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Attorney General Lori Swanson is a stealth force in Minnesota politics, keeping a low profile in her powerful post as she quietly accumulates the kind of support that will be valuable if she runs for governor next year.
Once every month or two, Swanson holds a news conference to announce she’s suing a company or individual for allegedly robbing or defrauding Minnesotans. Then she retreats back behind the curtain — a contrast with several of her predecessors as Minnesota attorney general and many fellow AGs around the country.
That habit was on display last month when Swanson teamed with the attorney general of Washington state in a successful challenge to President Donald Trump’s ban on refugees from certain Muslim-majority countries. Swanson remained largely in the background as Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson became the public face of a lawsuit that generated intense national interest.
Swanson said getting involved was a legal rather than a political decision. “Does it address the constitutional issues?” she said when asked if she would sue the federal government again over a potential second Trump immigration order, expected Monday.
Swanson, 50, cloaked her ambitions during a wide-ranging Star Tribune interview, emphasizing she is focused on the second half of her current term as attorney general. But she hinted at what may be coming in a 2018 governor’s race.
“What’s very clear is that people are squeezed. The stock markets are robust, but for regular people, they’re up against it,” Swanson said, before rattling off statistics about health care costs, student debt and the number of Americans living paycheck to paycheck.
Many DFL insiders believe Swanson would be a serious contender.
Swanson recently met with Minnesotans with disabilities and their service dogs, whose case she took up at the Supreme Court with a friend-of-the-court brief. (Swanson’s five-year-old golden retriever Taffy sat alongside her owner in a 2014 political ad, evincing eye-rolls from Minnesota politicos. But she is clearly dear to Swanson: During the interview, Taffy yelped and bounded around Swanson’s office.)
Running a lean office
Swanson’s critics — including some in Minnesota’s legal community — say her stated avoidance of politics is in contrast to her record. They say she runs a tightly controlled, legally unambitious office in furtherance of greater political goals.
“Why is Lori Swanson neglecting the tough parts of her job?” lawyer and Republican activist Harry Niska asked in a 2016 essay, referring to Swanson declining to intercede on some high-profile constitutional issues.
What’s clear from interviews with Swanson and allies is that while few were looking, she built a formidable profile for the 2018 governor’s race. Unlike potential candidate Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, Swanson does not have close personal ties to a network of Minneapolis political and financial heavyweights. Unlike Rep. Erin Murphy, already in the race, Swanson does not have liberal activists cheering her at rallies. Unlike Reps. Tim Walz or Rick Nolan, both considering bids, Swanson is not mentioned by DFL stalwarts for her potential to win in outstate Minnesota.
But Swanson — first elected in 2006 — has since then made about 200 public appearances a year around the state. It’s usually without fanfare, and without notice to the Twin Cities media.
Swanson boasts of running a lean office: While the rest of state government was growing, state appropriations to Swanson’s office dropped 52 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2002, with the number of lawyers down to 135 from 260 in the late 1990s.
So what is the office not doing after all those cuts?
“Nothing. We’re doing everything,” she said. Her lawyers prioritize and work hard, she said.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, disagrees: “It’s a shadow of itself,” said the longtime legislator. Whereas the attorney general was once the state’s lawyer, now agencies seem to fend for themselves, Marty said.
A complicated legal case
Although Swanson is getting less money from the state’s general fund, state agencies are spending far more to hire their own lawyers, according to data provided by Minnesota Management and Budget in response to a public-records request. Agency spending on in-house counsel more than doubled between 2012 and 2016, from $7.3 million to $15.4 million.
Swanson speculated that agencies must be using their attorneys to advise them on policy rather than legal issues because “under Minnesota law, state agency employees with law degrees cannot and do not represent state agencies in legal matters.” Tension between the attorney general and state agencies is at least as old as the tenure of Attorney General Walter Mondale more than half a century ago, she said, showing off a newspaper clipping from 1963.
Marty said he was disappointed the state outsourced litigation over complex permitting issues for PolyMet Mining, which seeks to open the state’s first copper-nickel mine. The Legislature already appropriated nearly $3 million for outside counsel to defend against potential environmental lawsuits.
“Why are we spending all this money contracting with a distant law firm?” Marty asked. He said the Dayton administration told him Swanson did not want the case. Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr, whose agency will have to defend against the lawsuit, said, “The attorney general didn’t have the expertise nor the capacity to do the work.”
Avoiding PolyMet entanglements is a wise play for any DFLer considering higher office. The project has caused a deep rift between Iron Range DFLers and the environmental wing of the party. Defending the permits would have put Swanson on the wrong side of wealthy Twin Cities-area environmentalists who often fund DFL campaigns.
“She’s bridged that metro-greater Minnesota divide,” said Bill Luther, a former congressman and a Swanson supporter.
Swanson won seven of eight congressional districts in 2014, she noted. She also has worked to win over blue-collar workers, including building-trades unions, still a political force in Minnesota and representing the type of voter the DFL struggled to win over in recent elections.
About 15 years ago, Swanson took up trap shooting, a sport requiring calculation, precision force and practice — and a shot at respect from greater Minnesota gun aficionados.
“You can find a rod and gun club in any small community,” Swanson said.
Finally, and perhaps most important to her brand, is claims of standing up for average people against powerful corporations and government malfeasance.
“She’s got balls,” said Mike Hatch, Swanson’s predecessor as attorney general. Swanson served as his deputy.
Swanson has scored victories against bill and debt collectors, Medicaid cheats and for-profit colleges Globe University and the Minnesota School of Business.
“When it’s for-profit colleges ripping people off, the young people don’t stand a chance on their own,” Swanson said.
Her office gets 25,000 e-mails and letters a year, usually from Minnesotans struggling with consumer problems.
Swanson said she reads every single one.