Have You Seen Me?

A law-and-order Christian conservative most people have never heard of tries to wrest the AG's office away from the DFL

Here's a name that won't ring a bell: Douglas M. Head. Way back in 1967, the obscure Mr. Head became the last Republican elected attorney general in Minnesota, a position he held until 1971. In the following 35 years, the state's top litigator and law enforcement official has been a DFLer. That is particularly galling to pro-business, law-and-order Republicans, who have seen their party achieve relative parity in virtually every other statewide electoral arena. Meanwhile, past and present DFL AGs like Skip Humphrey and Mike Hatch have gleefully made waves and gained votes by going hammer-and-tong after tobacco companies and HMOs.

To reverse their hexed history of failed AG candidates, the Republicans are relying on Jeff Johnson, a three-term state representative from Plymouth. A staunch religious conservative, Johnson had lined up the support of 90 out of 97 Republican colleagues in the Minnesota Legislature by this time a year ago. During the 2005-06 legislative session, Johnson authored a politically popular bill circumscribing the government's right to seize private land through eminent domain. He also used the session to shore up his credentials as a law-and-order crusader, singling out such issues as computer identity theft, meth use, and predatory sex crimes.

By contrast, the DFL spent much of the past year in disarray. With incumbent AG Hatch moving up to challenge Tim Pawlenty for governor, his heir apparent was supposed to be former House minority leader Matt Entenza—until it was revealed that Entenza had paid a private investigator to snoop on Hatch, of all people. This sordid intra-party subterfuge forced Entenza to abort his candidacy abruptly on July 18. In Entenza's stead, the skeletal leadership of the party eventually endorsed State Sen. Steve Kelley, an act that felt like a consolation prize, given that Kelley had finished as the runner-up to Hatch for the DFL's gubernatorial endorsement just weeks earlier. But the party's imprimatur didn't prevent former Congressman Bill Luther and first-time candidate Lori Swanson, Hatch's solicitor general, from running against Kelley in the September primary.

No, he's not David Letterman's lost nephew: GOP attorney general candidate Jeff Johnson
Michael Dvorak
No, he's not David Letterman's lost nephew: GOP attorney general candidate Jeff Johnson

Both parties' AG races yielded primary-night surprises. Swanson's upset victory on the DFL side can be attributed to the boost she got from Hatch's campaign machine and from the fact that she was the only woman among the three candidates, and the only one who didn't bear the mantle of "career politician." Johnson's surprise was far less pleasant. Perennial candidate Sharon Anderson, a figure for whom the words "gadfly" and "eccentric" may be too charitable, managed to poll 42 percent of the Republican primary vote despite overwhelming support for Johnson among party activists. In other words, nearly half of the people sympathetic enough with Republican principles to get out and vote in the party's primary still didn't know who Jeff Johnson was. Or at least that's the most positive spin on the results.

The only two polls taken on the AG race thus far, both conducted right after the September primaries, bear this out. Both showed Swanson leading by at least 13 points, but that seems to be based mostly on gender or party affiliation. The number of undecided voters is huge—35 percent in one poll, 18 percent in the other—and the highest level of name recognition achieved by any of the candidates was Swanson's meager 51 percent. Johnson's own name recognition a month ago stood at 28 percent. Minor-party candidates such as John James from the Independence Party and Papa John Kolstad from the Greens amount to potentially significant wild cards in a race where no one is really well known.

During a debate on MPR earlier this month, Swanson twice was able to use elements of Johnson's legislative voting record to put him on the defensive. First, she alleged that a bill Johnson co-authored three years ago would have eliminated state funding for the University of Minnesota's academic health center if its researchers used private donations to conduct embryonic stem cell research. When Johnson complained that Swanson was engaging in wedge-issue politics to distract voters from the real tasks of the AG's office, Swanson countered that conservative state legislators had asked the AG's office for a legal ruling on the stem cell research issue, making it entirely germane to the campaign.

In separate phone interviews with City Pages, Swanson and Johnson expounded on their positions. "Johnson says he's pro-business," offered Swanson, "but I can't think of anything more anti-business than shutting down the University of Minnesota, which is what his bill proposed, because they do stem cell research."

Johnson countered that "most people think if the private sector is doing it, the private sector can do it. It is not a stem cell issue, it is a government-funding issue." He adds that he was one of 28 bipartisan co-authors, and that after Swanson had raised the subject during the debate he went and talked to Rep. Tim Wilkin, his Republican colleague from Eagan and the primary author of the bill. "[Wilkin] said it is an issue that he has been struggling with for years because the academic health center of the University of Minnesota apparently has been contemplating doing embryonic stem cell research on new lines, which, based upon what I call a compromise that was worked out at the federal level a few years ago, would have been at least arguably a violation of federal law," Johnson says. "Or at least they would have lost federal funding for the academic health center; that is what [Wilkin] is saying. He offered up a bill that would have denied funding to the academic health center if they did what he felt was a violation of federal law." Johnson claims, however, that the point was not to de-fund institutions at the university, but to "get their attention and start a discussion, which is what happened."

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