To understand what just happened to the DFL, you need to understand Mike Hatch

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Former Attorney General and Swanson mentor Mike Hatch filed to run for his old job on Tuesday morning. He withdrew on Wednesday.

You can’t understand the dizzying last few days of DFL politics without understanding the relentless and audacious guile of former Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch.

As the political year proceeds, you’ll see the names of current Attorney General Lori Swanson and state Rep. Debra Hilstrom more often than that of Hatch, as both women are among those who will be on the August 14 DFL primary ballot: Swanson for governor and Hilstrom for AG.

But you’d be mistaken if you don’t think Hatch has been a force behind their campaigns. If that sounds like I’m suffering from some sort of obsession, I’m not the only one, so allow me to offer some vital background needed to make sense of something widely understood in DFL circles — if seldom discussed explicitly in public.

Meet the new boss …

In 2006, after two terms as attorney general, Hatch ran for governor. He had run for the office twice before, but this time he was the DFL nominee. He was ahead in the polls as late as October and — at least according to the conventional telling of the tale — he would likely have won the election (DFLers swept all the other statewide offices that year) had he not lost his infamous temper shortly before Election Day.

Reacting to what he considered an impertinent question by a reporter, Hatch called the reporter a “Republican whore.”  Big mistake. It made him sound unhinged. (Hatch has claimed that he said “hack,” not “whore.” The reporter stands by his story.) It cost Hatch his shot to be governor. He never sought the office, nor any other, again.

That same year, his protégé, Lori Swanson, was elected to the office Hatch was vacating: attorney general. But Hatch did not go away after his defeat in the governor’s race. Instead, he decided to work in the AG’s office under Swanson, and under circumstances that suggested to some inside observers that he was still running the place.

Me and Mike Hatch

At this point, it’s important to note that Mike Hatch is a crafty and successful politician — but also that he is well known for not being Minnesota Nice. He plays politics as a bloodsport. As such, there is, within DFL circles, what might be called a Hatchophobe element: DFLers who see Hatch as savvy, dangerous and committed to the use of political subterfuge and hardball tactics to accomplish his political plans.

When Hatch ran for governor in 2006, the Hatchophobes in the AG’s office had thought they were rid of him. Instead, they found themselves with Hatch still hanging around and his ally Swanson in charge.

Perhaps in reaction to their disappointment at what they felt was an extension of the Hatch era, some of the workers — including many of the lawyers in the office — tried to unionize. In response, and despite the fact that the L in DFL stands for “Labor,” Hatch and Swanson pulled out all the stops to defeat the union drive, which led to a lot of firings of staff and bitterness.

I eventually became aware of the alarming level of chaos and agony in the AG’s office, so in May of 2008, during my first year as a MinnPoster, I wrote a two-part series about it, for which I interviewed dozens of people who know and worked for Hatch and Swanson.

In the first piece, I argued that the chaos in the office, and the union drive, traced back to Hatch’s years as AG and the climate of fear he had created in the office. In the second, I explained why so few of those who held negative views and relayed tales about Hatch and Swanson were willing to be quoted by name.

Those employees believed that Hatch would retaliate against anyone who stood up to him. They also feared that because of the leverage the AG’s office held in the legal community, Hatch had — and had shown the willingness to use — power to inflict career-destroying damage on anyone who publicly criticized him or discommoded his political aims.

Naturally, before MinnPost published that series, I asked for interviews with Hatch and Swanson to go over the various claims I had heard during the course of my reporting.

Swanson declined to give me an interview, but Hatch did agree to talk. When the date arrived, though, he canceled without notice, claiming that when he agreed to talk, he had never heard of MinnPost and thought I was with the Rochester Post-Bulletin.

Then he claimed he had discovered his mistake and concluded that I was biased. In a written statement explaining his views of me and of the union activists, he said the controversies in the office were concoctions of “a small cabal of attorneys” who were trying to unionize the office and hiding behind anonymity to throw mud at their bosses.

He also said they were looking “for any scribner to serve as their hand maiden.”

“Scribner” is not a word, although it is the name of a publishing company. I assume he meant “scrivener,” which is an archaic term for a scribe.

