See You In Court

Five years ago Mike Hatch was just another failed politician. Then a dying woman walked into his office, and a crusade was born.

Like his activist predecessors Skip Humphrey and Warren Spannaus, Hatch is shaping the AG's office into an aggressive advocate on his pet issues. Already he has beefed up the agency's consumer hotline and recruited trusted colleagues Lori Swanson and Kris Eiden--former Commerce Department employees who were also members of his private law firm--as deputy attorneys general. Chuck Ferguson, a Commerce veteran who, in Hatch's words, "can pick apart an insurance contract better than anyone I've ever met," has also come aboard as a legal assistant.

Barely a month after taking office, Hatch presented his first major policy initiative, a "Fairness in Health Care" bill that would curtail insurers' power in determining which treatments doctors prescribe. After the measure makes its way through the Legislature, Hatch says he would like to take the battle from the Capitol to the courtroom. "I've been real public about that," he says. "In fact, if there is a time to get sick in Minnesota, it is right now, because the HMOs know that I'm shopping and making it very loud that I want a case. I want to express my feelings. I want to express a little old-fashioned moral outrage."

Earlier in Hatch's career, it would have been easy to dismiss such heated rhetoric as glib grandstanding from an ambitious pol. But according to many of those who know him, he has been profoundly affected by his experience in private practice. Enduring the crucible of his own self-doubts to defend people desperate for care has both "mellowed" him (the word most commonly used by friends to describe how he has changed) and deepened his populist instincts. "This is the end of the road," he insists. "I am never running for another job. My role is to make sure that as the great people pontificate, real people don't get hurt."

Emblematic of Hatch's new focus is a pair of scuffed boxing gloves hanging in his office at the Capitol, a stark contrast to the ornate oil paintings and august furniture. "I think those belonged to my brother when we lived in Duluth," the AG says. "Everybody who comes in here comments on them, so I guess we'll keep them there. They must fit in with what I'm about."

 

Hatch would much rather display the grit of a fighter than talk about how he acquired it--starting with a boyhood he describes as near-idyllic. His family was a classic '50s nuclear unit, albeit with the four children spaced wide apart in age. Dad was a salesman, and mom stayed home with the kids in a majestic old house near the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a place that had three floors, a big yard, dogs, and vegetable and flower gardens. The third child and second son, Hatch was closest to his younger sister, who adored him and followed him on gambols along a nearby creek and to neighborhood baseball games. During the summer they would sneak into the empty school buildings two blocks away to play with the props from past theater productions.

Among his peers, Hatch tried hard to fit in. "Until he got into high school, Mike was pretty small," his younger sister Kathy remembers. "Because his birthday was in November, he was also younger than a lot of his classmates. He struggled with his social status, trying to be big and tough like the other boys, and that interfered with some of his school work, even though he was really smart."

The fabric of the family began to unravel during the 60s, as alcoholism exerted a greater hold over both of Hatch's parents. Hatch is tight-lipped on the subject, acknowledging only that "sometimes it was tough." Asked who held the family together, he replies, "My older sister, but my parents did, too."

His siblings tell a somewhat different story. Hatch's older brother Tom says their elder sister Sue moved out of the house when Mike was just 10 or 11. "And then I pretty much ran out on the family when I was 19. It was kind of an inexcusable act, because Mike was just 14. There was a lot of tension and denial. Sometimes just reading the newspaper could be a cause for attack. I think Mike and Kathy must have gotten the worst of it, and I think it has a lot to do with the way he turned out.

"Mike is very much a person who is into duty. I think the family made him a fighter. It made me a fighter: If someone gets in my face, I'm not going to back down, because I've been there, and there is nothing to lose."

Hatch's sister Kathy, who is four years younger that him, recalls that "after a while, my parents had a difficult time maintaining a real nurturing home environment. My father had a heart attack, my mother had kidney problems, and the drinking just made things worse. Mike just took on whatever responsibility needed to be taken on. He always looked after me, checking to approve of my friends and knowing that I was where I was supposed to be. He did things like grocery shopping and cooking and cleaning house."

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