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A determined former DFL Sen. Bob Lessard, candidate for state attorney general at age 87, poses with one of the two mounted deer displayed in his St. Paul apartment. The “Old Trapper” says he would sue the Legislature to protect Legacy Amendment funds. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
A determined former DFL Sen. Bob Lessard, candidate for state attorney general at age 87, poses with one of the two mounted deer displayed in his St. Paul apartment. The “Old Trapper” says he would sue the Legislature to protect Legacy Amendment funds. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Bob Lessard runs for attorney general to protect Legacy funds

The OI’ Trapper is after new quarry. Though he lacks a law degree, he wants to become the people’s attorney.

GOP attorney general candidate Bob Lessard was for 26 years Minnesota’s state senator from International Falls — and the Legislature’s only bona fide professional fishing guide. He never became an attorney, though he says he earnestly considered it as a younger man.

“Then I went fishing,” he jokes.

If he wins, it would be a watershed. The Legislative Reference Library scanned the records; it appears Lessard would be Minnesota’s first non-lawyer attorney general. But he won’t let that stand between him and his unlikely goal of becoming the state’s first Republican AG since 1971.

“I think you labor under an illusion if you think that attorneys are the only ones that know the law,” Lessard said.

At 87, Lessard is a Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame member in possession of lifetime fishing and hunting licenses. He could simply go about his business as a hunting and fishing outfitter. But he has remaining political fish to fry — and they’re big enough that he has taken a leave of absence from his role as special assistant to the DNR commissioner.

“The attorney general’s office was never supposed to be used as a political platform for anybody — either of the parties,” said Lessard, speaking with an energetic bark even as he settles into his St. Paul apartment’s cushy sofa.

“This has been going on for years,” he said. “But it’s the worst that I have ever seen it.”

Lessard is unhappy that Attorney General Lori Swanson last year joined a lawsuit against Donald Trump to prevent the president from enforcing the international travel ban that mostly targeted Muslim-majority nations. He is even more unhappy that a DFL candidate, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, might end up replacing her.

“Ellison is so far out,” he said. “This guy would be an absolute disaster for the state of Minnesota.” Ellison would use the attorney general’s office “purely for political purposes,” Lessard said.

To him, the attorney general has just one job. “It’s supposed to be used to enforce the Minnesota Constitution,” said Lessard, who keeps a copy of that document in his car’s glove box. “I believe in that.”

Lessard has another, perhaps more poignant reason for running. He sees his legacy, the state’s Clean Water & Legacy Amendment, under attack. In what could be the last act of his political life, he is girding to repel the assault.

Lessard had no direct hand in passing the 2008 amendment — he was out of office when voters finally approved it. But he fought for it so hard that the council that manages wildlife and fish habitat restoration funds — the Lessard-Sams Council — was partly named for him.

Effective lawmaker

Lessard, the state’s longest-tenured Environment and Natural Resources Committee chair, was a highly effective legislator.

His 1989 bill established the state lottery. A little later, he got a constitutional amendment passed that dedicated 40 percent of its proceeds to an environmental trust fund. In 1998, he engineered another successful constitutional amendment, this one guaranteeing Minnesotans’ right to hunt and fish.

He has trained a skeptical eye on other lawmakers for decades. He felt burned, he said, when less lottery money than expected was dedicated to the environment. Then the fund got raided, prompting him to push the ballot initiative.

For Lessard, the 2018 legislative session was the final straw. At virtually the last minute, lottery money from the state’s Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund was pumped into the bonding bill for water-infrastructure projects. Much to Lessard’s surprise, Gov. Mark Dayton did not line-item veto that diversion.

Now Lessard is convinced he has spotted a trend — lawmakers are looking for ways to raid Legacy funds, he said. If he becomes attorney general, he will use the full weight of that office to stop it. He would even sue the Legislature, he said, if necessary.

“We are going to look at every possible avenue to find that’s unconstitutional,” Lessard said.

A conservative Democrat for most of his tenure at the Capitol, Lessard left the party in 2000 to run as an independent. He won. In his final term, he caucused with neither Democrats nor Republicans. It was his most enjoyable term at that Capitol, he said.

“I had a lot of fun doing what I have always wanted to do and reporting only to one person,” Lessard said. “Me.”

Early in his legislative career, Lessard was a member of the Senate Judiciary committee, but that ended after 1982. Still, some of his legislative choices could shed some light on the kind of AG he would be.

For instance, while he might not have suing this president in mind, he has a history of bucking a president from his own party.

In 1979, Lessard fought a plan by Democratic President Jimmy Carter to federally manage the upper Mississippi. Lessard instead assembled an alternative multi-county consortium that he said could manage the waters much better and more cheaply. He won; local management was retained.

In the mid-1980s, he fought against mandatory seat belt laws. Since their passage, the death rate from traffic accidents has dropped steadily. Lessard admits that might have been a mistake.

“I wear them,” he said. “We should be doing it. I am not saying that it was the right thing to do at the time, but it was a personal liberty issue. And I feel very strongly on that.”

In 1985, he sponsored successful legislation to block cities from implementing stricter gun control than outlined in state law. Opponents said larger cities affected by the gun violence needed stricter regulations to stem higher rates of violent crime. Coincidentally or not, by 1995 murder rates in Minneapolis soared to 27.1 murders per 100,000 people — almost 70 percent higher than New York’s 16 per 100,000 murder rate. They later dropped.

Lessard’s own family was touched by gun violence in 2003, when one of his sons accidentally shot and killed a photographer. Yet personal tragedy has not changed his pro-gun philosophy, he said.

“I have always believed that if you are a law-abiding citizen you have the right to carry,” Lessard said. “But you never will see me use that as a number one thing on my political agenda.”

Lessard was not terribly interested in reliving his past record. Times, people and social mores change, he said, and he has changed with them.

Ready for a tussle

When he first tried to register for the attorney general’s race in early June, Lessard wanted to appear on the ballot as an independent. He was disappointed to learn that he needed 2,000 petition signatures to qualify. So he entered as a Republican.

It was not purely a philosophical choice, he admits.

“In the Democratic party, the line’s too long,” he laughs.

There are five DFLers in the AG race, while his GOP competition includes the endorsed candidate Doug Wardlow and Sharon Anderson, who runs for office every election cycle. Lessard said he is as wary of partisan extremes in the GOP and hopes he can be a moderating presence in the race.

Still, on balance, the GOP tag is a better fit these days. “The Republican Party is more conservative, and I am a conservative person,” Lessard said. “I always have been.”

Lessard remains loquacious, trim and limber late as his ninth decade draws to a close. During an interview he all but dove behind his couch to plug in a lamp. He also is a determined candidate who says he can win — missing law degree notwithstanding.

If anyone plans to campaign against him for lacking experience, he said, he welcomes the fight. “I had 26 years, I passed constitutional amendments. I’ve probably got more experience than anybody in the attorney general’s office,” he said. “I say bring that one on. I am ready for that one any time.”

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