A dream deferred

Mike Hatch was not just a crafty politician. He was also a successful one — so good that he and his successor have controlled the AG’s office for the last two decades. But, so far, he hasn’t been quite good enough to realize his long-standing dream: to control both of the two biggest political offices in Minnesota, governor and attorney general.

Hatch has not told me of this dream, but he has told other people who have told me, not for attribution, about how fervently and relentlessly Hatch has striven toward that goal. One source told me that Hatch used to refer to his dream of controlling the Capitol building’s two corner offices as “Park Place and Boardwalk — the whole Monopoly board.”

Hatch wanted to be governor, and he wanted Swanson to be attorney general at the same time. And though he once came within inches of making it a reality, he blew it. And so, in recent years, the dream evolved to having Swanson be governor and another protégé become attorney general.

Among Hatchophobes, it soon became clear that state Rep. Debra Hilstrom, who once worked as an intern in the legal practice Hatch established after leaving the AG’s office, was part of the newly evolved dream. Hatch supported Hilstrom in her unsuccessful 2014 race for secretary of state, a job that perhaps could have elevated her name recognition ahead of a 2018 run for attorney general, but she failed to get the endorsement and dropped out of that race.

This week, in the chaos after the DFL convention, Hatch briefly, strangely, filed as a candidate for AG, saying he would drop out if a better candidate came along, specifically naming three candidates that he could support. One was Hilstrom, who is now seeking the job. Hatch has dropped out.

One last shot?

People who follow these events closely had told me a couple of years ago that if Hatch decided to take his big shot, it would be Swanson for governor and Hilstrom for AG. But when Swanson announced that she was once again seeking the 2018 DFL endorsement for AG a few months ago, I assumed that Hatch had decided this was not the year; the stars were not aligned.

Then, big surprise, Swanson — after leading on the first ballot for the AG’s endorsement — announced her withdrawal from the endorsement contest without even waiting to see if she might have been endorsed on the second or subsequent ballot.

If she was really interested in another term as AG, I couldn’t see how that made much sense. But my sources suggested two possible explanations.

In one theory, Swanson never intended to run for AG and always intended to switch to the governor’s race, and simply used the first ballot outcome as an excuse. In the other theory, Hatch and Swanson prepared for the conventions believing that if U.S. Rep. Tim Walz won the endorsement for governor, he would probably be unbeatable in the DFL primary. In that case, Swanson would have remained in the AG race, with or without the endorsement, and would have been favored to win.

But if it looked like state Rep. Erin Murphy was going to be endorsed for governor, Swanson would jump in, figuring she could win the DFL gubernatorial nomination in a three-way Murphy-Swanson-Walz primary.

According to the second theory, my sources say, the Swanson team was reading the political tea leaves and working the floor to try to figure out how the gubernatorial endorsement was going to turn out. Their belief — and it turned out to be right — was that Murphy would be endorsed.

After dropping out of the AG endorsement contest, Swanson almost immediately let it be known that she might switch to a primary challenge for governor. And Murphy did go on to win the gubernatorial endorsement soon after Swanson dropped out of the AG race.

Then, on Monday, Swanson declared herself a candidate in the DFL primary for governor.

So now it appears that Hatch, who will turn 70 soon after Election Day, has decided to take one last big, crazy shot at the dream, with his two protégés seeking the DFL nominations for the state’s two most important political offices.

Maybe the Hatchophobes, who had suggested to me all year that Hatch was not throwing away his last shot at controlling the two offices of his dream, were onto something. Maybe not. But if you try to follow the bounces of the ball, and don’t understand the history and the modus operandi of the Hatch team, you won’t understand much.

Comments (42)

  1. Submitted by ian wade on 06/08/2018 - 01:16 pm.

    In this day and age

    I wish more DFLers were ” savvy, dangerous and committed to the use of political subterfuge and hardball tactics to accomplish their political plans.”

  2. Submitted by Herbert Davis on 06/08/2018 - 02:05 pm.

    Politics is a bloodsport

    Hatch isn’t perfect but he is a pretty good leader in some respects. If he was a bit more left and favored unionization I’ think he was a real DFL’r and not a Blue Team member of the oligarch party.

