As he prepares for the Aug. 14 primary, former Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman leaves little to chance message-wise as he competes to become the state’s attorney general.
“I am ready to protect Minnesotans from day one with my experience, so that they could have a great attorney general,” he said.
The sentence encapsulates Rothman’s twin campaign themes. In an hourlong June 12 interview, he mentioned “experience” 35 times and “protect” 28 times. It is impressive message discipline for someone who has never before run for political office and who has no communication aides in tow.
Then again, it could be said he has run before—though his current run is merely an extension of the first. Rothman left Commerce on Nov. 17, 2017, to campaign for attorney general. At the time, he assumed incumbent Attorney General Lori Swanson would run for governor.
After a delay, however, Swanson announced in January she would lay aside her gubernatorial hopes and run instead for re-election as AG. Rothman was one of several DFLers who suspended campaigns in response.
But after a weak convention showing early this month, Swanson changed her mind and is running for governor. Rothman is back in the hunt for attorney general, as is Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who likewise suspended her campaign only to re-enter in June. DFL nominee Matt Pelikan never dropped out of the race.
Former Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison are the DFL newcomers to the race. Ellison, a staunch liberal and the Democratic National Committee’s deputy chair, vaulted immediately to front-runner status and has secured Dayton’s endorsement.
Asked if he found Swanson’s campaign decisions annoying or problematic, Rothman calmly demurred. “You pick the word,” he said. “It was one of those situations that happens.”
Those who have known him throughout his 56 years probably aren’t surprised that Rothman knows how to stay on message in pursuit of a goal.
Raised by a single mom, Rothman first gained public attention when he led a 1979 Chaska High School student strike. The walkout protested state laws prohibiting teachers from striking for higher wages; it made front-page news. The demonstration was one of the first to focus Minnesotans’ attention on teachers’ plight, Rothman said.
“It was a formative experience,” he said. “It was me saying to myself that it is important for us to stand strong.”
He chose his high school debate team over another passion, hockey. It was a smart choice: Rothman and debate partner John Kincannon—who went on to a U.S. State Department career—won the state championship. They later competed in the national tournament that year, debating international trade.
Debate coach David St. Germain told a Chaska newspaper in 2001 that Rothman and Kincannon were “two of the most brilliant young people I’ve ever worked with.” A 1980 Chaska Herald story reported that the duo lugged around 130 pounds of research papers in six suitcases, while practicing debate four to five hours a day.
That experience, plus the influence of an attorney uncle, got him thinking about becoming a lawyer, Rothman said. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Carleton College in 1984 and his juris doctorate from the University of Minnesota School of Law four years later.
Rothman once worked as the Minnesota Senate’s lead staffer, where he helped to craft and shepherd legislation—including a 1991 insurance company insolvency-law reform. He clerked for Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Gary L. Crippen. For 10 years, he did trial work as an associate for two Los Angeles firms.
In 2002, he joined Minneapolis’s Winthrop & Weinstine as shareholder and the firm’s insurance and financial services practice co-chair. He has litigated numerous state and federal court trials and once briefed the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2010, he led Dayton’s recount team when Dayton eked out a 0.5 percent victory over GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. A year later, Rothman was tapped to lead Dayton’s Department of Commerce.
Record as commissioner
Rothman points to many successes at Commerce. During the polar-vortex emergency of 2013-14, for example, he was Dayton’s lead on ensuring sufficient propane supplies were available to rural farms and communities. As the energy sector’s top state regulator, he says he helped triple Minnesota’s renewable energy use while reducing the state’s reliance on coal-fired plants.
His office was a factor, he said, in stabilizing Minnesota’s banking industry in the long hangover after the 2008 Great Recession, when local Minnesota banks failed at a rate of one a month. On his watch, Commerce prioritized protection of seniors from fraud, abuse and exploitation while also targeting predatory lenders.
