Once there was an air of political inevitability about Tom Foley, the one-time Ramsey County attorney. No longer. But at age 70, he’s back competing to become the state’s attorney general.
“My phone started ringing off the hook after the Democratic convention,” Foley said. “People encouraged me to run.”
What sort of people? he was asked. “Contemporaries,” Foley replied. “People involved in the political process.”
Foley was “disappointed” when the DFL endorsed Matt Pelikan, a young Minneapolis attorney. Overcoming a thin legal pedigree, Pelikan made a strong showing among progressive delegates at the Rochester convention and bumped incumbent Attorney General Lori Swanson from the race. Now she is in a three-way DFL primary running for governor.
When Foley saw DFLers line up to file for attorney general, he saw no reason to stay on the sidelines. “I think I am the best candidate to do the job,” Foley said in a June 22 interview. “I’ve essentially done this job.”
Foley ended his 16-year tenure as Ramsey County attorney 25 years ago, having previously worked as a deputy Corrections Department commissioner and special assistant Minnesota attorney general.
He has tried to move up the electoral food chain before. In 1994, having beefed up his DFL bona fides as Bill Clinton’s Minnesota campaign director, he ran for U.S. Senate. Early in that race he had the strongest name recognition among DFLers. He nonetheless got trounced by Ann Wynia, who then lost to Republican Rod Grams.
There once was prior talk of Foley running for attorney general, but incumbent Skip Humphrey declined to leave for a U.S. Senate run as rumored. Foley did sign on as running mate to 1998 gubernatorial candidate Doug Johnson, DFL-Cook, but the ticket foundered, finishing third in that DFL primary.
In those days, politically ambitious Minnesota attorneys could peer into the future and see Foley’s face everywhere, or so wrote a Star Tribune reporter in September 1993. People don’t talk about Foley that way these days.
Yet if his political star has faded, it’s not because he disappeared; he’s never even been that far from public view. From 1995 to 1998, Foley served on Clinton’s National Indian Gaming Commission, eventually becoming its vice chair; the job became a springboard for his future private practice.
He also was Washington, D.C., office director for Gov. Jesse Ventura and served as a district representative on the Metropolitan Airports Commission, a gig he kept until 2009. He squeezed in a 10-month stint as Washington County attorney in 1998, filling out Dick Arney’s term after Arney died.
Foley has been in private practice 20 years. He was a partner at Johnson Hamilton Quigley Twait & Foley in St. Paul, specializing in administrative and Indian gaming law. Later, he formed St. Paul-based Foley Quigley P.L.C., with attorney Kevin Quigley, maintaining a national gaming law and Indian affairs practice.
If Foley’s name is not conversation-starter in his home state these days, it retains currency among Native American tribes. The Bloomberg news service named him one of the top American gaming law attorneys from 2005 to 2009. The Foley Quigley firm remains high-ranked for gaming and Native American law, according to U.S. News & World Report and Best Law.
Recently, Foley said, he has shifted his legal focus to opioids, which are ravaging reservations. He works with lawyers from Florida, Alabama and California who represent 35 tribes around the country to bring state action against the pharmaceutical industry, he said.
“We are doing discovery,” Foley said. “The Indian reservations in rural areas, particularly rural Minnesota, are affected far more by the opioid crisis than anyone else.”
Not surprisingly, opioid litigation is one of the things he wants to tackle first as attorney general—working both with other attorney generals nationally and with county attorneys inside Minnesota
Health care would also be a focus, he said, signaling that he might file suit to protect the Affordable Care Act He said he would build on Swanson’s anti-fraud litigation and consumer protection work.
He wants to do more to protect senior citizens from abuse in nursing homes, he said. He would use the office to target sex traffickers and fight sexual assault, particularly on Minnesota’s reservations. He says he would put office’s weight behind legislation to launch a pilot school safety program that include hot lines to report bullying, guns or drug dealing near schools, and for suicide prevention.
