Former Congressman Bill Luther says he is not actively seeking the endorsement of the DFL State Central Commitee in the Attorney General’s race. That’s why he won’t be at the SCC meeting this Saturday (August 12). Neither will Solicitor General Lori Swanson, who is also running in the DFL Attorney General Primary. Both candidates are encouraging the SCC to give no endorsement. That leaves State Senator Steve Kelley the only candidate actively seeking the DFL SCC’s endorsement. We’ve already interviewed Steve Kelley and Lori Swanson. Today we talk with Bill Luther
Bill you’re one of three candidates vying for the DFL slot on the November ballot. That’s all going to be decided in September. The other two are State Senator Steve Kelley and Solicitor General Lori Swanson.
Now I know when you were in the state Senate you had the job of overseeing the Attorney General’s finances and you were also involved in writing many of the laws the Attorney General is called to enforce. So you’ve got a good idea of what the Attorney General does. Can you give me in your own words what the Attorney General’s job is?
Sure. Be glad to Mike. It really is a multi-faceted job you might say. First of all, you’re the chief legal officer for the state. And what that means is that you serve in the role of chief legal officer, which means offering opinions on various things, different levels of government and to different agencies within the state government. In addition to that, the Attorney General would initiate and defend lawsuits when it’s in the interest of the state. Often times it’s in the nature of the defense of cases that are being brought. But there are other instances as well. And so just handling a lot of legal matters in the courtroom for the state and its various agencies is a big part of the job.
In addition to that, the Attorney General is really what you might call the watchdog or the advocate for all Minnesotans. In a number of areas the Attorney General has authority to work on behalf of all Minnesotans. In the area of consumer law. It might be when it comes to charities, anti-trust work. A number of statutes allow the Attorney General to take aggressive action on behalf of the citizens of the state. That’s where you hear people refer to it as the people’s attorney– the Attorney General– because that is… that often times can be the attorney for individual citizens.
And then I think I would call the third role really an area of advocacy where the Attorney General might feel that certain laws should be changed. He’s entitled to come into the legislature to ask that the legislature change them. Or he might feel that by teaming up with other Attorney Generals around the country they can approach Congress or can take on a case that’s bigger than one Attorney General alone. So there’s this area where an Attorney General can exercise a lot of leadership in advocacy. And that’s what I kind of call the third area. So you really got three areas. One is the chief legal person for the state. The second is where you represent the people of the state individually as the people’s attorney. And the third is where you are an advocate for change or leadership on important issues of the day.
Now you’ve had to go out and find people to work for you before and you’d have to consider what are the necessary qualifications for the job. So, if you were going to go out and hire somebody to be the Attorney General of Minnesota what qualifications would you be looking for?
Well first of all, of course you’d want to hire a good lawyer.
Good lawyer, OK.
You’d want somebody with very good credentials both from an education standpoint and from an experience standpoint. And I think from the materials I’ve put out you can probably tell that I feel that I fill the bill in that regard.
I got your email today that you sent out to a lot of folks and it has an extensive history on what you’ve done as an attorney.
Right, and my legal education is from the University of Minnesota law school after I went to undergraduate school there. I graduated with honors. After that I clerked for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and after that practiced law both in a firm and on my own. And primarily representing what you might call the underdog, the powerless in society. It’s just a role that I chose and that’s basically been my life’s work.
So if you’re going to hire the Attorney General you’re looking for somebody who is going to be a good attorney. Anything beyond that?
I think, in addition to being a good attorney, you want to hire somebody that can exercise good judgment. I think there are a lot of areas where you simply have to have good judgment because you can’t take on every matter that comes just as you can in a law firm or when you serve in the legislature or in Congress. So exercising good judgment. I think the third thing I would say is you have to be very tough and strong because of what you’re dealing with. It’s similar to when you’re handling cases like the cases I handled in my private practice. You’ll often times be up against the corporate attorneys and maybe a battery of them. And you might be the only person on your side of the council table. You have to have that. It’s something about the resilience in a person. You have to be able to take on those tough fights and not be dissuaded by the amount of power or wealth or pressure brought by the other side.
Now you’ve mentioned how you’ve been a lawyer and how you meet those qualifications and how you’re tough. Can you tell me a little bit about your judgment– how you have good judgment?
Well, I think that comes down to the work. Obviously, some of it in the law practice in terms of having a successful law practice and succeeding on the cases. I have a good track record in that respect. But I think it also comes down to the work that I’ve done in the legislature and in Congress. On the legislature I was chosen to be the Senate Assistant Majority Leader and I served in that role for 12 years. And in that role as Senate Assistant Majority Leader basically what you do is exercise judgment every day working with your collegues, working with legislation and trying to get things moving forward for the state on behalf of other members of the body. You serve in a leadership role like that.
