Assistant county attorney aims to be known as the ‘effective’ candidate
When the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women selected the first recipient of its “Inspire” community ally award in 2013, Dave Pinto was a natural choice.
“Domestic violence is a complicated issue, and one of the things Dave does exceptionally well is he understands the complexities and still moves forward with positive change,” said Liz Richards, the nonprofit’s executive director. “He’s not looking for easy answers, but effective answers.”
Pinto, the assistant Ramsey County attorney, has made a career out of fighting for the vulnerable — LGBT students and victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking, to name a few. Now, the 41-year-old is making his second attempt at elected public office, running for the DFL endorsement for the House District 64B seat being vacated by Rep. Michael Paymar this year.
Paymar, an 18-year veteran of the Minnesota Legislature, announced last year he would not seek re-election to represent the solidly DFL St. Paul district, which includes the Highland Park and Mac-Groveland neighborhoods. The announcement prompted a flood of interest, with six other candidates besides Pinto announcing thus far.
Ask Pinto what differentiates him from the rest of the field and he’ll tell you he’s the one with a track record that shows he can deliver on campaign promises.
“We have a lot of good candidates, and we all more or less share [the district’s] progressive values,” he said. “If folks are looking for a champion for our causes, but with a track record of having done it, I believe the work I’ve done shows that.”
Growing up in Falcon Heights, Pinto graduated from Harvard University with a degree in government. He worked for former Congressman Bruce Vento and the Clinton White House before returning to Minnesota to clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
He was born without sight and can see out of only one eye, but does not consider himself blind. His wife, Abbey, works for the University of Minnesota, and his two children attend public schools in the district. Pinto served on the Highland Park District Council and his family has lived in the district for 11 years.
Pinto went to work for Robins, Miller, Kaplan & Ciresi LLP in 2002. During his time in private practice, he took a high-profile pro bono case representing a group of GLBT and ally students at Maple Grove High School whose student organization was denied equal status by the Osseo School District board.
“We got a major victory for these kids,” Pinto said. “It was the first time the [federal Equal Access Act] had been applied in this region of the country.”
Phil Duran, the legal director for OutFront Minnesota, was involved in the case and remembers Pinto’s leadership on it.
“He and his colleagues were able to make the system accessible to students and parents and get a groundbreaking ruling for Minnesota,” he said. “I’ve always associated Dave with being an extremely effective advocate and willing to stick his neck out.”
After appeals that went all the way to federal Appeals Court, costing the district more than $500,000, the district relented and grudgingly accepted the student organization’s equal footing.
OutFront Minnesota’s political action committee may endorse in the race but has not yet done so, Duran noted.
During his time at the law firm, Pinto also served as general counsel on Mike Ciresi’s unsuccessful 2008 DFL campaign for the U.S. Senate.
In 2008, Pinto left to join the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. And in 2010, he ran for the DFL endorsement for Ramsey County attorney, withdrawing from the race when John Choi, now his boss, received it and went on to win the election.
Pinto stayed on and championed one of Choi’s priorities — sex trafficking.
The challenge, Choi said, was to do a better job identifying and protecting victims of sex trafficking and bringing charges against the traffickers. Pinto led a team effort to put together a database and use that information to detect patterns and fill in the blanks for investigations.
The work of Pinto and Choi’s prosecution team led to a record 40-year sentence for Otis Washington earlier this year following his conviction and that of his brother and two uncles in 2013.
“Dave is a very intelligent, hard-working person with a special ability to connect the dots in complex systems,” said Choi, who noted that he will not be endorsing a candidate in the race.
At Choi’s direction, Pinto also lobbied the Minnesota Legislature and secured a $700,000 appropriation to implement statewide training on sex trafficking for law enforcement and prosecutors, an effort he will spearhead in conjunction with the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.
Promoting partnerships on sex trafficking education and volunteering to help preserve the strength of criminal no-contact orders in the courts are two reasons why the coalition gave Pinto its community ally award last year, Richards said.
Pinto also worked with the coalition to set up a one-stop shop in the Ramsey County Courthouse for people seeking civil protection orders — the “Bridges to Safety” program — she added.
Richards noted that the coalition’s award does not constitute an endorsement and the organization does not take sides in political races.
Pinto said he is taking his track record and applying it to a campaign that is shaped around “really making sure we’re giving kids the best start in life we can and building the best future for them that we can.”
That means further expansion of funding for early childhood education and to close the achievement gap for kids in Minnesota’s schools, Pinto said.
Other priorities on his list include affordable universal health care, a healthy environment, affordable housing and livable wages.
That focus on kids and their future is what enticed former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer to become Pinto’s campaign co-chair.
“The guy has been so faithful to that central principle. I think that’s what sets him apart,” he said. “This is a progressive district. Anybody can talk the talk. He’s done it.”
It has also nabbed him endorsements from four of the seven St. Paul Board of Education members — Chair Mary Doran, Anne Carroll, Chue Vue and Jean O’Connell, plus former board members Elona Street-Stewart and Jeff Risberg — as well as the AFSCME Council 5 labor union.
The future of the abandoned Ford plant in the district is a key challenge and will be important to the area’s continued economic viability, especially the southern part, which does not enjoy the same high income level as other regions, Pinto said.
Pinto said he will abide by the district DFL endorsement process, as he did in the county attorney race in 2010. He served as precinct chair for the DFL Party in the past, he said.
But he’s also building a war chest to get him through a potential primary campaign, should the party fail to reach an endorsement at its convention in March. He raised $19,000 in less than a month of campaigning in 2013 and is continuing his fundraising activities.
“I think the odds are good that people will come together behind one candidate,” he said. “We have a great group of people.”
If elected, Pinto should be able to continue serving in the Ramsey County Attorney’s office, taking a leave of absence during the legislative session, Choi said. Pinto said he would also likely continue his work on public safety in the Legislature.