When the Green Party approached Andy Dawkins with an invitation to run at its candidate for attorney general, the lifelong Democrat and former legislator says he balked at first.
As the retired 63-year-old attorney tells it, that wasn’t because he was unwilling to flout the party he supported since he was a kid making JFK yard signs in suburban Chicago. Rather, Dawkins said, he was concerned that a third-party run could create an awkward situation for his wife, Ellen Anderson, a former state senator and senior adviser to Gov. Mark Dayton.
Dawkins, who represented St. Paul in the House from 1987 to 2002, said he tried to recruit another candidate on behalf of the Greens, who have struggled to field credible candidates — and win votes — since the party’s Minnesota heyday in the mid-2000s.
Dawkins said he made little headway on that front until his wife landed a new gig at the University of Minnesota.
“The same day Ellen said, ‘I got new job,’ I called back and said I’m a free agent,” said Dawkins.
In an interview at his solar panel-bedecked home half a block from Lake Como in St. Paul, Dawkins discussed his chances as a third-party candidate, his criticisms of the incumbent attorney general, Lori Swanson, and his own agenda.
Capitol Report: Why did you decide to run?
Andy Dawkins: After I retired [from my law practice] at age 62, I started reading books again, and the one that most impressed me was by a Harvard law professor, Lawrence Lessig, called “Republic, Lost.” He talks about how big money has so gummed up the works in politics that no issue can advance unless big money is supporting it. From my own experience in the Minnesota Legislature, I knew that Minnesota is not immune to how big money affects decisions. When the attorney general does that, I think that’s playing politics with justice.
CR: As a longtime Democrat, is it strange to find yourself running under the banner of another party?
Dawkins: I love Democrats. My wife is a Democrat. I get what they’re trying to do. But I’m not seeing enough action. We’re in a climate crisis and we’re not moving enough because we’ve got that big money stranglehold on our political process. So I think setting an earthquake up underneath the Democrats is a pretty darn good idea.
CR: With the exception of Jesse Ventura, third party candidates have struggled in Minnesota. What makes you think your campaign will be different?
Dawkins: Jesse caught fire in a bunch of ways, and my campaign will need to catch fire in a bunch of ways, too. We’ve got a good plan to do it. I have a huge team, a very smart team. My campaign manager is [attorney] JT Haines. He went to the DFL convention in Duluth as a delegate two weeks ago and now he’s resigned to be the manager of the campaign. We’ve got a goal to get 700,000 votes. We’re going to raise $700,000 by going out with that message, “A dollar a vote.”
People are ready for change. Look at that primary that knocked out [U.S. House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor. I can go out and say, I’m not running as Democrat, I’m not running as a Republican, I’m running as a third-party candidate because of the big money stranglehold. That message is resonating big time. Couple that with Lori Swanson’s vulnerabilities, and I’m convinced we’re going to win.
CR: How do you differentiate yourself from Swanson?
Dawkins: There is an unbelievably long list of the reasons people shouldn’t support Lori Swanson. I want to get others who have worked in her office and have left — there’s a huge turnover — to tell those stories. But we’re doing a report card on Swanson and we’re going to nail down the exact details and names.
The decisions in her office are so based on political calculation that many agencies and departments have set up in-house counsels because they don’t trust her. All the very best lawyers have left. She’s run that office into the ground. It’s a patronage system that doesn’t serve the people of Minnesota. I call her Lori Hatch because [former Attorney General and Swanson mentor] Mike Hatch set the tone on all this stuff.
Up in Little Falls, there was a double murder, two dead teenagers. You have to ask, why did the Washington County attorney, Peter Orput, prosecute [homeowner and shooter Byron Smith] rather than the attorney general’s office? You know what the answer is? She’s not going to touch a gun case, because she wants to be governor and she doesn’t want to get into the crosshairs of the NRA.
Orput did such a good job that even the NRA ran away [from Smith]. He saved lives because he has drawn a bright line so that people get the idea that’s not the way you defend your castle. Lori didn’t see it like that. She doesn’t see the bigger issues, she’s just thinking about her future.
CR: Matt Entenza was pilloried by Democrats for challenging the state auditor, Rebecca Otto. Have any Democrats tried to dissuade you from running against Swanson?
Dawkins: No. I have been quietly meeting with Democrat after Democrat, and I am getting the sense that they have to pretend that they support the whole ticket but will vote for me. I probably should tell Matt this personally, because he’s a friend, but here you go: I’m going to get all of the Dawkins campaign volunteers to help Rebecca. And that’s because of the brave vote she took. [Editor’s note: As a member of the state executive council, Otto opposed the sale of mineral leases in northeastern Minnesota.]
I want Democrats to understand that I’m working hard for Dayton, I’m working hard for Rebecca, and I’m working hard for Steve Simon [the DFL candidate for secretary of state]. We very intentionally picked this one race. I think Democrats will understand this was the right race to pick.
CR: Do you plan to emphasize marijuana legalization in your campaign?
Dawkins: I’m not going to emphasize it, but I think what grownups decide to do inside their own homes isn’t the government’s business as long as they are not harming anyone else. If we have the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, why is the government so sanctimonious about telling us how to live our lives?
CR: Do you plan to run television ads?
Dawkins: I’m not sure that’s the most effective way to spend your money. But if we end up with a million bucks instead of $700,000, we’ll go out and find [political advertising guru] Bill Hillsman. He’s a real third-party guy, so I think he’d say yes.
CR: You have emphasized climate change as a priority. On a practical level, what can the attorney general of Minnesota do to combat such a global problem?
Dawkins: I call it a climate crisis, and I am going to work hard on this issue. The attorney general gets an F on the environment. When the [proposed] Embridge pipeline expansion in northern Minnesota went before an administrative law judge, the attorney general did not bring in any environmental experts. She didn’t want to go against the fossil fuel industry, because that’s who she wants on her side when she runs for governor.
CR: On the civil liberties front, you have expressed concerns about privacy. How can the AG protect citizen privacy?
Dawkins: I only have questions so far. I’ve got researchers looking into whether we can make the data the NSA collects on all of us private, protected data in Minnesota. The idea that each of us has a private life — a constitutionally protected private life — seems to be on a piece of paper but not a reality. That’s an issue the attorney general needs to take a position on. I don’t think anyone who has run for office has made this a front and center issue. The random gathering of our private information by the private sector is just as outrageous. It needs to be put to a stop.
CR: Your wife is still a Democrat. Will you get her vote?
Dawkins: She has told me, “I love the Green Party’s values but I’m a loyal Democrat.” When she reads my policy paper on the climate crisis, she’s going to melt. I think she’ll be in that second wave of Democrats who cross over.
CR: Anything else you care to add?
Dawkins: This is a very serious campaign that has a real chance of winning. I’m excited about being able to put forward an authentic alternative to politics as usual. With my 35-year career as a lawyer, and 15 years as a legislator, I think I stand head and shoulders over anyone else running for this office.