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Instead of just being depressed by Trump’s victory, Matt Pelikan decided to run for Minnesota attorney general

Pelikan wants to see a more progressive AG’s office.

Matt Pelikan did what the others wouldn’t do: He challenged Swanson immediately rather than wait for the office to be open.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

When presented with the “why are you running” question, Matt Pelikan breaks his answer into two parts.

The first is why is he running at all? The second is why he ran for attorney general, an office already held by a DFLer, one with three statewide election victories under her belt.

Pelikan said he ran as a result of the 2016 election of Donald Trump. He’d left a job with a Minneapolis law office and volunteered in Ohio to monitor and fight voter suppression. Trump’s victory left him “depressed, dispirited,” he said during a recent interview.

“The only way forward was for progressives to get more involved, not less,” he said. And since he had already been active helping causes and other candidates, the way to become more involved was to run for office himself.

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He considered running for the state Legislature, either in Minneapolis or in his hometown of Northfield. He opted instead for attorney general, after hearing other candidates say they would run, but only if Lori Swanson did not seek a fourth term and ran for governor instead.

“I just thought this office was too important to go through two years not talking about how it could be stronger and how it could be more progressive,” Pelikan said. The current attorney general’s office wasn’t doing enough, he said. “I saw that this was a time when we needed the attorney general’s office to be on the front lines.”

So Pelikan did what the others wouldn’t do: He challenged Swanson immediately rather than wait for the office to be open. After spending the winter and spring trying unsuccessfully to engage her, he delivered a well-received speech at the Rochester convention aimed sharply at the incumbent.

“I am asking you to make a change,” he told delegates. “It’s hard. I get it. So I’m going to speak the ugly truth for a moment”: that Swanson hasn’t been as aggressive as other attorneys general in fighting Trump-administration moves on net neutrality or the immigration ban.

He didn’t get more delegate votes than she did but he got close, blocking Swanson from getting to the 60 percent threshold needed for party endorsement. When she withdrew from consideration after that one ballot, Pelikan won the endorsement himself.

Then everything changed. Swanson left Rochester and began putting a campaign for governor back together. On Monday she sat with U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan and announced a Swanson-Nolan ticket for governor of Minnesota.

It’s the understatement of the 2018 primary to say that the race Pelikan finds himself in now is different from the one he jumped into last year. Not necessarily harder. Definitely not easier. Just different. Swanson’s name won’t appear next to his on the Aug. 14 ballot. Instead, Pelikan is running against U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, state Rep. Debra Hilstrom, former state commerce commissioner Mike Rothman and former Ramsey County attorney Tom Foley.

“We always expected a primary, a very tough primary,” he said. “I was under no illusion that obtaining the DFL endorsement would mean I wasn’t going to have a primary. It turns out I was only half right. It’s just a different primary.”

Pelikan said he thinks he can appeal to progressive DFLers in a primary because he was willing to take on the campaign when no one else was “because if you’re only going to take on the easy fights you’re not going to make a difference.” And he said he thinks it is a message with appeal statewide.

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“This campaign is about having a progressive vision for all Minnesotans,” he said. “That means within the diverse communities right here in the Twin Cities but also within the diverse communities across Minnesota. People are eager to see a new generation of dynamic, bold, progressive leadership. They are eager to see elected leaders who have some fire in the belly to fight for a fair economy and economic justice.”

Pelikan says his top three issues are gun safety, the opioid epidemic and beefing up the state’s enforcement of antitrust and fair competition laws.

“It’s essential that we get an economy that’s actually working for people, a fair economy,” he said.

Standing up

Pelikan grew up in Northfield where his father worked for the public radio station and his mother was on the Carleton College staff. He says that he absorbed his politics from his mother, who had been a progressive activist in Chicago in the 1960s. He also says that his outlook was shaped in part by being gay and, according to his campaign biography, “he faced the isolation and targeting that many queer youth experience.” He talks about how his life experiences conditioned him to stand up to bullies.

He attended St. Olaf and then the University of Minnesota law school. After graduating, he was a law clerk for two different state Supreme Court justices: Paul H. Anderson and David L. Lillehaug. He was then a private-practice attorney before his campaign work in Ohio in 2016.

Pelikan has been active in political causes and campaigns, often serving on finance committees helping raise money. He’s still on the phone seeking donations, this time for his own campaign. Pelikan said that while some are excited about the attorney general campaign, people in the state have only so much “political bandwidth.” Having so many contested races — governor, AG, at least four close congressional races, control of the state House of Representatives — leaves candidates fighting for a share of attention and donations.

At the time of the last filing with the state Campaign Finance Board, Pelikan had raised around $13,000 and had $2,100 on hand. The next report is due July 30.

Like others in the race, Pelikan said the high profile of attorneys general in legal challenges to Trump policy, especially on immigration, as well as suits against drug makers over the opioid epidemic has made the position more important. Immigration is also a personal issue because his partner is from South Africa.

“But one part of the office that is missing right now is use of the office as a platform to advocate for progressive policies and to add the voice of the attorney general to the important debates that we’re having,” Pelikan said.

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“The attorney general is empowered to vindicate the civil and  constitutional rights of Minnesotans,” he said. “That comes with a special responsibility to stand up for people who don’t already have access to great representation. It’s not only valid, it’s essential,” he said of the suits. “I think it would be nonfeasance for an attorney general to not stand up to any violation of the rights of the people in Minnesota.”

Pelikan said he recognizes that the office’s legal resources are not limitless. He would, therefore, place two topics at the top of his list: a fair economy and standing up for civil rights. Pelikan said he would be willing to let other states take the lead on some cases, lending his endorsement rather than his legal firepower.

Pelikan also said he thinks the attorney general can be more active in state government in representing agencies and commissions. The trend is for those agencies to hire their own staff attorneys and stop relying on what should be the state’s law firm.

“To me that’s an inexplicable delegation of authority from the attorney general to the state executive agencies,” he said. “You have the opportunity to provide advice, to provide your own view as to what the law means. So being an active participant and having strong relationships throughout state government is another way the attorney general can ensure that the people of Minnesota are represented, that progressive politics have a voice throughout the executive departments.”

That won’t change overnight, he said. Agencies have their own legal departments and “it’s not a situation where an attorney general is going to ride in on a horse and say you’re all fired and we’re going back to the way it was 20 years ago.” But he said he is interested in “reasserting the attorney general’s authority.”

“Some of it is going to change just by nature of the fact that if you have a robust, responsive attorney general’s office, the state executive agencies are going to view is as more of a partnership,” Pelikan said.