Attorney general candidates square off

Candidates discussed four issues that are key to the attorney general race.

by Charley Bruce

Minnesota Public Radio’s Kerri Miller pointed Tuesday to a recent MPR/Pioneer Press poll that found nearly half of Minnesota voters don’t know the names of the attorney general candidates.

“Well, today we’re out to change that,” Miller said to a crowd of about 70 people at an MPR-sponsored debate between the three attorney general candidates in downtown St. Paul.

Republican Jeff Johnson, the Independence Party’s John James and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate Lori Swanson exchanged views on a variety of topics, including health care and home ownership issues, the death penalty and gun laws.

The debate began with the three candidates defining the attorney general’s job.

“It’s important for the attorney general to go stand up for people and go after the powerful interests,” Swanson said.

She said the attorney general should go after banks who sell private information to telemarketers and HMOs who deny mental health care coverage for children.

Johnson said the attorney general is the chief consumer protector. The other part of the job, he said, is protecting citizens from “corporate criminals or violent criminals.”

James said the position is about enforcing the law.

“I see the attorney general as the people’s lawyer, who really needs to be out to make the law work for all Minnesotans,” he said.

Health care

Swanson said health care costs are putting stress on small business and causing personal bankruptcy.

“Our health care system is a mess,” she said.

As solicitor general, Swanson audited the health care industry, but Miller asked Swanson what she accomplished for the residents of Minnesota at the post.

Swanson said she uncovered excessive consulting costs, travel and entertainment and executive compensation for health industry executives. She said she then reported the findings to the Minnesota departments of health and commerce – organizations that regulate health insurance premiums.

The audits set a tone that hold CEOs of health care providers accountable for squandering funds on the golf course while patients are going without care, Swanson said.

Johnson said he doesn’t believe Minnesotans gained much from auditing health care leaders.

But, he said, he would pursue the same kind of aggressive audits if he were in office.

“We haven’t seen leadership, in general, legislatively,” Johnson said.

He also said he wants to see more consumer choice and consumer options to level the playing field.

James agreed that changes are needed and called Minnesota’s health care system “terribly broken.”

He and other Independence Party members toured 200 Minnesota cities and found health care to be the most important issue in Minnesota, he said.

“The fact that health care is the number one issue in the state today suggests that those audits did not accomplish much for Minnesota consumers,” James said.

Home ownership

Swanson said the attorney general’s office needs to crack down on predatory mortgage lenders.

“(People) make their monthly payment and their principal goes up, not down,” she said, naming this and affordable housing as high priorities.

But James said the attorney general’s office already actively deals with deceptive lenders.

Johnson said the office has handled the issue well but expects to see the issue grow.

Death penalty

The candidates offered differing opinions on capital punishment, which was abolished in Minnesota in 1911 after a botched 1906 hanging.

Johnson said he supports the death penalty for certain crimes and would work to bring it back to the state. He said cases would require persuasive DNA evidence, which some states have legislated.

Swanson said she opposes the death penalty but would support a system with more assurances that innocent people would not be put to death.

She said some studies have found the death penalty is applied unequally, which would have to change for her to support it.

James said capital punishment is questionable morally, an ineffective crime deterrent and uneconomical.

“I am a firm no on the death penalty,” James said.

Conceal-and-carry law

The candidates found common ground on the conceal-and-carry law, passed in 2003, which allows permit holders to carry guns anywhere except where posted signs ban them. All said they support the law, and Swanson said she had written a brief defending the law when it was challenged in court.

The negative impacts of the law predicted by some failed to materialize, Johnson said.

“I don’t think anything horrible has happened as some people said would happen,” he said.

A Star Tribune poll released Sept. 19 showed Swanson with an 18-percentage-point edge over Johnson. Forty-six percent of those polled supported Swanson, versus 28 percent for Johnson and 6 percent for James. The poll margin of error was plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.