Matt Pelikan thinks he has a real shot at becoming Minnesota’s next attorney general.
“I believe that we have the right campaign and the right message, not only to win this primary but to win the general election,” he said.
In a normal year, such a statement of confidence would hardly perk the ears of a political observer. The 36-year-old Minneapolis attorney is, after all, the DFL’s endorsed candidate to succeed incumbent Lori Swanson.
In a normal political year—whatever that is—the statement might even be read as false modesty. Pelikan embarrassed Swanson by notching a 47 percent tally of delegates in the first round of voting at June 2’s Rochester convention. The softness of her 52 percent support pushed her to drop out of consideration before the second ballot and run instead for governor.
But this is no normal year. At the June 5 filing deadline, six DFLers stepped up to step over upstart Pelikan. Swanson’s former boss Mike Hatch initially was among them but he quickly backed out. The four others, all established politicos, are still in.
One of them, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, is a national character, both as the nation’s first Muslim congressman and as deputy chair of the Democratic National Convention. He quickly garnered Gov. Mark Dayton’s endorsement and is widely considered the front-runner in the Aug. 14 DFL primary.
Still, Pelikan, who showed up for an interview at the hipster-ish Spyhouse Coffee shop in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood Monday in neat earth-toned casual wear and a spotless dark baseball cap, doesn’t think all that much has changed.
“We always expected that there would be a primary,” Pelikan said Monday. “We were under no illusion that obtaining the endorsement was going to be the last stop in this campaign.”
What he did expect, should the fight carry on post-convention, was that his sole opponent would be Swanson. Not four politically established late-comers—Ellison; state Rep. Deb Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center; former Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley and former state Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman.
“The primary obviously evolved in a direction that we weren’t fully anticipating,” Pelikan acknowledged. “But we always knew there was going to be a good conversation in the primary and I am looking forward to it.”
Pelikan is a fairly fresh face, even on the legal scene. He earned his juris doctorate from the University of Minnesota School of Law in 2012, almost a decade after securing his St. Olaf College undergraduate degree in 2003.
He has taken some hard knocks for lack of experience. At the convention, Mike Hatch annoyed Pelikan supporters by bashing the young candidate’s track record as a “subordinate lawyer” who has “never tried a case.”
“You can’t be in a wading pool and think you can swim in the ocean,” Hatch said that day.
“I think the delegates assessed Mr. Hatch’s critique,” Pelikan said Monday. “You can see from the results how persuasive they found it.”
Pelikan repeated what he has said publicly before—experience can be measured in more than years. Yet he also points to his 20-year record in both law and politics—subjects he sees as intertwined.
“I have committed my life to making a difference through politics,” he said.
As a college senior, he worked on U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone’s final campaign. When Mark Dayton was a U.S. senator, Pelikan ran his Minnesota political operation. After that, he was campaign finance director and consultant for numerous candidates, including Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, and one-time U.S. Senate candidate Mike Ciresi.
Pelikan took the LSAT as an undergraduate but balked at enrolling in law school. Years later, after tiring of the full-time campaign lifestyle, he finally enrolled. He ended up editor of the Minnesota Law Review. After graduation, he clerked at the state Supreme Court, first for Justice Paul Anderson, later for Justice David Lillehaug.
Wellstone, Dayton, Anderson and Lillehaug all left deep impressions, Pelikan said. “Each in their own way were deeply fair and encouraged empathy for people who come to them, whatever the question was,” Pelikan said.
After clerking, he worked two years as an associate for what is now Robins Kaplan, L.L.P., representing individuals and businesses. He quit that job in 2016 to take over as deputy director of the Ohio Democratic Party’s Voter Protection department.
In 2017, he signed on with Madel P.A., as “of counsel” for the Minneapolis civil litigation and criminal defense firm. There he has handled consumer, class action and multidistrict litigation, business and intellectual property cases and appellate advocacy, according to his LinkedIn page.
“I’ll put that experience side by side with anyone else in this race,” Pelikan said.
Even if his candidacy advances no farther than the primaries, it already is historic. Pelikan reckons he is the first openly gay major-party nominee for a Minnesota statewide political office.
But he is not asking people to vote for him because of his sexuality. He asks for their vote, in part, because of what being a gay man has taught him—about being bullied, attacked, ostracized and treated as an outsider.
“I’ve learned that it’s through politics that we can stand together to have more equity in our society,” he said. “I will never back away from a tough fight, if it is worth fighting.”
‘More work to do’
So why does he want to be attorney general?
“Minnesota needs a strong and progressive attorney general who is going to be on the front lines fighting to get an economy that is actually delivering results to everyone in the state, in every part of the state,” he said. “Someone who is never going to give up the fight for equal rights under the law.”
To Pelikan, the position’s economic role is central. The AG exists, in key part, to protect consumer rights, combat wage theft by unscrupulous employers and take on anti-trust litigation, he said.
“It has to be a check on the consolidation of economic power on our country,” he said. “I think that is one of the greatest threats to economic opportunity and really, to stability, in our social democracy.”
While he respects Swanson as a leader, Pelikan doesn’t think she took full advantage of the tools in her kit, particularly when it came to enforcing anti-trust statutes or taking on Trump.
He does credit Swanson for her leadership role in the first lawsuit challenging the president’s executive travel ban, which critics contend discriminated against Muslims. But after that she faded into the background, Pelikan said.
She never signed on when a new suit was filed against a second Trump travel ban. Nor was she an amicus brief signatory when Hawaii filed suit against the president’s third executive travel ban, he points out.
“An example of a progressive leader, to me, is someone who takes on these fights but keeps going—even when there is not a headline to be earned,” Pelikan said. “A progressive leader keeps going because it is the right thing to do.”
As attorney general, Pelikan promises to protect Minnesota’s interests and empower the professionals inside the AG’s office. Like Ellison—whose emergence has stolen some of Pelikan’s progressive thunder—he likely would focus on checking any Trump administration encroachments upon state authority.
“Why do Democratic AGs keep suing Donald Trump?” Pelikan said. “Because he keeps violating the constitution. Absolutely, the attorneys general in this nation need to be on the front line stopping Trump’s excesses—and vindicating the civil and legal rights of Minnesotans.”
Adds Pelikan: “The Trump era just means there is more work to do.”
Lives in: Minneapolis
Grew up in: Northfield
Family: Partner, Dustin; parents, Marty and Martha, who still live in Northfield
Undergrad degree: St. Olaf College (2003)
J.D.: University of Minnesota School of Law (2012)
Hobbies: “Politics, first and foremost”; hiking, backpacking, camping, spending time outdoors. Pelikan has run three marathons
Surprising fact: Played tuba for many years.