It’s getting rarer these days for lawyers to become legislators. So think how unusual it is to find someone who was writing law before she started practicing it.
Not that it came as any surprise to those who have worked with Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center.
“People thought I was a lawyer for a long, long time before I got to law school,” said Hilstrom, one of the five Democrats jostling to become the state’s attorney general.
She was elected to the House in 2000, replacing former House Speaker Phil Carruthers, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who is now a 4th Judicial District judge. As a lawmaker, Hilstrom jumped feet first into judiciary and crime-prevention work.
Now serving her ninth House term, she always has sat on some iteration of what is now the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee. During brief DFL majorities, she was its chair. She also is a longtime civil law committee member.
In 2007, she entered law school as a 39-year-old married mother of two. While still juggling legislative duties, she earned her J.D. from the William Mitchell College of Law. That was in 2010.
Along the way, she served internships at the Moss and Barnett law firm and with former state Attorney General Mike Hatch, a special counsel at Blackwell Burke. Eventually she got a job with the Anoka County attorney’s office, first as a clerk, later as a prosecutor, while remaining with the House.
It wasn’t long before her dual roles began working hand in glove.
One of her first prosecutions was against a duo of fraudsters, Marina Louise LaHara, now 43, and Steven Miller, now 45. Their 2010 trial was aided by Hilstrom’s own bill, which clarified the definition of “vulnerable adult.” Folded into an omnibus human services package, it was signed into law by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2008.
The prosecution involved two swindlers who tricked Donald Crispin, 82, of Fridley, into believing that LaHara was 60 and in love with the old man. LaHara actually was 34; Miller told Crispin he was her brother.
Crispin proposed marriage then spent $16,000 on two engagement rings. That opened the flood gates. Eventually, court documents indicate, Crispin handed over almost $66,000 to the two. He lavished them with clothes and shoes, handed over his firearms and financed Miller’s 2008 Hummer. The hustlers told Crispin they would send him to a nursing home if he stopped, records show.
Crispin’s family caught on and contacted authorities; Hilstrom was assigned the case.
Her job was made infinitely more difficult when, in the middle of the prosecution, Crispin died. Nonetheless, she got convictions for both suspect on charges of theft by swindle. They received stayed prison sentences and were required to pay $12,000 in restitution.
Hilstrom wasn’t finished. The case spotlighted a gap in the statute—when a victim dies, who is permitted to request restitution? In 2014, as House Judiciary chair, she moved legislation to allow families or estates to seek restitution. Gov. Mark Dayton signed it later that year.
It all helps explain why Hilstrom thinks she is uniquely qualified to be Minnesota’s attorney general.
“I have changed the law and advocated on behalf of consumers every day in the Minnesota House of Representatives, and I have also defended the law,” she said. “I could walk in today and I could start that job and be ready to go.”
Hilstrom, who grew up in Brooklyn Center, has a pinch of the salt of the earth about her. Her husband, Joel, is a union carpenter; her father, Dennis Cardinal, also a union man, is a retired farmer and heavy-equipment operator who helped build the road at the crest of a towering hill near Duluth’s Central High School.
She worked as a domestic-abuse victim advocate during her 20s, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that she was led into politics—and not for the sweetest of reasons.
One day her father appeared at a city council meeting to offer public testimony; Hilstrom accompanied him. While he spoke, a council member challenged his ability to comprehend the topic—because Cardinal didn’t know how to read. It was a secret Hilstrom’s father had kept private all his life, even from her.
“He was humiliated,” she said. “It made the local news and I wrote a letter to the editor saying we can disagree about the issues, but it’s about treating each other with respect.”
The next thing she knew, people were asking her to run for office. She did and won, serving on the Brooklyn Center City Council from 1994 to 1998. She became a legislator in 2000.
At the Capitol, Hilstrom championed the closure of the Appleton state prison in 2006 and has consistently opposed reopening any private prison. This year, she spoke out against cameras in the courtroom unless both the victim and defendant authorize it. Such a measure, by another author, made it into the omnibus supplemental budget bill but died with its veto.
Over the years, Hilstrom has frequently teamed with Attorney General Lori Swanson to push stricter foreclosure regulations, stronger predatory lending laws, guardians for vulnerable adults and tougher anti-bullying statutes.
Her connections to Swanson and Hatch—the unsuccessful one-time DFL gubernatorial nominee—has generated speculation about an ongoing alliance—even coordination—between the three.
The DFL’s surprise attorney general nominee, Matt Pelikan, has hinted at it. But MinnPost writer Eric Black went further, speculating that Hilstrom and Swanson—who is running for governor—represent Hatch’s “last big, crazy shot” at pulling the Capitol’s political strings by “steering his two protégés into the state’s two most important political offices.”
Setting aside implications that a man can play puppet master to two powerful women, it is valid to ask if that alliance exists. But Hilstrom is not eager to answer. The question plays into a fictitious narrative that she doesn’t want to feed, she said.
She will say that while she has worked with closely with Swanson on legislation, she also has worked with Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman—one of her DFL opponents. Yet no one is talking about a Hilstrom-Rothman axis, she said.
“I have been elected by 37,500 people to represent Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park and I know who my boss is,” she said. “If the people of Minnesota elect me to the office of Attorney General, I will know who my boss is, as well.”
If that happens and Swanson also becomes governor, Hilstrom said, there would be coordination in their efforts—but that would be true no matter who is governor.
“I don’t anticipate that I would do anything different than Skip Humphrey or Walter Mondale did,” she said, referencing two previous powerful DFL state attorneys general.
If she gets past the five-way Aug. 14 DFL primary and the wins the general election, Hilstrom says consumer protection will be her top focus. In that sense, she said, she would carry forward a key Swanson emphasis.
She will seek settlements in cases where it serves the public, she said, but has no fear of trial. “I’ve done a grand jury case and I argued a case before the Minnesota Supreme Court,” she said. “I am prepared to sue when necessary.”
Other priorities include the opioid epidemic, pharmaceutical price fixing, health care access and—still—bullying. While anti-bullying strides have been made in St. Paul, the rise of President Donald Trump has led to a surge of school bullying incidents, she said. Holding Trump accountable generally will be yet another key priority, she said.
One thing she won’t do, she said, is hog the camera or chase the next headline. “I am a work horse, I am not a show horse,” Hilstrom said.
”I intend to go in and roll up my sleeves and do the work—and be ready to go,” she said. “I do not intend to have a bunch of press conferences to just highlight issues that I’m not doing anything about.”
A little more about … Debra Hilstrom
Grew up in: Brooklyn Center
Lives in: Brooklyn Center
Family: Husband, Joel (since 1986); daughter, Stephanie; son, Jeremy. Her father Dennis Cardinal and mother Gloria are still living and still married.
Undergrad: University of Minnesota, sociology and speech communications
J.D.: William Mitchell College of Law
Hobbies: A big reader, Hilstrom recently completed “Gray Mountain,” by John Grisham and “I’ll Be Gone in The Dark” by Michelle McNamara; she ran a half marathon several years ago.
Surprising fact: Hilstrom was the first in her family to earn a four-year degree, but hardly the last. Her daughter, Stephanie, is an attorney who graduated No. 6 in her class. Her son has a degree in chemical engineering.