

I think along with our other branch of government — the courts — the Attorney General is responsible for the overall quality of our justice system in Minnesota. And part of that, it seems to me is standing with people who don’t have power against people who do. But also ensuring that everyone is treated fairly. And during my 14 years in the State Legislature that’s what I’ve been committed to doing is treating people fairly. I’ve been fighting for the causes that I believe in and that’s what I’d continue to do as the Attorney General.

Talk to me a little bit about the decision process you went through on that Tuesday because it had to be a hectic day and you had to make a decision real fast.
Well certainly it took me by surprise. I had not had any advance notice of Representative Entenza’s decision to withdraw. So we had about, especially if you think about the logistics of getting to the courthouse to withdraw and then to the Secretary of State’s office, I really had about five hours in which to make a decision. And I talked to a lot of people. I received phone calls from supporters in different parts of the state urging me to run. And that was very helpful in the thought process. And I did have an opportunity to talk to my wife and to some of my former campaign team from the Governor’s race. And one of the things that came clear to me was that if I was in the race I could really play a role in helping to unify the party. That there likely would be enough support for me, that would reduce the period of contention and disarray that we might see. Now that hasn’t proved to be entirely true. But I think with the kind of support I’ve gotten already from State Central Committee members and leaders in the party and the unions, that I’m well on the way to achieving the goal of trying to unify the party, bring us back together as rapidly as possible.

Speaking of contention and disarray, the discussion among the state central committee members or some of them is “well it’s too close to the primary. We really shouldn’t give an endorsement, we should just let the voters decide in the primary.” What are your thoughts on that?
Certainly in contrast to the state convention where an endorsement decision by the delegates could effect who is on the ballot and who is not, because of the realities of filing, all three of the candidates will be on the ballot in the primary. So, an endorsement does not affect that in the way that it would in a state convention setting. But I still think it’s important for the party to endorse. I’ve been a member of the party since 1980. Actively going to caucuses and engaged in other things. And my reason for doing that is not simply to be part of the DFL party, but to effect change by affecting the choices of who runs for office. And so I do think that is a critical role of political parties. And that it is important for members of the party, people who are elected to be representatives in the party to play that role. To be responsible about it, certainly. But it’s important to say that we stand for something and we stand for some people who represent those values of the party.

Now one of the things you made a good point of when you were running for Governor is that you said “I’m going to abide by the endorsement” I the party says that they want somebody else — in this particular case it was Mike Hatch — you were not going to stand in the way. If the party when it meets in August decides that somebody else –either one of the other two candidates — should be endorsed, would you still continue to run? I know you can’t take your name off the ballot, but would you continue to run?
Well I think that’s a relatively low-level of likelihood. So I’m not too worried about that at this point. And I don’t think that the question of who is going to abide and so forth should be the critical issue this time. We don’t have a lot of time to make a decision and our names will be on the primary ballot anyway. So, the issue here is does the party want to get united and build a strong team, and if so, they gotta make a choice. And it would be better to make that choice on August 12th rather than wait until after the primary.

Now I asked some of the delegates to send in questions. And I did get one. And somebody wanted to know … “the AG’s office is the legal arm to prosecute wrongdoers. What I’d like to know is which wrongdoers the candidates think need the most watch dogging?
Well, as I said earlier, I believe the Attorney General’s office has a range of responsibility including the consumer protection and watching for those wrongdoers and having both an investigative staff and a legal staff capable of taking effective action. And I also mentioned earlier that I do believe that it’s important in the health care area.

I said during the Governor’s race I’m committed to working towards universal health care for Minnesotans. I don’t think the Federal Government is going to get around to it and I think we ought to be looking at it at the state level. So as Attorney General I would be interested in working with the Governor and with the Legislature to try to reform our system, to move to universal health care. And I don’t think we can get there just through regulation. But if that isn’t going forward, then I think the Attorney General does have an on going responsibility to ensure that health plans and health care providers and pharmaceutical companies aren’t gouging patients. Aren’t taking advantage of them. And are not lining their pockets.

And as the Attorney General I would continue to stand up for consumers and follow in the Mike Hatch tradition with respect to that. And then as I mentioned, patient safety is important. Just a few days ago there was a report from the Institutes of Medicine on the number of preventable prescription errors. And I think an Attorney General who is standing up for people is going to be looking for not just prosecutorial ways to stop people from those kinds of errors that harm patients, but helping to assist in systemic change to prevent errors that are harmful to patients and add cost to the system. I also think that we have to… I was noticing an increase in the newspapers in reporting on insurance fraud. People who had taken money from consumers on false pretenses that they were legitimate insurance agents….

I think there was something in the Star Tribune today talking about motor insurance.
And I think it’s really important to pay attention to that. I think there will be trends. Folks who will try to rip off consumers find new areas, new methods to do it. And I think the Attorney General has a responsibility to adjust to those changes in criminal behavior.

Now Mike Erlandson (former DFL party chair) had a favorite saying that “we don’t need Democrats who can beat Democrats. We need Democrats who can beat Republicans.” Let’s turn our attention here to the November election. Tell me how you would be able to beat Jeff Johnson who is the Republican nominee?
I think the critical addition I can bring to it is this commitment to working with the team. You know the Attorney General doesn’t have in campaign terms compared to the Governor or certainly the US Senate race the same kind of budget for a campaign. We’ll certainly raise the money we need to run an effective campaign, but we are going to be working with local candidates and building on their work and I think it’s that team based approach that will enable me to beat Jeff Johnson. I think we’ll be able to cost-effectively build up my name recognition, get the word out about my accomplishments and my commitments to people in Minnesota as well as use the media effectively in order to let people know more about who I am and what I can do on their behalf.

