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Defiant MacDonald vows to press on

Michelle MacDonald, the embattled candidate for the Minnesota Supreme Court whose already fractious relationship with Republican Party leadership hit a new low when she was formally banned from the official GOP booth at the State Fair, said she intends to file a formal complaint over allegedly illegal efforts to force her from the race.

“I think it’s my responsibility to do so,” MacDonald said in an interview, amid a rising tide of intraparty rancor over her endorsement.

MacDonald vowed to press on with her campaign despite the loss of support from prominent Republicans on the ticket, including Mike McFadden, candidate for U.S. Senate, and Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, candidate for attorney general, and intense criticism from some other Republicans.

“I am trusting my instincts and going forward as I feel I’m being led,” she said. She said she owes that much to “the thousands of people who stood up for me” at the Republican State Convention, where she received the party’s endorsement in her challenge to the incumbent, Associate Justice David Lillehaug.

Asked what she believes is motivating the pushback to her candidacy, MacDonald said, “[It’s] because I’m trying to shed light on some injustices within the system itself.”

Obscure law

MacDonald, who has a family law practice in West St. Paul, is a vocal critic of the court system, which she has characterized as corrupt and ineffective. She faces a criminal trial Sept. 15 on charges of drunken driving and resisting arrest stemming from a 2013 arrest in Rosemount. MacDonald, who said she plans to petition the court to allow cameras record the courtroom proceedings, insists she is innocent of those charges.

MacDonald said she is still in the process of determining which “individuals and entities” she will name in the complaint she plans to submit to the Office of Administrative Hearings in the coming days.

MacDonald said several provisions of the Fair Campaign Law statutes may apply. She said she is “absolutely” certain that a series of text messages and phone calls she received late last week from a private attorney violate a prohibition to “reward or promise to reward another in any manner to induce the person to be or refrain from or cease being a candidate.”

According to Alan Weinblatt, an attorney and expert on election law, that particular provision has been on the books for more than a century but, to the best of his knowledge, has never been enforced.

In the mid-1980s, Weinblatt said, he served on a task force that reviewed campaign laws with an eye toward dismissing obsolete provisions. “This was not considered to be deadwood because it was thought to be serious. But it was also recognized that it was not enforced,” he said.

In the text messages sent in the wake of State Fair incident, attorney Patrick C. Burns urged MacDonald to quit the race and told her he had “a deal from the party” that was contingent on her repudiating the party’s endorsement.

In a telephone conversation the following morning which MacDonald recorded, Burns stated that the party is “going to squash you like a bug” and “I’m trying to help you, by saving you before a noon deadline.”

“Draft me a letter, have it addressed to [Republican Party Chairman Keith] Downey and we’ll make a call and tell them to stop what they want to do,” Burns states in the recording. “I have no idea what it is, but I’ve been warned: It’s not going to get better from here on out.”

Acting on his own

In a telephone interview on Thursday, Burns said he is not worried about any legal exposure arising from his exchanges with MacDonald. He said he was motivated by a desire to reduce media coverage that was embarrassing for the Republican Party and harmful to MacDonald’s professional reputation.

Burns also asserted that MacDonald’s “selective” release of the texts and recordings — first published by Michael Brodkorb, the former Republican operative turned blogger — violated an agreement that the discussions remain confidential.

“I honored the agreement that I reached with her until now, when she comes out and says I’m going to file a campaign complaint,” said Burns.

Burns, who insists that he was acting on his own and not as an agent of the party, said he has known MacDonald for a decade as a professional colleague. After MacDonald garnered the endorsement, according to Burns, MacDonald tried to recruit him as a campaign manager, an overture he rejected because he didn’t believe she was qualified for the high court.

After MacDonald’s much-publicized ejection from the GOP Fair booth on August 21, Burns said he resolved to do what he could to limit the public relations damage, both to MacDonald and the GOP.

“I am not a political or partisan hack,” said Burns. “The intent was, ‘If you want to extricate yourself from this situation, let’s do it very quietly and very peacefully.”

Fallout from fair

Shortly after MacDonald formally informed Downey that she remained unwilling to repudiate her endorsement, Downey sent a two-page letter to Republican delegates, Basic Political Operating Unit (BPOU) chairs and other party officials defending the decision by the State Executive Committee to bar MacDonald from the party booth at the Fair.  Downey, who could not be reached for comment for this story, contended that MacDonald’s presence at the Fair “could harm other Republicans running for office.”

At the same time, Downey insisted that MacDonald would remain the party’s endorsee, barring a “circumstance that would render her ineligible to serve in the office.” He also distributed a scathing memo signed by six Republican attorneys, urging the executive committee to re-evaluate MacDonald’s endorsement in the wake of the Fair incident.

“MacDonald’s behavior today — where she intentionally created a public conflict and dispute at the RPM’s state fair booth — shows that she lacks the appropriate temperament to be a Supreme Court justice and that she is willing to bring negative attention to the party in order to pursue her own agenda,” the memo states.

For his part, Burns, the attorney who entreated MacDonald to repudiate the endorsement, said the media attention over her candidacy is hurting both the party and MacDonald. He struck a rueful tone in discussing his own role in the flap, “Like the adage says, ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’”

But Burns said the episode could have a silver lining: it will force Republicans to reconsider the wisdom of the party’s policy of endorsing judicial candidates.

“I don’t see how it can’t. I think it shows everybody the dangers,” he said. “This is a circus that should have never come about.”

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