If Doug Wardlow becomes attorney general, a new sheriff will have arrived in town — one with an “R” on his badge for the first time since 1971.
“If you want an attorney general who will protect consumers, be tough on crime, prosecute welfare fraud and keep Minnesota safe,” the endorsed Republican attorney general candidate said in a recent Tweet, “vote for Doug Wardlow.”
Of course, all the candidates we’ve heard from so far in this series have said similar things — though Wardlow’s repetitive stress on “rule of law” and criminal prosecutions is a little edgier than the DFLers’ themes.
But here’s something we haven’t heard before. If U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison is elected to the office, Wardlow said in a recent Tweet, “he will use taxpayer dollars to fund his leftist war against @realDonaldTrump.”
Actually, two things are in there that we haven’t heard. Most obvious is Wardlow’s support for the president — there is no analog for that among DFLers. In addition, Wardlow is the only candidate thus far to focus on a single opponent. From his social media feeds and press releases, you’d think the race is already winnowed down to Doug Wardlow v. Keith Ellison.
Wardlow, 40, is a former state legislator and attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian conservative nonprofit that litigates religious liberty cases. Fresh-faced, affable and smart — Wardlow graduated magna cum laude as a Georgetown University undergrad and is proficient in Mandarin Chinese — he was a little reticent in person last week to declare his sights are set on Ellison.
Reminded that his campaign messaging has all effectively named Ellison his general election opponent, he relented. “I think it’s likely,” he said.
But despite high name recognition, Ellison is no shoe-in; he faces a competitive five-way DFL primary on Aug. 14. Wardlow isn’t even the only Republican in his race. Still, his GOP competitors — constant candidate Sharon Anderson and the 87-year-old recent GOP convert Bob Lessard — have been little heard from. Ditto from Noah Johnson, running for the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party.
Wardlow repeatedly has branded Ellison an “extremist.” An online ad posted on July 8 reminds viewers of the congressman’s past association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and shows Ellison holding up an “Antifa” pamphlet.
He has signaled he wouldn’t temper that approach, even if another Democrat upsets Ellison. They are all extremists, he insists — even the wonky former Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman and Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, a legislative favorite of Minnesota’s cop shops.
“Whatever challenge comes my way is the challenge I’ve got,” Wardlow said. “But here is the thing: I have a strong message focused on the rule of law and keeping Minnesotans safe. I think that has broad appeal in Minneapolis and St. Paul and all across greater Minnesota. So whoever the opponent is, I am confident I can win.”
Certainly, Wardlow had a head start. He has barnstormed the state for more than a year, while several DFLers suspended their campaigns in January after incumbent Lori Swanson declared she would run for reelection. Others signed on in early June, after Swanson switched to the governor’s race. Only DFL nominee Matt Pelikan has been a steady DFL presence on the trail.
By piling on against Pelikan, Wardlow suggests, DFLers are doing him a favor. “The public generally hasn’t focused on the attorney general’s race much at all,” he said. “This cycle, things have changed.”
Wardlow grew up Eagan, the son of public school teachers. A lifelong conservative, he was fascinated by political theory and science. He graduated from Eagan High School first in his class, with a perfect grade point average. For a time, he considered a life in the hard sciences, even tutoring non-physics majors in quantum mechanics at Georgetown.
But ultimately, he chose the law and conservative politics. “The reason I am a Republican,” he said, “is because I think the Republican Party’s platform and principles center around and support the rule of law.”
After getting his juris doctorate from Georgetown Law, Wardlow clerked for the Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice G. Barry Anderson. “He helped me form a texturalist, original-meaning kind of judicial philosophy,” Wardlow said.
In 2007, he took a job as associate attorney for the New York-based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where he concentrated on international trade litigation — and made use of his Mandarin language skills.
