After some of the comments on some of my previous pieces about Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson’s tenure in office criticized me for criticizing Swanson, a woman who worked in the AG’s office during Swanson’s first term offered to tell me her story. Here it is.
The Rev. Linda McEwen, who worked as a Lutheran pastor during much of her career, was hired to work in the AG’s office not long after Swanson was elected to her first term.
She didn’t like what she saw. It ended badly.
McEwen, who is now mostly retired and lives in Mahtomedi, was ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1979, when female ministers were still relatively few. She considers herself a proud feminist.
In 2006, when Swanson became the first woman attorney general in Minnesota history, McEwen says, she was gladdened that another portion of the glass ceiling had been broken. At that time, McEwen said, she had recently retired from a pastoral position and decided to apply for a position with the new AG, and she was soon hired to be Swanson’s executive assistant. Her job included managing Swanson’s calendar and her professional contacts and arranging meetings, including those with legislators.
But, McEwen says, she was disappointed to discover that Swanson relied almost completely on Mike Hatch, her predecessor and political mentor, in running the office and deciding about matters that arose. Hatch, who had just been defeated in his own run for governor, had stayed on (somewhat awkwardly and controversially) in the AG’s office under circumstances that suggested that he was still exerting a lot of influence if not outright control.
“It was embarrassing,” McEwen said. Legislators and other officials who had business to discuss with the AG’s office would come in to see Swanson, and she generally wouldn’t even take the meeting. Instead, McEwan said, Swanson would buy time, try to find out indirectly what the legislators wanted, or have Hatch call them to find out, and then he would decide how to respond.
“She’s an intelligent woman,” McEwen said of Swanson, who is now a candidate for governor. “But she didn’t have the confidence to respond face-to-face to people who needed her to make a decision.”
“It was strange,” McEwan told me.
McEwen pushed back a bit, then a bit more, and when her attitude about the not-very-secret role of Hatch as the major decision-maker in the office became too obvious, she was fired, in her third year on the job.
Like a lot of others who have worked in the office during the Hatch-Swanson era, McEwen decided to go quietly for fear of retribution if she criticized them publicly.
But when she read my story of last Friday about some of those related issues, she reached out to me to put her recollections on the record, for attribution. She seemed unafraid, at this stage in her life, and ready to make her experience public, even as Swanson launches her campaign for governor.
It’s important to note that McEwen has been gone from the office for many years and can’t comment on the current status of the Hatch-Swanson relationship, or on how Swanson ran the office after she left.
Perhaps, she said, it’s become an equal partnership over the years. But she felt that Swanson’s development as a strong, independent political player was “hampered” by her reliance on Hatch. “She hasn’t taken the lumps to learn how to fly alone,” McEwen said. “She has always had this copilot.”
“I feel sure I was terminated because I started questioning some of their methods,” McEwen said, referring here to the way they treated their subordinates. “They operated by fear and punishment, and they often tried hard to get people to quit so they wouldn’t have to fire them.”
Sometimes she found herself in the middle of these efforts to induce resignation, which struck her as both cruel and a waste of taxpayer dollars. For example, she said, they would give someone a pointless mind-numbing assignment, of no value to the citizens of Minnesota (who were paying the salaries of all the attorneys) and not related to any real work of the office — like reading through hundreds or thousands of pages of files looking for something that wasn’t there. The results of the work in some instances would just be shredded, McEwan said.
Her understanding was that these methods were designed to send the message to the workers or attorneys involved that they had fallen out of favor, would not be getting any advancement or interesting work in the future, and that they should look elsewhere for a job. The treatment would be “pretty obvious” to the person undergoing it, and it often worked, she said.
In her own case, McEwen said, Swanson did fire her. She said Swanson’s desire to be rid of her had become “pretty obvious,” but she didn’t resign. So Swanson called her in and terminated her. She recalls that when she received her walking papers, she sarcastically replied: “Are you sure you don’t want to call Mike and ask if this is what he wants you to do?”
Over the last several days, I have reached out, by online message and by phone message, to the Swanson for Governor campaign and the AG’s office, seeking to give Swanson a chance to comment on this story. So far, no reply.