In Congress I had the same experience. I was asked to serve on one of the most powerful committees in Congress, which is the Energy and Commerce Committee. And I served on that committee and in that role in that committee I had to exercise good judgment every day because of the importance of that committee to the affairs of the people of the country.
Now being a candidate for Attorney General is a little bit different than being the Attorney General. It’s not a totally different set of skills, but as you know from being a candidate that you’re required to do a lot different things. Can you tell me how you would make a good candidate as well as a good Attorney General?
I think in terms of being a candidate, one has to just look at one’s track record when it comes to winning elections. I have a strong track record of winning elections in tough districts. It’s one thing to win an election in a district that’s of your own party’s political persuasion.
Like Minneapolis with the Fifth.
That’s right. But it’s another thing to win in those tough districts. When I went into the legislature, both the House and the Senate I did beat Republican incumbents in both instances. But even more importantly than that when I ran for Congress I ran in a very difficult district in a very difficult year. It was 1994 when Newt Gingrich was taking…
The “Contract with America”.
Or some called it the “Contract on America”.
That’s right. And that was a very tough district, suburban district and it was a very tough year. And I was one of the few Democrats in the country that was able to pick up a seat for our party that year. And then in succeeding years the district actually got more difficult. And yet I was able to be re-elected three additional times in that very, very difficult district. And so I think when it comes to electablity, the fact that I was able to accomplish that, and I became known throughout the state as somebody who did a good job, I believe, in my service in Congress and the legislature. I think that makes me the most electable candidate.
Now last election you ran was I believe in the second against John Kline.
And he did win that. That was a redistricted second congressional district. How come you lost that race?
Well there were a lot of reasons, but I would say the fact that the district was in effect split in half. My district was split in half and both sides of the district were actually more difficult than the district I had run in—even though I had run in a difficult district. I would say that would probably be the biggest factor. The other factor, of course, that affected former Vice President (Walter) Mondale and senators across the country and certainly our ticket here in Minnesota was the fallout from the (Senator Paul) Wellstone memorial. It was just a tragedy to see that occurring following the tragedy of the loss of Senator Wellstone. And so that was definitely a big factor as well.
That’s very symptomatic about what we’ve seen over the last several years where the opposition will take and turn some events against you and use it to attack you. Are you prepared for an Attorney General’s race that you may be the target of the Republican attack machine?
Well I’ve been the target of that for many years. What generally happens in this business is if you are successful, and if you are able to successfully compete against Republicans in a variety of offices, you do become the target of the other side. And so I have been the target in the past and I would expect that to be the case in the future. I’ve stood up to it well in the past, I believe, and that would be my intention.
What’s the key in standing up to it and turning back that mud that they might throw?
Well, I think staying on the positive, on the offense and just simply not letting yourself get mired down in all of the kind of politics today that people find so offensive. I think staying on the positive. Always, always attempting to look for the bright spots rather than the negatives I think that that’s what I’ve tried to do in my political career and it’s worked well.
Let’s think back here to actually just a few weeks ago. Matt Entenza suddenly pulled out of the race and everybody had literally just a few hours to decide if they were going to file. Tell me what went through your mind that day and why you came to the conclusion you did.
Well I felt that we needed a strong candidate in the race. And I had been encouraged by many people and I just felt that this office is so important for the people of Minnesota that one had to look beyond themselves. It was not a job that I needed. In fact I often times say it’s good to get some people into government that don’t need the job. If you know what I mean. People who want to do the job….
It’s not the pay that attracts people.
Right. In this case it was just a feeling that we’ve had a terrific Attorney General in Minnesota for a long time. We’ve had 40 years actually of Democratic control in the Attorney General’s office. It would be a tragedy to let that slip away in a year where we had all this political difficulty as we saw with the Entenza race. And so I just felt that I needed to step forward for the people of Minnesota.
You said people encouraged you. Were any of those people the current Attorney General Mike Hatch?
Yes and many others. But that would be something that’s occurred over time. Ever since I left office in 2002 I’ve had people encouraging me to get back into office again.
Because I heard your name circulating, as rumors circulate on blogs and other things, well before Entenza stepped aside when his troubles surfaced. Had you thought about it then or didn’t really think about it until the day of?
Yes, not really. Not until the day of. I had been called by reporters before but Matt Entenza is a friend of mine. Matt and I worked together when he was with the Attorney General’s office and I was serving in the legislature. And I know that Matt would do an excellent job on many, many issues serving in the Attorney General’s office because I’ve worked with him. And so I knew that he had that capability. And so I really didn’t give it any kind of thought until the point in time where he did decide to withdraw.
Here’s an interesting question because you’ve had the experience of being on the other end of that attack machine we were talking about. If you were in Matt Entenza’s shoes when this whole thing kind of happened, what would you have done?
