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In run for attorney general, Hilstrom touts experience as both legislator and prosecutor

“You have to make sure you’re taking on whoever is breaking the law,” Hilstrom says. “Whether it’s the president or the secretary of education. I’m willing to take on whoever it is.”

Debra Hilstrom: “I’m the workhorse, not the show horse. I will put my head down and I will defend Minnesotans and protect consumers.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

How quickly did Debra Hilstrom’s political life change?

On Friday, June 1, the Brooklyn Center lawmaker was standing in for Lori Swanson at a DFL convention meeting of the feminist caucus. Hilstrom was telling delegates in Rochester why they should support Swanson for a fourth term as Minnesota attorney general. Three days later, Hilstrom was a candidate for attorney general herself, becoming one of four candidates to announce for the position after Swanson shifted her efforts toward a run for governor.

It wasn’t unfamiliar terrain for Hilstrom, who has represented a DFL district in the state House of Representatives since 2001. She had been a candidate for attorney general from July of 2017 until February of this year, a period during which Swanson first explored a gubernatorial run. After Swanson initially decided to stay and run for another term as AG, Hilstrom was so sure she would be running for another term in the House that she discarded 10,000 pieces of literature that had been printed for her original campaign for attorney general.

Hilstrom tells the story in response to suspicions by some that she had notice of Swanson’s plans before other candidates for the office. No, she says, she was just as surprised as the rest when Swanson shifted back to running for governor. “Everyone was asking me what happened,” Hilstrom recalled during an interview last week. “A lot of folks have asked me whether or not I knew. I didn’t. I thought I was running for the Minnesota House.”

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How her campaign was reborn is interesting but doesn’t mean she doesn’t face the same challenge as her DFL rivals: building a campaign quickly for what will be a sprint to the Aug. 14 primary. She will share the DFL ballot with endorsed DFL candidate Matt Pelikan, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, former state commerce commissioner Mike Rothman and former Ramsey County attorney Tom Foley.

How will she stand out? “I’m the workhorse, not the show horse. I will put my head down and I will defend Minnesotans and protect consumers,” she said.

Hilstrom also talks about how her jobs as a legislator and a prosecutor for Anoka County allowed her to see issues from multiple perspectives. “I have a unique expertise, having both written the law and defended it — as a legislator and then as a prosecutor,” Hilstrom said.

One example is her work on improving laws protecting against elder abuse. She said she helped create a 1-800 service to report elder abuse and financial exploitation. “People didn’t know if they should call the police, if they should call adult protection, which county should they call, who do they call,” she said. “Now they call one place.”

She also updated laws on financial exploitation of vulnerable adults which increased enforcement. When she joined the Anoka County attorney office there had been one case brought against financial exploitation in a decade. When she resigned to run for attorney general, she had 17 open felony files. In between, she had helped make the law clearer and easier to enforce as well as led training sessions around the state, she said.

“I was able to see this is what happens when you pass a law, this is how you how defend it in court, and this is how you fix it if there are issues,” she said. 

Beginnings in Brooklyn Center

Hilstrom’s entry to elected office came after a Brooklyn Center city council meeting. She had attended the meeting with her father, a union heavy equipment operator who wanted to testify on an issue. During that testimony, one of the council members dismissed the testimony from her father, who, he said, couldn’t even read. 

“That had been a secret he kept my entire life,” she said. “It was in the paper. It was on the local cable station, and he was humiliated.” Hilstrom wrote a letter to the newspaper saying that while council members can disagree with community members, they should be treated with respect.

That letter led to suggestions that she run for the council herself. She did, she won and she served there for six years. Then, in 2000, she won a contested DFL endorsement for the 40B House seat, a position she has held ever since. In 2014, Hilstrom ran for secretary of state but dropped out after the DFL endorsement went to incumbent Steve Simon. “When I was running for secretary of state, many people said to me you should be running for attorney general, that it was a better fit for the issues I’d worked on in the Legislature.”