    Did you consider that he and Swanson are really just anti-Murphy and pro-Walz?

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/08/2018 - 03:11 pm.

    Interesting politics

    What does it say (if anything) about Swanson and Hilstrom’s qualifications for the office?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/08/2018 - 04:28 pm.

      The Problem, In a Nutshell

      We can debate electability for days, and we can voice endless amounts of gossip about jockeyings for position. At the of it all, however, we still don’t know what anyone stands for.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/08/2018 - 03:14 pm.

    Playing hardball

    We just ended a second dysfunctional legislative session, where Republicans are more interested in scoring political points than getting new legislation passed and signed. Minnesota deserves better, but for as much as I like him, Mark Dayton did too little to call out their ineffectiveness. Some on plays hardball ball holds people responsible.

    When Hatch was in office, he came down hard on local health systems who were denying care to those who showed no ability to pay up front, for which emergency care is illegal. As much as well love our doctors and hospitals, he took action to make the stop.

    If Republicans violate the public trust, they need to have their feet held to the fire until they clean up their act. Someone like Hatch can do that job. Not sweetness and light, but necessary.

    • Submitted by Fred Hyde on 06/11/2018 - 08:27 am.

      Failed legisltive session

      Wow. You obviously failed to follow any of the real issues in the session. For one, Dayton and his finance folks said at the start that no fix in MN taxes was needed to align with the Fed tax changes. Then he vetoed a bill that implemented the fix. The result is all Minnesotans will pay more taxes… even very low income folks. MN taxes will be far more difficult to complete. Every tax preparer will raise rates. All of this directly from multiple tax accountants. Mr. Dayton’s partisan behavior combined with no ability to actually communicate effectively with people has been a huge negative for our state. He has set us back decades. We need new, real and effective leadership.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/11/2018 - 11:10 pm.

        Utter nonsense

        Republicans sent Dayton a terrible bill. All Minnesotans should regard him as a hero for vetoing. Republicans are 100% at fault for any tax issues.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/12/2018 - 09:38 am.

        Set Us Back Decades?

        Which decades would those be?

        Forbes Magazine rates Minnesota as #1 for quality of life, and #13 for economic climate (versus, say, Wisconsin, which comes in at #9 and #19, respectively). If those are the results of Governor Dayton’s “huge negatives,” I’m fine with that.

      • Submitted by Judith Bird on 06/13/2018 - 11:56 am.

        Dayton Veto

        The bill was chock full of horrible legislation. The tax fix should have been stand alone along with many other bills that the Republicans knew would not pass scrutiny by citizens, so they piled it into one bill that had some merits that Dayton could support, but most was unacceptable. This tactic is against our constitution but they did it anyway. The failure of the legislative sessions rest with republicans alone.

    • Submitted by Sharon Schmidt on 06/11/2018 - 05:01 pm.

      Playing Hardball

      We do need someone to come down hard on outside forces that are heavily affecting our health care system. The Democrats need to get some spine, also.

      I didn’t know Hatch when he was in office since I had just moved back to Minnesota, but I do remember the kerfuffle surrounding him. And it just didn’t ring true: I wondered at the time what was behind those claims against Hatch. As a scientist and a health care consumer, I was not happy with the way Minnesota handled health care. Doctors here appeared to be tied to a leash. The system in is much more expensive and complicated than what I experienced for three decades in Maryland.

      There needs to be far more oversight in this state on where our health care dollars are going and who is really running the show. Swanson did a very good job as Attorney General at standing up to big corporations so if she and Debra Hilstrom are Hatch’s protégées then he can’t be all bad. These two women are strong and work for our good. I have never heard them be rude to anyone, either.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Weyandt on 06/08/2018 - 03:35 pm.

    Not very loyal

    I find it interesting that the last minute folks who filed on the DFL side have acted so selfishly. They have been happy to reside under the umbrella of the party for years but suddenly find it expedient to play games and ignore the party. I wonder if a few decades ago if the party elders played these sorts of games to prevent the current crowd of crows from assuming power. My memory may be weak but I don’t recall the Perpich, Spannaus, or Sieben posses from being so self centered and selfish. Really, it’s not like this bunch have done much to help the party retain power.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/08/2018 - 04:11 pm.

