A Win-Win Situation

It was sad to read in today's Strib that people automatically assume Attorney General-elect Lori Swanson will be a figurehead unable to exert her will because she has offered her former boss, Mike Hatch, a position in her new administration. Swanson knows better than anyone what she'd be getting into by inviting Hatch on board. When I wrote an extensive profile of Mike Hatch for this paper nearly eight years ago, Lori Swanson was one of the first people Hatch recommended I speak with to find out what makes him tick. Swanson not only served with Hatch during his two terms in the Attorney General's office, she was with him in private practice, and before that at the Department of Commerce.

On at least a half-dozen occasions when he was AG, at times far removed from elective politics, Hatch referred to Swanson as "the real brains behind this operation." As solicitor general, it was Swanson who managed 160 lawyers and juggled 2000 cases in the office. It was Swanson, for example, who conducted the interviews and laid out the problem of hospitals charging those without insurance a higher room rate and then using strong-arm collection tactics to make them pay. The case she built resulted in the first-ever settlement in the nation where hospitals have agreed not automatically nail the uninsured with the inflated sticker price of a hospital stay. That's one of dozens of prominent cases where Swanson worked in conjunction with Hatch and Hatch's other top deputy, Kris Eiden (who has agreed to stay on under Swanson) to go after powerful business interests on behalf of the little guy.

Ethics expert David Schultz is quoted in the Strib as worrying about whether Hatch would be perceived by citizens as actually running for two offices this fall, Governor and Attorney General. But let's take that logic a step further: Many more people voted for Swanson for AG than Hatch for Governor. You can parse that two ways: Either the public has endorsed Swanson's right to independently run the office as she sees fit, or they were secretly hoping Swanson would do exactly what she did and invite Hatch back in. But either way, Swanson and Hatch weren't duplicitous about their joint agenda. Swanson, an electoral neophyte, campaigned hard on continuing the policies she and Hatch had established. Where's the ethical subterfuge? If Schultz is looking for voters feeling burned by a bait and switch, he should talk to conservative Republicans who had no idea Tim Pawlenty would endorse universal health insurance for children just a week after the election.

But back to Swanson: It wasn't as if she was given a free pass by the party insiders because of her proximity to Hatch. On the contrary, the DFL first endorsed a guy, Matt Entenza, whose wife is a powerful executive in the health care industry Hatch and Swanson so assiduously investigate; a guy who did clandestine opposition research on Hatch. Then, after Entenza quit the race over that scandal, the DFL executive committee weighed in on behalf of a sitting State Senator weeks removed from a spirited statewide campaign for governor. A former U.S. Congressman and state legislator also jumped into the primary. Swanson whipped them both, then trounced Rep. Jeff Johnson--regarded as one of the strongest AG candidates the Republicans had fielded in years--in the general election. Without question, Swanson's association with the Hatch regime helped her with voters. But if she was a bumbling public speaker, or an obvious Hatch bobo without a mind of her own, it would have come out during the campaign. Instead, the opposite occurred: People were pleasantly surprised by Swanson's poise on the stump and her command of the issues.

If Hatch can't handle someone else making the decisions, he either won't take the job offer or he'll leave. Because anyone who takes a serious look at Swanson's credentials and recent performance and concludes that she's merely keeping the office warm for Hatch's return doesn't know her. That would include House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (R-Marshall) who likened Swanson to Mrs. George Wallace in today's Strib, an offensive comment on a variety of levels, not least because Seifert himself owes his political ascent to prejudicial pandering and partisan wedge issues. Seifert is the guy who wanted to enact laws to cut welfare benefits to recipients who smoke cigarettes, cut meals for prisoners below the federal standard for nutrition while double-bunking those serving time, and ban the Pledge of Allegiance being spoken in Spanish.

Last but not least, it bears noting that Swanson is indeed charting her own course in terms utilizing the enforcement power of the AG's office. Asked during the campaign how she would be different than Hatch, she answered that she would spend more time and resources protecting consumers from unsavory mortgages and other predatory lending practices in the housing market. Yesterday she called a press conference to announce a 12-member study group charged with drafting legislation to enact four measure to protect consumers on this issue. It was her first major policy initiative. With or without Hatch, many more will follow.