Among his opponents, Foley singles out DFL front-runner Keith Ellison and nominee Pelikan for criticism, perhaps previewing future debates. He questions their electability. Unlike Ellison, Foley says, the White House will not be his singular area of focus as AG.
“If all Congressman Ellison wants is to criticize Trump, I think he is neglecting a whole portion of what the office should be doing on behalf of Minnesota values,” Foley said. “I’d bring independent, effective leadership. I don’t just want a megaphone to criticize Trump.”
Foley says his tenure as Ramsey County attorney is his strongest qualification for the job he seeks. “I won’t need on-the-job training,” he said.
Over his four terms, Foley established an early victim’s rights program and one of the country’s first specialized family violence units. That predated one of his biggest cases, the murder trial of White Bear Lake’s Lois Jurgens. She was convicted in 1987 of abusing and killing her 3-year-old adopted son, Dennis, two decades earlier in 1965.
But Foley tends to highlight two other cases that he sees as key AG qualifiers.
One is his 1982 prosecution of the Rev. Gilbert Gustafson, an associate pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church in White Bear Lake. Another was his 1992 defense before the U.S. Supreme Court of St. Paul’s pioneering hate-crime statute.
Foley prosecuted Gustafson after he admitted sexually abusing three boys at his parish between 1977 and 1982. Foley, himself a Catholic, said he had no qualms about pursing that case. But not everyone shared that sentiment.
“I did run into resistance from certain people telling me not to bring it, and I got calls from the archdiocese,” Foley said. “But we brought it and we were successful.”
Jeff Anderson, the country’s top clergy-abuse lawyer, acknowledges Foley’s role as a pioneering prosecutor of clergy sex abuse.
“He demonstrated a rigor that many in his field at that time did not and would not,” Anderson said. “He basically gave us a path to the top officials.”
Yet Gustafson was sentenced to just six months in jail and a $40 fine; he spent a little over four months incarcerated. Though the church pledged his future role would be limited to clerical duties, Gustafson launched a second career as a sexual abuse expert speaking to Catholic and Protestant clergy. In 2002, local media found him working as a chaplain at Bloomington’s Franciscan Poor Clares monastery.
On its face, the outcome of R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992), the other case Foley highlight, was fairly disastrous. It overturned St. Paul’s hate crime law after a juvenile offender, convicted of helping to burn a makeshift cross in someone’s yard, challenged the law on First Amendment grounds. Foley lost 9-0. Some legal experts thought the ruling might kill off U.S. hate crime statutes, though that didn’t happen.
Foley remains proud of that case. “I thought the justices were wrong,” Foley said. “They subsequently changed their position on that issue.” True—in State of Wisconsin v. Mitchell (1993), the high court upheld penalties for hate crimes.
A more unqualified defeat came in the late 1980s when Foley sued WCCO-TV’s I-Team for defamation after, he says, its reporting suggested he was an accessory to a murder.
A district court judge threw out the case on grounds that Foley failed to prove actual malice. The Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court declined to take up the case—though one Court of Appeals judge, Jim Randall, dissented. Randall argued a jury should hear the evidence and decide if Foley was maligned.
Foley said he would stand his ground were a similar situation to arise if he is elected AG. But he suggests that the WCCO case was so far outside the norm that reporters really don’t have anything to worry about.
“I am not going to be an angry attorney general and lash out at media,” he said. “We’ve got one of those at the national level. I don’t need to be that.”
A little more about … Tom Foley
Lives in: St. Paul
Grew up in: Wabasha, Rochester, Austin and Albert Lea
Family: Wife, Jana; two sons, Jordan and Mitchell; father Dan Foley was a district court judge in southeastern Minnesota and was among the first judges ever appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Undergrad: University of Minnesota (1969)
J.D.: University of Minnesota School of Law (1972)
Hobbies: Skiing, hiking, boating and golf.
Surprising fact: In 1981, Foley traveled to Russia to on an international mission to help extract a dissident from a Soviet prison. Ten years later, he went to Albania on another human rights mission.