For the first time since 1994, Susan Gaertner won’t be on the ballot for county attorney when Ramsey County voters go to the polls next week for the primary election.
Gaertner announced last year that she was stepping down after 16 years on the job and taking a stab at running for governor. That didn’t work out, but her departure set the stage for an interesting three-way race to fill her spot.
Now voters — at least those who show up for the early primary Aug. 10 — will narrow the candidates down to two for the Nov. 2 general election.
Running are John Choi, former St. Paul city attorney; Tammy Pust, a Roseville City Council member with lengthy legal experience; and David Schultz, a former assistant Minnesota attorney general now with a law firm.
All three are well-qualified, good candidates and good people, says John Wodele, who knows something about what it takes to win the Ramsey County Attorney’s race. He’s married to Gaertner, and was the longtime assistant to Tom Foley, the previous county attorney.
He notes that even though this is a nonpartisan race, Choi has the DFL endorsement, and in a primary, that endorsement can carry a lot of weight, especially this year, when the primary is a month earlier than usual and may escape the attention of many voters who don’t start paying attention to politics until after the State Fair.
Also this year’s highly contested battle for the DFL gubernatorial nomination could draw party regulars to the polls at a higher percentage than those in other less-contested parties.
Will that guarantee Choi a berth in November? Probably, says Wodele.
But Pust, the Roseville council member with extensive legal experience, isn’t sure.
“I understand that the endorsement carries a lot of weight and value, but in this election cycle and this race, we’re hearing from a lot of people who like our position that the county attorney position is nonpartisan and that the DFL Party should not be involved in the courtrooms of Ramsey County,” she said.
And Schultz points to the 1994 race, when the DFL endorsee, Bob Long, was defeated in the primary by Gaertner and Tom Fabel. Gaertner went on to win the general election.
“There’s a certain base that John gets just by virtue of the DFL endorsement; it certainly gives him a leg up,” Schultz said.
Choi said he’s not going to rely on the endorsement to carry him through.
“Telling me to vote for someone just because they have the DFL endorsement is a loser position; voters want to hire the best qualified person, so I’m running on my experience as city attorney and making a difference on a high level,” he said.
Choi said he’s spending lots of time and energy on direct voter contact — hitting people who are likely to vote with direct mail pieces and phone calls. Some will get four mailings from the campaign, others fewer, depending on their past voting records.
Pust, too, is calling voters to get the word out about the election and her campaign. It’s not easy. “We still get some saying they didn’t know there was a primary for our race, or that they didn’t know the county attorney is elected,” she said.
A big push is getting supporters to call their friends and make personal pitches for the Pust campaign, she said.
“A lot of people have feelings about politics these days that aren’t very positive, but if they hear something about a candidate from their friends, they’re more likely to pay attention,” she said.
And she’s got a giant billboard on southbound I-35E, just as you’re entering downtown St. Paul from the northern suburbs.
Schultz said he identified likely voters early on, looked for likely new voters he could mobilize and then produced a series of three letters. Two of the three — on how experience and leadership matter — have been mailed. The third — justice matters — will be mailed this week.
“We know that not everyone opens the envelope, so we’ve supplemented the letters with flyers,” he said.
Lots of experience
During the campaign, Choi has touted his managerial experience and innovative crime-prevention programs initiated during his time as St. Paul city attorney. He also cites support from current and former lawyers in that office to show it was a collegial, as well as effective, reign.
Pust and Schultz, though, say their trial experience is more important to running a good operation.
The three candidates have been regulars on the parade route this summer, hitting 10 or 12 local community celebrations where they see each other and chat.
“All three of us like one another; it’s a congenial race, and we all agree that the voters have three good choices,” Choi said.
“We’re spending a lot of quality time together,” Schultz said.
Here’s a look at the three:
Choi was appointed St. Paul City Attorney in 2005 by Mayor Chris Coleman but stepped down earlier this year, saying he wanted to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest while he was campaigning for the county job. He’s now working for a Minneapolis law firm.
Choi says his priorities in office will include prosecuting gun crimes, combating domestic violence and implementing strategies to keep residents safe. He says he’ll also work to keep kids and their schools safe.
In addition to the party nod, Choi’s campaign site offers a lengthy list of endorsements from labor unions, including the public employee union that includes city and county prosecutors. Also, the St. Paul Police Federation and Firefighters Local 21.
He also has the extensive backing of elected officials in the county, including U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, all seven St. Paul City Council members, five of the seven Ramsey County commissioners, members of the county’s state legislative contingent, as well as city leaders from the suburbs.
Choi also has the support of four county attorneys from around the state, three city attorneys, three former U.S. attorneys, St. Paul’s current police chief and his two predecessors, as well as former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Currently a member of the Roseville City Council and a partner in a Minneapolis law firm, Pust has worked as a city prosecutor, been a partner in other law firms and was an assistant commissioner in the state’s education agency.
She said she’s handled more than 50 trials in federal and state courts, and had four years of experience prosecuting crimes for the city of Golden Valley.
She wants to keep violent and chronic offenders off the streets and protect children, seniors and the disabled by seeking tougher sentences for domestic violence and exploitation crimes. To prevent crime, she says she’ll work with victims of domestic abuse to bring offenders to trial. She also will help at-risk kids with intervention and school programs to improve their success at school, which, when lacking, “is the greatest predictor of delinquent behavior and juvenile court involvement.”
Pust’s campaign site features supporters, too, including former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Esther Tomljanovich; former St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel; Ann Berry, a longtime community leader in Roseville; and Debra Page, a partner at Lindquist & Vennum law firm.
Schultz served as an assistant Minnesota attorney general for 11 years and now practices with a large Minneapolis law firm.
He says his trial experience will help him best prosecute criminals and protect victims. He has plans to safeguard children and seniors, while going after white-collar criminals and gang members.
He says he can make the office’s stressed budget go further by getting additional, innovative grant funding, streamlining case evaluations to resolve cases quickly and implementing immediate consequences for probation violators to break the cycle of repeat offenses.
Schultz, too, lists plenty of high-powered supporters on his campaign site but isn’t particularly looking for elected officials. He told the Pioneer Press that he’s not after endorsements from politicians but “from lawyers who understand the legal system. … In legal circles I have the strongest reputation.”
He does list some politicians, though, including former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser.
Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politic and other topics. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.