      Nope

      The endorsement process is not the party. The endorsement process is a small, unrepresentative group of out-of-touch people who pick unelectable candidates through an undemocratic system.

      Participating in an actual election where voters are not disenfranchised is not selfish. Its democracy.

  6. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 06/08/2018 - 04:27 pm.

    Hatch

    Why focus on him. He is not figuring in the race. Lori Swanson should have waited out two more ballots. She is more appropriate for Attorney General. She has no state experience. Rep. Erin Murphy is the endorsed candidate and she is an outstanding candidate. She was the Majority Leader, so she really knows the governor’s office more than the rest of them. She has stellar social skills. I would rather see an RN be out next governor because to be a nurse you do have to have great social skills. Governors do need to have great social skills. I do think there are too many people running and when you have such an excellent candidate it does not make sense. Walz has changed views on a number of things and why he thinks he’s better than Erin Murphy is beyond me. He has never been the Majority Leader like her. At forums Erin was supremely popular. I saw few people talking to Walz. A whole lot of us women want a female governor and Erin worked hard for it and deserves it.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/10/2018 - 09:03 pm.

      Nope

      Murphy has zero chance of winning a statewide election, and her terrible Lt. gov pick sealed it. Winning the endorsment means nothing – a DFL endorsed non-incumbent candidate hasn’t won since the early 70s.

      Murphy should just drop out and let the viable candidates compete in the primary.

    • Submitted by Judith Bird on 06/13/2018 - 12:01 pm.

      Better Candidate

      Walz is a teacher, legislator and represents what is best in our state. He chooses to represent the people who elected him. He is a Minnesotan, not a Metropolitan. He can win.

  7. Submitted by David Markle on 06/08/2018 - 05:43 pm.

    What they stand for

    Seems much clearer, when considering Walz.

  8. Submitted by Susan Khatri on 06/08/2018 - 11:27 pm.

    Eric, Eric, Eric,

    Can you see how offensive and demeaning it is to women everywhere and to these two fine women candidates to portray them as you have done as the mere puppets of a Mike Hatch??

    Over and over again you assert this is HIS dream and HE is pulling the strings and HE would be “in control” of both the governor’s office and the attorney general office. Get real. Stop demeaning and trivializing these women and their accomplishments and leadership.

    Hatch’s remark that he would withdraw from the AG race if/when someone qualified entered the race reads more like a slam at Keith E.,(and also Matt P. of course) than any pulling puppet strings on Debra H. Recall Keith was the only major democrat to support the infamous Matt Entenza (his law school classmate) when Entenza did his last minute screwball filing against Rebecca Otto for state auditor, as if it was a surefire path to governor. The bad blood between Entenza and Hatch dates back to Entenza’s “investigation” of Hatch when both were seeking the AG office a dozen years ago.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/10/2018 - 03:28 pm.

      I share your shock and dismay at Eric Black’s disdain for these two women, given that the whole article is about Mike Hatch’s puppet-master control of them. Wow!

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/09/2018 - 11:58 am.

    I appreciate the insight

    This is the kind of article we need, something tries to explain what happened rather than merely describe what happened. I don’t however see Hatch as a great or successful politician, although he be a force of sorts within the Party. And I’m not sure he can be the puppet master he’s described as being.

  10. Submitted by Janet Contursi on 06/09/2018 - 02:09 pm.

    Black clearly doesn’t understand Mike Hatch

    Since when does mudslinging and name calling pass for journalism? How can a “veteran” journalist write an entire piece on Hatch without even mentioning the good he did for the people in his battles with the health insurance companies? This is a transparent hit piece loaded with innuendo. And, just for the record, Hatch didn’t lose his shot to be governor because of some “non-MN-nice” remark to a fragile reporter. He lost it because certain TV “reporters” ran a hit piece on him, full of distortions, a few days before the vote. That was the media’s revenge for their perceived slight from Hatch. The fact that he has done more for Minnesotans than any other public figure did not matter to the media — they just wanted their pound of flesh. And it cost Minnesotans.