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Of her legal career, Hilstom said: “I did things a little bit backward.” What she means is that she was a legislator first and then went to law school at William Mitchell. She was on the House-Senate conference committee for the revenue bill while studying for the bar examination. She returned to the Capitol between taking bar examination sections to vote on the bonding bill.

“I served in the Legislature while going to law school and I just got more and more interested in protections of consumers and vulnerable people,” she said. Much of the work of the attorney general office involves taking calls from residents who are having problems. In fact, her first connection with the attorney general came 28 years ago when she was pregnant and her health insurance co-pay went from zero to $500. She called the office for help with her claim.

“While many of those calls don’t get national attention, to individuals those might be the most important issues in their everyday life,” Hilstrom said. “Their access to housing. Their access to health care coverage. People who are improperly collecting debt from them. So I want to continue to be a strong consumer advocate.

“But you have to make sure you’re taking on whoever is breaking the law, whether it is the smallest of corporations or the largest,” she said. “Whether it’s the president or the secretary of education. I’m willing to take on whoever it is. No one is too big to be above the law and no one is too small to be below it’s protection.”

The question of federal issues

One of the issues in the DFL primary is how active should Minnesota’s AG be in taking on the federal government under President Trump. Democratic attorneys general have led the legal challenges to the travel ban, the use of a citizenship question on the Census and now the separation of families at the southern border. Hilstrom said she would look at how Minnesota could be most helpful.

“It is important to join cases where Minnesotans are being harmed,” she said, citing cases involving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals under which many of Minnesota’s “dreamers” are directly harmed. She said the separation of refugee families has a direct connection to the state because some refugees will be held here.

There are also cases where the state has special expertise that could be beneficial to the litigation, she said.  “But I will not be just talking about issues that I can’t do something about. I will be working on issues that we can actually have a direct impact on, that will benefit Minnesotans,” she said.

Hilstrom said there are legal strategies at play that make it less likely that a state like Minnesota will be in the lead. That is because it is in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals with a more conservative set of judges. It is common, therefore, that states like Hawaii, California and Washington take the lead because appeals would be argued at the more liberal 9th Circuit.

“One of the reasons you join lawsuits instead of bringing them is, even if you win in Minnesota and you go to the 8th Circuit and they overturn it, you have set a bad precedent for the rest of the country,” she said. “So you want to be strategic where you bring cases.”

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She also noted that there are 130 lawyers in the AG office who also have duties to represent agencies that are residents of the state. “So you have to make sure you are allocating your resources wisely and taking on the fights that you need to be joining in.”

Hilstrom also said she supports the strategy used by Swanson against 3M for pollution to water resources in the East Metro. “Minnesota needed to sue to get the water cleaned up,” she said. “Whether or not it should have been tried or should have been settled, each lawyer makes those determinations based on how judges rule and what evidence is coming in and what the impact on your case is going to be.”

The $5 billion lawsuit ended in a negotiated $850 million settlement — the third largest environmental settlement in U.S. legal history. But there are critics — especially among Republican legislators — that too much of the settlement will go to a private law firm that took the case on a contingency basis. That is, they would be compensated for both lawyer time and expenses of the environmental investigation only if they won.

Hilstrom said the use of the outside firm was approved by a legislative panel that included Republicans. After the settlement, she said, some Republicans in the Legislature complained and also tried to decide where the money would go.

But she also said the budget for the attorney general has been reduced, making it harder to handle complex litigation without using outside lawyers and firms. “Republicans have been cutting the attorney general’s budget for as long as I have been in the Legislature because if you have fewer attorneys you are able to bring fewer cases to do consumer protection work and to take on the industries that are harming Minnesotans.”

Through the end of May, Hilstrom’s suspended AG campaign had raised just under $12,000 and had $240 on hand. The next report is due to the Campaign Finance Board by July 30.