In 2011, he was elected to the Minnesota House. The tale’s a bit a Shakespearean: His father, Lynn Wardlow, represented his Eagan district from 2003 to 2009, but got unseated by 35-year-old DFL upstart Mike Obermueller. But Wardlow avenged his father, wresting the seat away from Obermueller. “It was a wonderful victory in 2010,” he smiles.
He served just one term, but made some noise. He advocated for a right-to-work constitutional amendment that would have killed the requirements that workers join unions and pay dues in union shops — precisely the stance of the U.S. Supreme Court in its recent Janus v. AFSCME ruling. Wardlow was so zealous that he crossed his party’s leadership when they decided not to pursue it, according to reports.
He authored a bill to raise the threshold from $7,500 to $10,000 for filing conciliation court civil cases. It also would also have permitted appeals of judges’ orders certifying classes before class-action suit could move forward. It got vetoed with an omnibus bill. Another measure would have cut the statute of limitations from six to four years in cases involving real estate, injury to personal property, criminal conversation, fraud and similar matters.
Wardlow says tort reform remains an important issue and if a bill gets introduced while he is AG, he might testify in support. “But it’s not going to be a focus of the office,” he said.
Instead, crime will be a primary focus. Wardlow’s first move, he said, would be to staff up the attorney general’s criminal law division at levels not seen since Skip Humphrey’s day back in the 1990s.
“It has been eviscerated by the folks that have been in control of that office for the last couple of decades — to the point where there is no real criminal law division to speak of,” Wardlow said. “So our county attorneys — the front-line prosecutors — are on their own, essentially.”
Wardlow says his office would more frequently step in when county attorney’s offices faces thorny cases they can’t handle. As things stand, county attorneys must turn those matters over to other county attorneys, draining scarce resources, he said.
Asked why he thinks that changed has occurred, he said it’s a good question. “I don’t know,” Wardlow said. “I do know that they are doing things with the office that are very political. Lori Swanson has sued President Trump, so that’s one reason.”
Wardlow would retain Swanson’s emphasis on consumer protections. But he would do more to fight human trafficking and the spread of opioids. He would, for instance, collaborate with state and local law enforcement, and country attorneys, to “put opioid pushers behind bars.” He also would target welfare fraud and has pledged to “stand with Trump to crack down on illegal immigration.”
He also would “protect the state’s fiscal resources” by pushing back on state agencies, issuing opinions when agencies act unconstitutionally or outside statutory authority. He points to the state’s “buffer law,” which requires 50-foot perennial vegetation strips along lakes, rivers and streams, and 16.5-foot strips along ditches, to mitigate agriculture runoff. “The way that the buffer law is being applied right now is problematic,” he said.
What he won’t do, he said, is filter his duties through the prism of religion.
That question arises because Wardlow’s highest-profile cases have involved religious freedom defenses. He represented Belle Plaine citizens, free of charge, when as tried to preserve a religious monument to fallen soldiers at their Veterans Memorial Park, for instance. Ultimately, it had to be moved.
He won a 2016 case against a transgender funeral home employee in Detroit. The employee’s boss sued the worker because, while transitioning, the employee wanted to dress as a woman at work. At the time, Wardlow proclaimed it “a big victory” for religious freedom.
“The government doesn’t have the ability to force business owners to violate their religious beliefs about human sexuality, or anything else for that matter,” Wardlow told the Detroit Free Press.
Wardlow said his religious views will inform his role as attorney general; he will, for instance, fight for Minnesotans’ religious liberties. But that doesn’t mean the office would turn theocratic if he gets elected.
“This is not a religious job at all,” Wardlow said. “This is about the rule of law — and that’s what it should be about.”
Lives in: Prior Lake
Grew up in: Eagan
Family: Wife, Jenny; three children, Winston, Annabelle, Martin
Undergrad: Georgetown University; B.A., government and political theory (2001)
J.D.: Georgetown Law (2004)
Hobbies: Pianist, golfer
Surprising fact: Wardlow’s a Chinese culture buff and learned to speak proficient Mandarin Chinese at Georgetown University.