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/09/2018 - 09:51 pm.

      Please…..

      “Since when does mudslinging and name calling pass for journalism?”

      Come on Janet! You never complained when Mr. Black called the GOP and Trump names in the name of “real journalism?”

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/10/2018 - 09:51 am.

      Hatch lost…

      Hatch lost because he was just another in a long line of weak DFL candidates. No strong candidate loses a commanding “lead” days before the vote. The idea that Hatch was on some kind of inexorable road to victory until some news story “broke” is a comfortable (and frequent) narrative for DFLers who don’t want to admit they put a weak candidate on the ballot.

      • Submitted by Paul Busch on 06/10/2018 - 12:07 pm.

        Yep

        It’s part of the dysfunction of the DFL machine

      • Submitted by Judith Bird on 06/13/2018 - 04:46 pm.

        Hatch Losing the Governorship

        His running mate, Judie Dutcher was out of her element. She was a metro legislator, but clearly not versed in greater MN issues. Which, by the way is why we need a candidate not Metrocentric. Nevertheless, she was asked about Ethanol and making it mandatory in gasoline sales. She never heard of Ethanol and drew a blank. It was then that Hatch was asked about his running mates not knowing about ethanol that he lost his temper and lashed out to the press. Neither had the stuff.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/10/2018 - 03:31 pm.

      The Function of Journalism

      I don’t think you appreciate fully the purpose and limitations of a story like this.

      Mr. Black has written a piece that explains what happened with the DFL endorsement, and some background regarding how and why it happened. It was not intended to be a complete resume of Mr. Hatch’s accomplishments, or a comprehensive history of his time in office. It’s a story about current events.

      Calling this a “hit piece” is no different than the right-wing victims who whine about “bias” when Trump’s lies are called out.

  11. Submitted by Jean Schiebel on 06/10/2018 - 10:59 am.

    Bias is showing

    Lori Swanson and Debra Hilstrom are both intelligent, qualified women. They are not anyone’s puppets
    As for Mike Hatch, he recognizes their talent and has every right to support them. If Lori and Debra had been male .I doubt your commrnts would be the same

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/10/2018 - 03:35 pm.

      Fox Lite

      “If Lori and Debra had been male .I doubt your commrnts would be the same” How is that any different from conservatives sniffing that liberals would be okay with [insert latest Trump malfeasance] if Obama done it?”

      Why is it not okay to point out that they have been Hatch proteges, and that he is actively promoting their candidacies?

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/10/2018 - 10:07 pm.

      Would you prefer

      Swanson and Hilstrom are just as duplicitous and cutthroat as ( (their well documented mentor and sponsor) Hatch. THEIR decisions toward personal ambition have thrown the outcome of any number of races in doubt, and could have a disastrous effect on many innocent lives should it allow Republicans access to the absolute power they seek. They should, on the basis of THEIR decision, be disqualified from obtaining any party support, for any office, again. Is that showing the proper level of respect?

  12. Submitted by Miriam Segall on 06/10/2018 - 05:08 pm.

    Maybe there’s a reason for all this

    Maybe I don’t follow DFL intraparty politics closely enough, but this whole last-minute candidacies business seems to me just a lot of supreme selfishness at a time when I would have hoped that DFLers would concentrate on the imperative of winning some difficult races. I’m not fond of this particular conspiracy theory, but I also find it hard to believe that so many leading DFLers have suddenly gone out of their minds.

  13. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 06/11/2018 - 05:07 pm.

    Eric: You’re right about Hatch

    Eric, your analysis is spot on and filled in some important gaps for me. The Swanson maneuver had Hatch’s fingerprints all over it, but I didn’t know that Hilstrom was a Hatchling. Now it all makes sense, and explains why he didn’t mention Keith Ellison as a qualified candidate to replace him.

    And the Trumpian responses you’ve received are the kind of canned spam I’ve seen Hatch supporters post before. I seem to remember AG employees (not disclosed as such) posting public defenses of him here and elsewhere. And as for Mike Hatch recognizing talent, explain why he fired or forced out the cream of Minnesota’s public law bar while he was on office. Read Eric’s expose from 2008 for the full story.

