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Judge Kathryn Messerich was one of three judges to win re-election last week in contested races. Judge Diane Hanson was re-elected in the 1st District, and Judge John Melbye was re-elected in the 9th. In Hennepin County, Elizabeth Cutter and Lois Conroy both won their elections for open seats.

District judge candidates reflect on races

Money, uncollected signs and uninformed voters

Judge Kathryn Messerich took the day off from work Wednesday.

After months of campaign events, community parades and thousands of dollars spent on advertising and postage, the day of rest was probably welcome. But Messerich had one last job to do.

“I had access to a truck, so I spent the day driving around and picking up my lawn signs,” she said.

Messerich was one of three judges to win re-election last week in contested races. Judge Diane Hanson was re-elected in the 1st District, and Judge John Melbye was re-elected in the 9th. In Hennepin County, Elizabeth Cutter and Lois Conroy both won their elections for open seats.

Kathryn Messerich

1st Judicial District

Judge Kathryn Messerich was first appointed in 2004 and re-elected in 2006. She beat challenger Brian Gravely 65 percent to 35 percent. Messerich reported $29,324.90 in contributions, including a $3,500 loan she made to her campaign.

Gravely is a solo practice attorney in Eden Prairie. He reported $1,305.98 in fundraising. Messerich said she never met Gravely during the campaign, and this was her first contested election. She said her campaign strategy was to meet and talk to as many of the voters as possible while still doing her job.

“I tried to introduce myself to people and tell them who I am. In these races, we don’t have many ways to do that, so I kept the focus on my qualifications and the job I have done for the last eight years,” Messerich said.

Messerich said meeting people in the district was a positive experience, but said she was disheartened by some aspects of the race. Members of the state  contacted her and Gravely about endorsements late in the race. She signed the Minnesota State Bar Association Affirmation pledging not to seek endorsements.

“I survived, is how I look at it. I tried to keep work my No. 1 focus,” she said. “It was odd though, because I had no idea who my challenger was and why he was running. I hear about people who say that we need to have meaningful judicial elections, but there was nothing really meaningful about this race. I am sad that we had to raise money, and I think of all the different ways that money could be put to use in our justice system.”

Diane Hanson

1st Judicial District

Hanson was re-elected over Shakopee resident Michael Larson by a 64-percent-to-36-percent margin. She was appointed to the bench in 2004 and re-elected in 2006.

Hanson reported $3,596.66 in fundraising through October. Larson, a registered attorney, works for the South Hennepin Adult Programs in Education. Hanson, had a different situation. Her opponent registered to run but never ran an active campaign. Because she didn’t know if or when he was going to jump in to the race, she tried to find a middle ground with the campaign efforts.

“We didn’t want to do nothing and be too presumptuous and then be caught by surprise, but we didn’t want to overdo it either,” she said. “It was almost a day-by-day situation, and we were never quite sure what was going to happen even up until when the polls opened .”

She said she responded to as many candidate surveys and questionnaires as she could, spoke at community events, candidate forums and held a few fundraisers in the district. She set up a website, spent money on yard signs and recruited volunteers to help.

“I made the decision that, given my circumstances, I would do as much community interaction as I could given the time available and really try to connect with the legal community in the hopes that they could get the word out to other folks,” she said. “It’s a long haul between June and November, and it takes up quite a bit of your free time.”

Hanson said she dealt with the same issues that any candidate running for judge does: Most people don’t have any reason to be in court and know very little about the justice system and those who work in it.

“It is a question of reaching out to people and helping them understand how important the courts are and that the justice system can have a real impact on their lives,” she said. “I believe judges have some responsibility to reach out the community and make that connection. It benefits all of us when people have that information.”

Lois Conroy

4th Judicial District

Marc Berris and Lois Conroy were running for the spot vacated by the retirement of Judge Patricia Karasov. Conroy prevailed, 59 percent to 41 percent. She is a prosecutor with the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office, and Berris is an attorney at Segal Roston & Berris in Minneapolis. He was endorsed by the Star Tribune in the race.

Berris said he learned a lot from the campaign, and not all of it was positive.

“If anything, this process taught me that choosing judges is not the best for the justice system,” he said. “Most voters know next to nothing about the candidates or the courts.”

He said people told him they vote for judicial candidates based on gender, perceived ethnicity and a host of arbitrary reasons. He said this election will be his last.

“As much as we try to exclude politics from these elections, they are inherently political,” he said. “I don’t have the stomach for it. The very characteristics that I thought would make me a good judge — mainly, not willing to engage in politics — made me a terrible candidate.”

There were also positives on the campaign for Berris and his family, however.

“I have a son, Tanner and the opportunity to partner with him on this election was incredibly enjoyable,” he said. “One of the things I try to live by is you can’t be afraid of failure. This was the chance to show people that I practice what I preach.”

Conroy reported $28,750.62 in fundraising through October and Berris reported $34,210.42

Elizabeth Cutter

4th Judicial District

Elizabeth Cutter and Steve Antolak were both running for the seat made open by the retirement of Judge Deborah Hedlund. Cutter won 69 percent to 31 percent.

Cutter is a prosecutor with the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office and was a finalist in 2009 for a seat on the bench through appointment and ran for an open seat in 2008. Cutter raised $48,821.99 for the campaign, $27,568 of which was money she loaned to the campaign. Her husband loaned the campaign and additional $1,118.20.

Steve Antolak is a solo practice attorney in Brooklyn Park. Antolak spent $4,240.72 of his money on the campaign. The Star Tribune endorsed him in this race, as did the local units of AFL-CIO and .

He said running a Hennepin County race is not easy and that he underestimated the amount of money it would take.

“I wish I would have started earlier and did more fundraising,” he said. “Money is important even in the low-profile races, and party politics is more important than I thought.”

Now he will shift his focus back to running his law practice again.

“It’s like starting a career over in some ways. People stop referring business to you if they aren’t sure you are going to be around to take care of it,” he said.

John Melbye

9th Judicial District

Melbye fought off a serious challenge from Diana Sweeney, a public defender in the district, winning 59 percent to 41 percent. Melbye was elected in 2008 and he spent $8,753.44 of his own money on his campaign through October.

He won all 17 counties in the district and said he traveled 21,000 miles to campaign. He said running as incumbent was different from running as a challenger because more people are interested in talking with you.

Sweeney reported raising $26,794.33. Almost 40 percent, $9,900, was her own money. She was critical of Melbye’s leadership, experience and work ethic throughout the campaign. She had an organized campaign online and had the endorsement of former Judge Terrance Holter, the man Melbye beat in 2008.

She regularly appeared in Melbye’s courtroom, and during the election her cases were assigned to other judges in the district.

“I wanted to run a positive campaign about what I have done and my qualifications and nothing negative about my opponent,” Melbye said. “I was a disappointed and a little shocked that she chose to run against me, but my results were very, very good. She has never asked to remove me, so obviously she thought I have the qualifications for the job.”

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