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Richard Painter sure sounds like he’s going to make an independent run for governor of Minnesota

“The campaign for me is worth it if we have some serious discussions about clean water, clean politics,” Painter said. “I don’t want to get in there just to make a lot of noise.”

Richard Painter said last week that he is running as an independent because he knows the DFL would not abide by an intra-party challenge to Gov. Tim Walz.
Richard Painter said last week that he would consider running as an independent because he knows the DFL would not abide by an intra-party challenge to Gov. Tim Walz.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor and former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, said he is contemplating an independent campaign for governor.

“The campaign for me is worth it if we have some serious discussions about clean water, clean politics,” Painter said Friday. “I don’t want to get in there just to make a lot of noise, get my name out there.”

Painter entered the DFL primary for U.S. Senate in 2018, eventually losing to incumbent Tina Smith, who had been appointed to the office earlier that year. He received 14 percent of the DFL vote that year in a campaign that focused on his opposition to the PolyMet mine in northern Minnesota and on his criticism of then-President Donald Trump — a bid that featured an attention-getting television ad with an actual dumpster fire.

Prior to the 2018 campaign, Painter was a Republican, but he said the party is no longer welcoming to moderates. He said last week that he would run as an independent because he knows the DFL would not abide by an intra-party challenge to Gov. Tim Walz.

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Running as an independent is pretty easy in Minnesota; candidates must simply file for office and pay the filing fee. They also must get voters signatures on a nominating petition  — 2,000 for governor — but they don’t appear on the primary ballot.

By running as an independent, Painter could move directly onto the general election ballot. He said he is aware that he will be accused of being a spoiler who could attract enough DFL votes to help a Republican win the governor’s race, but he argued he could have some appeal to conservatives as well.

Painter said he is talking to possible supporters “to see if there is a thirst for change” and expects to form an exploratory committee soon.

Walz recently declared that he would be seeking reelection in 2022, and there are six announced GOP challengers for the office: Sens. Paul Gazelka and Michelle Benson; former Sen. Scott Jenson; as well as Michael Marti, Michael Murphy and Neil Shah. 

Painter became a national figure for his criticism of Trump and his administration over ethics issues, and he continues to use his Twitter account to comment on allegations against the former president. 

From 2005 to 2007, during the administration of George W. Bush, Painter was associate counsel to the president. He moved to Minnesota to teach at the U of M law school on professional responsibility for government and business lawyers. He also teaches courses on securities law, though he is currently on sabbatical.

Unlike Walz’s GOP challengers, Painter said he takes no issue with the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But he is critical of his stance on mining permits, saying: “I don’t see the DFL moving forward on critically important environmental issues like sulfide mining and clean water.” 

While Painter said governors need support from the Legislature, there are things they can do on their own. Walz, for example, could support the Biden administration’s position on the PolyMet Mining project and do more to wean the Iron Range economy off of mining.

PolyMet Mining, which is owned primarily by the Swiss mining giant Glencore, hopes to build Minnesota’s first copper and nickel mine. The open-pit mine would be near Hoyt Lakes and operate for 20 years. PolyMet promises 360 direct jobs from the project and says the metals are needed in part to fuel rising demand for green technology like electric car batteries.

Critics of PolyMet say the project could lead to toxic water pollution of the St. Louis River watershed and potentially Lake Superior, even though PolyMet contends it can safely extract the metals. The mine was fully permitted by the Walz administration, though some of those have been reversed, at least temporarily, by the courts.

“The state of Minnesota is actually litigating on the side of PolyMet,” Painter said. 

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Painter said he disagrees with the Republican candidates’ support for mining. And while he said he doesn’t currently think his candidacy would help a Republican reach the governor’s office, he is cognizant of the potential. “There’s always a risk of that. But I can’t just not run because of the risk,” he said. “I would want to make sure there’s a balanced campaign here. The environmentalists I might take away from Democrats. But if you go through the issues, I think I could have an appeal to a broad range of voters.”

Minnesota DFL Party chair Ken Martin disagreed with Painter’s assessment of the effect on his campaign.

“The only thing Richard Painter’s possible independent candidacy for governor would accomplish is helping to elect a Republican who will roll back Gov. Walz’s clean cars rule, undo the reforms Gov. Walz made to improve police transparency, and set back the policy priorities Painter says he believes in,” Martin said Monday. “I understand and appreciate his desire to facilitate a conversation around important issues, but there are more productive ways to do that.”

State GOP chair David Hann has not yet responded to a request to comment on Painter’s possible campaign.

Painter said he would run as an anti-status quo candidate and raise issues about the corrupting effects of money in politics and a lack of accountability in government spending. “I think most of those voters who, if I’m not in there, would probably just wing it with the Republican, just like they did with Trump in 2016. Because they’re mad as heck.”

He also is critical of what he says is an unwillingness to take on entrenched state government, education and policing bureaucracies. In particular, Painter said he would run on the need to reform the governance and spending of the University of Minnesota, where both he and his wife, Karen Painter, a musicologist, have tenure. He said high tuition cannot be addressed only by proposals such as forgiveness of student loans and increased state support. There must also be a move to reduce costs.

“You’re not going to do it unless you put more money in, but you also control the spending,” he said of public higher education. “The Democrats want to put the money in, and the Republicans just want to pull the money out.”

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Painter received an undergraduate degree in history from Harvard and said the current debate over the teaching of American history has formed on partisan lines. “There’s been an obfuscation of the real need for our young people to understand how important the civil rights movement was and how we haven’t finished that work,” he said. “At the end of the day, we ought to be teaching American history. And there’s the good and the heroic and the bad and the ugly and we ought to teach it all as facts.”

Painter said he thinks cities have to confront police unions and rid police ranks of racist and corrupt cops. But he added he didn’t think DFLers, who run most of the large cities in the U.S. and in Minnesota, can do that.

“It’s almost impossible to remove them from the job and they’ve got guns,” Painter said of police officers with union protection. 

Too many Republicans, however, won’t acknowledge that there’s a problem with racism and racial profiling in policing, he said.

“Maybe 20 years ago we would have had an effective Republican Party, in the days of [former GOP governor] Arne Carlson, that could effectively address some of the issues I’m concerned about. But for a range of reasons — and it isn’t just Trump — I don’t think the Republican Party of Minnesota is very effective.”

Walker Orenstein contributed to this report.