Rothman overhauled his department’s special white-collar criminal enforcement and civil divisions. And the agency increased unfair trade practices and fraud enforcement actions by 500 percent during his tenure, he said.
Yet, for all that, Rothman also has been a political lightning rod.
Republicans pounced when a federal judge ordered Minnesota to pay almost $1 million in legal fees to the windshield-repair company Safelite, after Rothman challenged that company’s “anti-competitive” practices.
Minnesota U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson ruled that Commerce violated the Safelite’s free-speech rights by prohibiting it from telling customers that other local shops might charge more than insurers would cover. But she found the agency within its constitutional rights in requiring Safelite to inform customers of their right to do business with other companies.
Afterward, conservatives seethed. The Center of the American Experiment called Rothman’s agency “out of control.” Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, demanded his ouster. But the governor stuck by Rothman and he says he has no regrets.
“I absolutely did the right thing,” he said. “The company, Safelite, was using its market power to hurt Minnesota consumers and businesses.”
Rothman also came under fire after standing beside Community Action of Minneapolis CEO Bill Davis in December 2011, during a press conference seeking federal money for low-income heating assistance. In 2016, Davis was sentenced to four years in prison after using $800,000 of the nonprofit’s money on his own lavish lifestyle.
Rothman said he had no idea what Davis was up to when that press conference convened. ”When it all came up later, I immediately opened an investigation,” Rothman said.
He was blasted again in 2016, after former Deputy Commissioner Timothy Vande Hey sued the state claiming that Rothman’s chief deputy, Anne O’Connor, sexually harassed him. Vande Hey charged that Rothman knew but did nothing. He later dropped the suit. Rothman insists Vande Hey’s allegations were false.
“I don’t want to speculate on his particular motives,’ Rothman said. “But he did try—as many do—to use the lawsuit as leverage to gain an outcome that would be completely inappropriate under the circumstances of his departure.” Rothman would not say what those circumstances were.
Finally, in late 2016, Rothman set off alarm bells by revealing that all insurers offering individual health plans, whether through MNsure or directly to consumers, were considering leaving Minnesota. As the regulator who reviewed MNsure’s charged rates, Rothman called on lawmakers to prevent the market’s collapse. That ultimately led to the Legislature’s 2017 reinsurance reforms.
Nonetheless, Republicans criticized Rothman’s warnings, saying they proved that MNsure was a disaster.
Rothman dismisses all such rhetorical arrows aimed his way as ideological.
“The real story, with many of these allegations, is that that it’s all just made up politics,” Rothman said.
Controversies notwithstanding, Rothman said he will stack his record against anyone else’s in the race. He regards himself the sole candidate ready to walk in and perform the attorney general’s role from day one.
If elected, he says he will emphasize consumer protections, a key Swanson priority. However, he is prepared to go farther than possibly any previous attorney general in tackling the pharmaceutical industry, he said.
“I believe that the opioid crisis is as a result of the pharmaceutical industry,” Rothman said. “I believe that it is critically important that the attorney general take every action it can to stop the opioid crisis.”
He also would tackle that industry’s “unfair and deceptive” marketing and pricing practices. And he would do more than recent predecessors to “pick up the rug on anti-trust.”
But he can’t do any of that if he doesn’t first win in the primary. He knows experience and competence aren’t the sexiest subjects, particularly for emotion-driven primary voters. But he is betting on progressive Minnesotans being highly engaged in the age of Trump and that they will choose the candidate who is most electable.
“I am the strongest candidate right now,” Rothman said.
A little more about … Mike Rothman
Lives in: Minnetonka
Grew up in: Chaska
Family: Wife, Shari, a professional harpist; three teenage kids, Sophi, Adam and David
Undergrad degree: Carleton College (1984)
J.D.: University of Minnesota School of Law (1988)
Hobbies: Running, coaching kids’ sports, reading and biking
Surprising fact: A big Beatles fan; some might find Rothman’s preference for Paul McCartney over John Lennon a head scratcher