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Is running the Department of Commerce great training for being Minnesota attorney general? That’s the case Mike Rothman is making

“It was great experience for being the state’s consumer watchdog,” Rothman said of his seven years at Commerce. “Being in Congress or being in the Legislature in the minority, you can’t compare the accomplishments that I have.”

Mike Rothman is faced with the task of standing out among a suddenly crowded field of DFLers, all with strong connections to both the party and the state’s legal community.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The first big decision a prospective DFL candidate for attorney general had to make was deciding — in a matter a few days — whether to run for attorney general at all.

That was a little easier for former Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. He had quit his job with the Dayton administration in November of 2017 to begin putting together his AG campaign. And though his plans were put on hold when current Attorney General Lori Swanson announced in January that she was staying put, Rothman was as ready as anyone to move ahead when Swanson changed her mind in early June.

“I had decided just to suspend the campaign in case there might be a small chance that the race would change,” he said. “And who knows, people were advising me to be ready to go in case something like this happened.”

Now that it “happened,” he is faced with the task of standing out among a suddenly crowded field of DFLers, all with strong connections to both the party and the state’s legal community.

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Rothman’s candidacy focuses on his experience in the courtroom and his time running the Department of Commerce, a state office of similar size and comparable duties. None of the other candidates have managed a large statewide agency, he said. And in 30 years as a lawyer, Rothman was both a trial and appellate attorney.

“It was great experience for being the state’s consumer watchdog,” Rothman said this week of his seven years at Commerce. “The attorney general’s office is a great opportunity to continue to protect Minnesotans. My legal background, compared to the others, is much stronger. I just believe that profile is important for the office. Being in Congress or being in the Legislature in the minority, you can’t compare the accomplishments that I have.”

Jumping in

Rothman is one of four DFLers who jumped into the race once Swanson opted to renew her campaign for governor on June 4. Like Rothman, state Rep. Debra Hilstrom and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison had been planning AG campaigns last year when Swanson was first considering running for governor. Another candidate, former Ramsey County attorney Tom Foley, got into the race only after Swanson got out for good, while a fifth, DFL endorsed candidate Matt Pelikan, had been challenging Swanson’s re-election all along, and stayed in once she opted to run for governor.

Rothman said he had been “reading tea leaves” to gauge Swanson’s intentions, though he had no insider knowledge of her plans until she announced them, which happened the day before the filing deadline for the 2018 primary.

Rothman had attended the state DFL convention in Rochester on its first day, but mostly as a longtime party activist (he has chaired past conventions), not as a prospective candidate. On the second day of the convention, when delegates failed to endorse an attorney general candidate on the first ballot — and when Swanson dropped out of consideration — Rothman was watching from home in Minnetonka.

“All I was hearing was what the public was hearing,” Rothman said. But once the rumors began to swirl, he said he started thinking about what would have to be done to restart his campaign. When Swanson announced for governor the Monday after the convention, he activated his campaign website, announced his intentions and filed on Tuesday. At the time, his campaign account had about $35,000 in the bank.

Like others who got into the race after the DFL endorsed Pelikan, Rothman has had to respond to complaints that he is disrespecting the party process. Rothman said he had intended to run and had been involved in the early phases of the endorsement process when Swanson initially chose a re-election campaign. “I believe that it’s important for Minnesotans to have the option of choices,” he said.

The people’s lawyer?

Rothman grew up in Minneapolis and Chaska before attending Carleton College and the University of Minnesota Law School. He was a clerk for a state court of appeals judge and was a state Senate legal staffer before moving to Los Angeles in 1993. He went west to be near his now wife, Shari Latz Rothman, who was getting a masters degree at the time, and his work for a law firm there focused on insurance company insolvency, a subject he had worked on as a Senate staff lawyer.

He returned to Minnesota in 2002 and joined Winthrop & Weinstine, where he specialized in insurance law. In 2011, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed him as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, a job he held until resigning in November. The department regulates a number of businesses, including insurance and securities. It also manages the state health exchanges, investigates consumer complaints, and represents ratepayers in cases before the state Public Utilities Commission.

Commerce is an agency that doesn’t usually attract a lot of media or criticism. Yet during Rothman’s tenure, a pair of Republican lawmakers to call for an investigation after a federal judge ordered the state to pay nearly a million dollars in legal fees to a windshield repair company that had been a target of a state insurance investigation. There were also allegations that the department didn’t act quickly enough against Community Action of Minneapolis for misusing public dollars.

Rothman said he is proud of the work he did at Commerce, especially since he followed a Republican administration during which consumer protection efforts had “withered away,” he said. “My goal was to completely revamp and overhaul the department and make it a strong consumer advocate.” To that end, the office added caseworkers and increased the number of actions it took on behalf of consumers by 500 percent, he said.

After a tornado hit north Minneapolis and northwest Minnesota experienced major flooding, the office was in the field helping with insurance claims and complaints. “We built a culture of consumer advocacy,” he said. “People came to work for me because my overriding goal is to give them the opportunity to do great things. And as attorney general I’ll do the same thing.”

Like Ellison, Rothman is inviting voters to make him “the People’s Lawyer.”

So what does that mean?

“It’s the people of Minnesota who have their own attorney to help them stand up for their rights, to stand up against big corporate interests — both bringing actions and defending the people of Minnesota,” he said.

He wants to emphasize the consumer protection duties of the office, not just lawsuits against companies that violate the law, but with caseworkers who help individuals navigate complaints and find remedies that don’t require litigation.

In offering his vision of the office, Rothman doesn’t directly criticize Swanson but admits there are things he would do differently. “There is work that can and needs to be done in a bold way to build up the strength of the consumer advocacy of the attorney general’s office,” he said.

Rothman also said he wants to “refurbish” the core of attorneys and would personally help recruit the next generation of young lawyers who want to become public attorneys. “Minnesota for 50 years has had a tremendous history. We had Walter Mondale. We had Warren Spannaus. We had Skip Humphrey,” he said. “They built up a tremendous respect for the attorney general office that Minnesotans could go to and understood that the attorney general was on their side and would help advocate for them.”

Like other DFLers in the race, Rothman said his office will be ready to challenge federal policy as has been done by a handful of Democratic AGs since President Trump took office. “I think it is very important that we do so, yes, to protect Minnesota’s interest against terrible federal policy,” he said. “I would do it in a fashion that would be focused on standing strong for Minnesotans first. If it’s illegal, if it’s inappropriate, if it’s unconstitutional. Those are the grounds for which you can take action as the legal officer of the state.”

He also said he would make the opioid epidemic a top priority of his office, taking action against deceptive and fraudulent sales practices by drug makers, adding that he thinks Swanson could have been more bold in her actions against pharmaceutical companies. He pledged to create task force with law enforcement, health care, insurance and the legal community to craft ways to respond to the crisis.

Rothman said he is also concerned with drug pricing and the cost of prescription drugs, especially for seniors. But first, he has to get elected in what began for him as an 18-month campaign before morphing, suddenly, into a 10-week sprint.

“So from June 5 to August 14 the pace is so fast and furious,” he said. “My goal is to cover as much ground around state as I can, to see the people I saw over the last seven years and get my name back out there.”