I also think that a responsible DFL Attorney General candidate does have an edge because Minnesotans tend to think that the DFL will be more of a watchdog for them and act on their behalf. And certainly Representative Johnson has made clear in the one plank of his platform that he intends to cut red tape, reduce regulation and promote jobs. And to me that sounds like he wants to cut corporations a break and is not going to be as vigilant about wrongdoing by companies. And I think that’s not what Minnesotans want to hear from their Attorney General. So we’ll be describing aggressively the alternative agenda.

I think there’s definitely a perception that the DFL has more the concern of fairness when you start getting down to these issues, than just being concerned about the dollars. So that people are treated equal as opposed to treating people who have the dollars the best.
That’s really important Mike. I mean we’ve seen what’s happened over the last several years, certainly with Republican control in Washington is that they in a way have been using their political power to plunder and take advantage of the United States. And with the corruption by various members of Congress and you know I was just listening today to a report on the sort of “walking the line” that Secretary Levitt has done with their family foundation, recycling money that’s benefited from tax deductions, tax exemptions, back into their private interests. I think we have a good case to make that the Democrats are going to be responsible to the people and that we are going to be on the side of the folks who don’t have power against the people who do have wealth and power.

Speaking of wealth, coming out of the Governor’s race I believe you had a deficit or at least a campaign debt. Now is that going to make running for Attorney General a little bit harder?
The debt is not a significant factor with respect to the Attorney General’s race. That can sit there for a little while. We’d like to collect a little bit more money in that account and pay off some bills. That would be a good thing to do. But the real issue that’s come up with respect to financing is that there’s a little known provision of state law that says if you run for more than one statewide office in the same year, then what you spent in one race counts against any spending limit that might exist in the other race. So that means that I would be severely handicapped in the Attorney General’s race if I signed the public financing agreement in which the candidate agrees to limit the spending. And so it’s very clear that I can’t sign the public financing agreement. What that means instead of … if I had just started in the AG’s race and hadn’t run in the Governor’s race I would have had to raise $400,000 and then the rest of the budget would have come from the public subsidy. So instead of raising $400,000, I have to raise $500,000. And that’s a doable increment. I’m not worried about that piece. And so we’re working rapidly as possible right now to get that fundraising going.

So on the matching on the dollars it’s not a dollar for dollar match that comes from the state on something like that.
No. The state public subsidy is about $108,000. At least that was the most recent estimate.

So the worst that you could do is say you might have to have a $108,000 more of fundraising than any of your other opponents in this race.
That’s exactly right. And the other consequence, you mentioned running against a Republican. I think Representative Johnson, the likely Republican candidate, was not planning… he may have signed the public subsidy agreement, but I think their planning was that Representative Entenza was going to spend more than the limit in any event. Because that’s the other consequence of not signing the public subsidy agreement and spending more than the spending limit is that you release the opponent from the spending limit as well.

So after September, Jeff Johnson, if you should win, he could spend as much money as he could raise then too?
That would be one of the consequences that if my spending report shows that I have spent more than the limit than that would free him from the spending limit.

OK, let’s talk just a little bit about the little time that we have between now and the State Central Committee meeting. What are you doing and how are you going to win this endorsement from the State Central Committee?
Well it’s pretty much the way we ran the campaign for Governor is by relying on volunteers to make phone calls on my behalf. But also making a lot of phone calls myself. So I have been talking to the Executive Committee and State Central Committee members. I’ve also been visiting with representatives of unions and other groups that are active in the party to talk about why I should be the candidate. So I’m going to continue to do that for the next two weeks. For example on Saturday the 29th I’m traveling up to the 8th Congressional District meeting in Coleraine to visit with State Central Committee and DFL activists to talk about the campaign and hear what their concerns are. So I think it’s just active campaigning. We’re also though, we’re not… I think it’s important not to wait for the State Central Committee. The primary is only about six weeks away. So we’re starting to do the groundwork in contacting a broader group of Democrats to talk about my candidacy and elicit support. And so we’re going to continue to do that work during the next two weeks as well.

Last question here. To be a successful Attorney General. If you were the Attorney General and four years from now, if you look back how is Minnesota going to be different than it is right now?
I think the primary; the first-level difference that I would ask people to evaluate would be “is the Attorney General’s office doing a high-quality professional job on behalf of the people of Minnesota and the agencies of state government that it is our responsibility to represent?” Secondly, have we made a difference on behalf of consumers. Have we prevented losses, whether it’s through fraud or wrongful conduct or breach of fiduciary duty that our non-profits owe to the citizens of Minnesota. And I would expect that we’ll have demonstrated that Minnesotans have been better off. That we’ve avoided fraudulent conduct or prevented losses by being active advocates on behalf of consumers. And then I hope that people will say that we have worked well with other agencies of state government and with local citizens to reduce crime and to make people feel safer in their homes and on the streets. Those are three really important measures that I ask people to look at.