The race for Hennepin County Attorney comes to a close on Tuesday as former chief Hennepin County defender Mary Moriarty and Martha Holton Dimick, a former judge, vie to win the office.
The hotly contested race has been colored by increased criminal activity in recent years and the spotlight on police accountability following the prosecution of two former officers for the killings of Black men.
In the final week before the election, MinnPost talked to supporters of each of the two candidates about why they’re backing each candidate, and why their chosen candidate is equipped to take over the office.
The dynamics of the Hennepin County attorney race might feel familiar to watchers of local politics — with a split between the more progressive and centrist parts of the voter base similar to that seen in the 5th District Congressional primary race between Rep. Ilhan Omar and Don Samuels; the 2021 Minneapolis mayoral race and a 2021 Minneapolis ballot question that asked voters if they wanted to overhaul the police department.
Moriarty, who worked as a Hennepin County public defender for 31 years and as chief of the office for six years, is the favorite of many progressives. She came out on top in August’s Democratic primary, garnering twice as many votes as the next candidate among a crowded field of seven with 36% of the 62,000 votes cast. Dimick, who has won the endorsement of more moderate political figures, placed second at 18%, edging out Democratic House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who came in third, and four other candidates.
In addition to winning the DFL endorsement, Moriarty has support from Rep. Ilhan Omar and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, as well as more than three dozen local and state elected officials. Groups like the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and the Teamsters Joint Council 32 have also chosen Moriarty as their candidate in the race.
Erica Mauter of TakeAction Minnesota said her group’s endorsement of Moriarty stems partly from her acknowledgement that the county’s criminal legal system is rife with racial bias and her commitment to restorative justice.
Moriarty’s platform promises to center victims in her office’s approach, offering support services and transparency in how her office prosecutes their offender.
“She understands that achieving justice depends on what the survivors of crime need and want, and building systems that will take that into account,” Mauter said. “That’s different from a mass incarceration, ‘lock them all up’ approach, which we have evidence and plenty of data to show that just doesn’t work.”
Minnesota criminal and civil rights attorney Al Goins said the county’s top attorney should be “the strongest lawyer you can find,” who can supervise an office of prosecutors and understand what is involved in each of their cases.
Moriarty’s analysis in news stories and tweets during the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin demonstrated to Goins that she fits that mold, he said. And as calls for police accountability have gotten louder since George Floyd’s murder, Moriarty — who has made holding officers accountable a key piece of her campaign platform — is the candidate to keep that momentum going, he said.
“She understood every one of the issues in an extremely delicate and difficult case,” he said. “These are the things that prosecutors around the country and in Hennepin County are going to have to come to grips with — they’re going to have to come to grips with the fact they’re gonna have to prosecute people who have power.”
Furthermore, Goins said prosecutors have the duty not just to get convictions but to see that justice is done, so the next Hennepin County Attorney can’t take every case brought by police officers at face value. Moriarty’s promise to hold police accountable not just through prosecution but by calling out unethical and illegal police conduct would help boost community trust in police, he said.
“The only way you’re going to strengthen the view of police in the community is by showing the community that cases that are prosecuted, as brought by the police, are done so fairly,” he said. “And I think that would be emblematic of a Moriarty administration.”
Dimick has also had a long career in the justice system, working as a Fourth Judicial District judge and Hennepin County prosecutor. Several current elected officials around the Twin Cities metro area have announced their support for Dimick ahead of Tuesday’s election, including U.S. Rep Dean Phillips, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and outgoing Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. In a letter to the editor that appeared in the Albertville Press & News earlier this month, Freeman urged voters to choose Dimick.
“After 24 years as your Hennepin County Attorney, I will be retiring this January. In considering the candidates to replace me, only one person stands out – Martha Holton Dimick,” the letter reads. “There is only one candidate in this race that has the experience and demeanor to effectively run the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, and that person is Martha Holton Dimick.”
Dimick also boasts endorsements from the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA), as well as Hennepin County Sheriff’s Deputies Association and North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, among others.
“Holton Dimick will best serve the community by immediately addressing gun and carjacking violence, partnering with law enforcement, connecting with city leaders, and practicing fair sentencing,” MPPOA executive director Brian Peters said in a statement. “Holton Dimick has a comprehensive, actionable plan to make Hennepin County a safe and vibrant place for people to live, work, and go to school.”
Dimick’s platform lists reducing violent crime as her top priority, which she says she would achieve by swiftly prosecuting offenders.
Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, called the race the most important on the ballot in regards to public safety. His support for Dimick is tied to her experience as both a prosecutor and behind the bench as a judge, which he said gives her the tools to make residents feel safer in her role as the next Hennepin County Attorney.
“I think she’s pretty serious about dealing with the violence that we have seen in our community and understanding the importance of holding people accountable for those behaviors,” he said. “That seems like a pretty clear difference between the two candidates and their platforms.”
Though opponents would paint Dimick as a status quo candidate, and Cramer disagrees with that framing, he said he doesn’t think reforming the county attorney’s office should be its main priority.
“I don’t think this is the time for reform as being the overriding goal of the office,” he said. “I think this is a time when being an important partner to a wide range of law enforcement and community stakeholders to uphold safety through accountability is a key objective.”
Dimick has outpaced her opponent in donations by more than $70,000, raising more than $312,000 and having nearly $86,000 cash on hand, according to the latest filings released ahead of Tuesday’s election. Moriarty has raised more than $238,000 and has just over $48,000 on hand.
Moriarty, however, has seen a significant amount of outside spending on her behalf by groups such as ColorOfChangePAC, a national group that says its mission is to elect progressives, and Faith in Minnesota, the PAC arm of ISAIAH. The most recent campaign finance filings, which cover the race through late October, show more than $136,000 in independent expenditures — unlimited funds spent by groups seeking to influence the election that are not allowed to coordinate with the campaign — to try to influence voters in favor of Moriarty.