Piling on Matt Entenza

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_Am I the only one who feels a little sorry for Matt Entenza?_

Matt Entenza’s decision to drop out of the race for Attorney General came as less of a surprise than the almost gleeful reaction that greeted his announcement. From the slant taken by some commentators you’d think Entenza was one of the bad guys of Minnesota politics. He’s not.

Leading the way was the gratuitous hostility of Nick Coleman’s column that appeared the day after Entenza left the race. It offered a weird funhouse mirror image of Entenza as a cynical opportunist and partisan knife-fighter, a man of questionable character at best. I’m not sure if Coleman was motivated by faux-populist anger at Entenza’s wealth – more accurately, the wealth that’s come his way because he’s married to Lois Quam, president of a United HealthGroup affiliate – or if Entenza has managed to slight Coleman somewhere along the way. At all events, the picture he and others have painted of Entenza is distorted, to say the least.

I don’t know Entenza all that well. I’ve lived in his district the past 10 years and have found nothing he did in the House objectionable and much that he accomplished – like his pursuit of the crooks and incompetents who nearly wrecked the state’s charter school experiment – laudable. A few years ago, I interviewed him about his ultimately successful campaign to bring some management training and financial oversight to the system and then, in 2004, I wrote a profile of him for _The Rake_ . Its premise – which proved correct – was that Entenza’s leadership would help engineer an electoral surprise in November. As we know, the DFL bucked national trends and picked up 13 House seats that fall, putting the party two votes shy of a majority. Much of that gain can be attributed to Entenza’s moral and political leadership. If he’d run for his old seat again this year and the DFL – as seems likely – picked up those two seats, he would undoubtedly have been elected Speaker of the House given the high regard he has enjoyed within the DFL caucus.

In person, Entenza’s not the warmest guy on the planet, though the same – and much, much more – can be said about his arch-nemesis, Mike Hatch. Legitimate concerns have been raised – most notably by Britt Robson in a cover story in _City Pages_ several months ago – about potential conflicts-of-interest Entenza might have faced as Attorney General because of his wife’s employment at United HealthGroup, currently the focus of considerable interest over the company’s executive compensation practices. But a couple of things need to be made clear.

For one, Lois Quam is in no way implicated in the controversy surrounding physician-turned-plutocrat Bill McGuire and his merry band of corporate plunderers. And nothing in Entenza’s long history of public service gives any reason to believe that he would hinder or even discourage the state’s investigation of UHG; even his political enemies (well, most of them, anyway) give him high marks for personal integrity. Recuse, himself, yes, but not stand in the way.

Before running for the House in 1994, Entenza worked in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, where he was lead prosecutor on charitable scams. In the House, his work often had a kind of prosecutorial zeal to it. Not only did he spearhead the above-mentioned drive to clean up the charter school mess, but, as Minority Leader, he also co-sponsored and helped pushed through No Call List anti-telemarketing legislation over Tim “Is this a good time?” Pawlenty’s strenuous objections – a testimony not only to his dogged persistence but also to his ability to work with Republican members of the House.

Entenza’s prosecutorial zeal comes by way of painful experience. The _Strib_ article about his announcement mentioned that his father was an alcoholic who abandoned the family, but the story is much richer than that.

His father wasn’t just another run-of-the-mill ne’er do well drunk. He was a con man who specialized in petty real estate fraud who was not above using his oldest child, Matt, as a shield in disputes with shady business associates. One time, when Entenza was 10, his father took him to a parking lot meeting with some gangsters in the hopes that the presence of a young boy would reduce the chances that the thugs – to whom the old man owed money – would beat him up. It worked that time, but Entenza’s father was not always so fortunate. On another occasion he came home after several days absence with a broken jaw administered by some other impatient creditors. When the old man finally did take a permanent powder – Entenza was 14 at the time – it left Entenza’s family so destitute that he and his mother and siblings had to move into Entenza’s grandmother’s house in Worthington. Despite, or because, of his background, he went on to become a star student and high school debater – it was at a debate meet that he met his future wife – then a University of Minnesota and Oxford-trained attorney with a real appetite for nabbing the bad guys, especially scam artists who prey on vulnerable people.

Entenza’s had his sights on the AG’s office for many years and maybe the blunders that marred his now-defunct campaign reflect that fact that he wanted this one so badly that it clouded his political judgement. I don’t know. What I do know is that both as a Hennepin County Attorney and as a legislator, he served the state well. Like Keith Ellison – another victim of a rightwing blog-initiated hatchet job – he does not deserve the kind of piling on we’ve witnessed this past week.