    Politically, I suspect Hatch has his supporters among older line DFLers, and perhaps he has a better feel for the DFLer base in greater Minnesota. They seem to have voted for him before and nominated him over the far more qualified (and endorsed) Ember Reichgott Junge for AG in 2006, and as you say, he came close to winning himself that year. But I have a hard time believing that anyone would choose Lori Swanson over Tim Walz or Erin Murphy.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/12/2018 - 09:47 am.

      Some Questions Answered

      This does shed some light on the machinations, but I’d like to know just what Swanson’s game was all about. This is all Lori Swanson’s fault. She’s the prime mover here, even if she acted on Hatch’s desires. Mostly I see two scenarios, and neither flatter Swanson.

      If Swanson had an idea that she wouldn’t fare well at the convention and was planning on skipping the AG race in favor of the guv race, that just looks very duplicitous the way she went about it.

      If Swanson made a spur of the moment decision, she looks erratic and unstable. Running for state wide office is a major thing, and if someone does it on a whim, I’m very unlikely to support those who don’t seem to know what they want.

      And what to make of her not speaking at the convention? Was that planned? Or was it poor execution by her and her campaign? Either way, it reflects poorly on her.

      • Submitted by Judith Bird on 06/13/2018 - 12:11 pm.

        Not new to running for Gov

        Lori Swanson made it known a couple of years ago she was aiming for the governorship. She was going to DFL events all over the state, bringing a retinue of staffers and handlers, always with a photographer. She was teeing up her candidacy long ago, and clearly knew she would never get the endorsement was fully prepared to challenge the endorsee. Mike Hatch has done dozens of fundraisers for her at his home. DOZENS!! In the last few months too. Clearly he is driving her career and his power. While this is the year of the woman candidate, Walz is the candidate who can best represent the state of MN and its citizens.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 06/12/2018 - 01:28 pm.

      Let me make it easier for you

      I’d vote for Swanson over Murphy without batting an eye. Swanson is a winner, smart as a whip and was unafraid to take on the Trump administration, predatory lending and for-profit colleges.

  14. Submitted by Janet Robert on 06/12/2018 - 08:07 am.

    Veteran Reporter or Hack?

    Eric,
    How about reporting on the merits of the candidates, what they have accomplished and what that portends about their future, rather than some “gotcha” tip you got from an insider who is furious with the candidate?

    Why not line up the credentials of all the candidates in all the races – what they actually accomplished rather than their media celebrity status? Or would that be too much work?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/12/2018 - 12:30 pm.

      Back Story

      What’s wrong with hearing the back story? I think it’s more than reasonable to find out what happened over a few tumultuous days in MN politics. It’s more than reasonable to ask any candidate what his or her motivations are under the best of circumstances, and even more so for Swanson.

      I hope Swanson is asked specifically how she reached her decision to run or governor.

  15. Submitted by Mike Finley on 06/13/2018 - 10:29 am.

    Cool inside dope

    Years ago — 1987? — I was a re[porter for a banking magazine, and I knew nothing about banking, but first thing, I had to interview Hatch. I liked him, because he sized up my inexperience immediately, and spent time explaining stuff and giving me good quotes. I like that, of course — but I also knew that he wanted to make use of me as a conduit.

    Years later I walked door to door for him in Highland Park, when he ran for governor. Door after door was slammed in my face. These people had very negative feelings about the guy. After doing about a hundred houses, I threw the remaining flyers away. He had revealed too much about himself to the voters.

  16. Submitted by Reino Paaso on 06/13/2018 - 02:34 pm.

    Hatchophobes

    I take the term to mean someone who who has an extreme and unreasonable fear of Hatch. Is it because he has been very politically ambitious, mentored people who developed a personal loyalty to him, or is it a word to imply that there is something nefarious in Hatch’s political machinations? What does the man want? The article only infers that he would like to be some sort of puppet master. Ask the question why would he seek that influence? Assuming influence can be used for good or evil, what will he do with it? The article told me nothing of that, but it seemed clear that there are those who fear it.

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