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

Allow me to offer some vital background needed to make sense of something widely understood in DFL circles — if seldom discussed explicitly in public.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.