I really can’t say. Those things sometimes just get out of control. Which I think occurred in this case and through a variety of perhaps missteps and the handling of everything. So it’s hard to now look back and say that he could have done one thing or another. I’m sure that he’s doing a lot of second-guessing right now. But the important thing, I think, is to move forward and I certainly hope Matt does move forward in public service. I think he has a lot to offer.
Let’s talk about the endorsement process. Because you and Lori (Swanson) and Steve Kelley are all going to appear on the primary ballot. But between now and the primary the (DFL) State Central Committee is going to meet. In fact it’s this Saturday as we speak. Are you actively seeking the endorsement from the State Central Committee, the DFL State Central Committee?
No I’m not. I sent a letter to the Central Committee members today asking for their support, but asking them to support the candidate that wins the primary. I think under the unusual circumstances that we find ourselves in this year; it would just be a very healthy thing to open the process up and let the rank-and-file Democrats pick the candidate that they feel would be the best candidate to go into the general election.
Now we have a very limited amount of time between now and the September primary and even when you look at it in terms of an election, less than 100 days to the November election. The DFL endorsement carries some perks with it. Obviously the media attention, the fundraising ability that goes with it. Should the State Central Committee not give that to any of the three candidates right now and hold off or would it make sense for them to grant that and give that person a head start?
Well, I’m sure that will be debated on Saturday, but I think with the short period of time between now and the primary and really the other demands on the party in other races, I think it would be really welcome by the public if the party would allow more rank-and-file people to be involved in this decision. And that’s not taking anything away from the people in the party who work so hard day in and day out — the Central Committee members, the Executive Committee members. I worked within the party my entire political life. I have great respect for the people. And so this is not taking anything away from them, but I just think this is an opportunity. I view this as an opportunity to say to the rank-and-file Democrats in Minnesota, “You know in this case we think we’d like to have you involved in this decision. We trust you to help us in this decision with these candidates because I think most people that look at the candidates would say we’ve got three qualified candidates here.” So let’s just ask the people in the party to assist us in that process.
Now this is almost a side issue since there is no real convention or anything with this endorsement, but the DFL of late has had a habit of endorsing people who don’t’ win elections. Either somebody else wins in the primary or the person they endorse doesn’t win in the November elections. Is the endorsement process broken with in the DFL? Does it need adjustment?
Well I don’t know if I would say that it’s broken. The primary is a check on the endorsement process. The whole system is set up that way. So if the party ever veers off too far and doesn’t do something that fits within the general feelings of the rank-and-file democratic voters, the true check on the party is the primary. And so I have always viewed the primary as just an appropriate check on the party. I think the party does good work and I think that there are instances where they can be very helpful to rank-and-file voters by selecting one candidate versus another. But I think there are also instances where that’s not necessarily the case. And I think this under the unique circumstances here is one where the party could actually go out and get the assistance of rank-and-file democrats.
Let’s talk about the November elections then. Mike Erlandson, who was the former chair of the party, had a saying that “we didn’t need Democrats who can beat Democrats, we needed Democrats who could beat Republicans”. Tell me how you are going to be able to beat Republican Jeff Johnson who is running for this?
Well I like that quote of Mike Erlandson’s because I think it says a lot. I think that it also is something that applies directly to this race. I think that I have a track record of winning races by appealing not just to Democrats, but appealing to independents and even Republicans. And I think that is what I would be able to do in this race. The kinds of issues I’ll be talking about will be issues that won’t necessarily be party oriented, if you will. For example, the press release I put out today making it clear that my number-one issue would be rising gas prices in Minnesota. I don’t’ think that’s an issue that necessarily cuts across party lines. I think it’s affecting every family, every business, every farmer in Minnesota. And that’s going to be my number-one issue in this campaign. Because I don’t believe enough attention is being spent on it. I believe much more can be done on that issue. And we need true leadership on the issue to carry it forward. That’s an example of what I can do, I believe, to show Minnesotans that I’m going to be an Attorney General for all Minnesotans, not just for a small segment or a special interest group here.
Four years from now, if you are Attorney General of Minnesota and we look back, how is Minnesota going to be different? How are our lives going to be different?
Well I think that in the next four years there will be a number of opportunities to take the side of what you call the powerless or people who are just kind of seems like they don’t have the ability to work their way through the system. And there will be many of those instances where as Attorney General I will have the opportunity to work with them, help them, and make their quality of life a lot better in Minnesota. In addition to that, I think that there will be the instances where I will be able to change the laws so that we’re not just dealing with the way laws are today but the laws will be improved, will be better. The laws will be fairer for those individuals in the future. And then I believe that there will be some big-ticket issues– gas prices and other areas — where my serving as Attorney General has truly made a difference in this country. And that will mean that over the next four years I’ll be working with other Attorney Generals, with Congress, with other leaders that want to do something on some of those big ticket issues. But I truly believe that we need an Attorney General with vision and leadership in order to move us in the right direction in this country and in this state. And so I would be someone who would do that and I think that will be reflected in four years.
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