Doug Wardlow’s surreptitiously recorded promise to purge the attorney general’s office of Democrats is a “disqualifying event,” a former state assistant attorney general said Monday.
Prentiss Cox, now an associate University of Minnesota Law School professor, was one of a trio of attorneys who on Monday blasted Wardlow’s promise to fire 42 DFL-affiliated staff attorneys if he is elected attorney general.
“It is a very bright red line not to employ line staff attorneys based on party affiliation,” Cox said. The three attorneys spoke at a press conference in the State Office Building on the Minnesota Capitol complex.
Accompanying Cox were Carla Hagen, a recently retired senior Hennepin County attorney and Elizabeth Glidden, an attorney and former Minneapolis City Council vice president.
Wardlow made the controversial quip on Oct. 8, during a Shakopee fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis. Minnesota Public Radio obtained a recording.
The comments run counter to the GOP candidate’s oft-stated promise to avoid politicizing the office. He often has accused DFL opponent Keith Ellison of planning to use the shop as a partisan cudgel against President Donald Trump and has pitched himself as a rule-of-law alternative.
“The office of attorney general shouldn’t be used for political purposes,” Wardlow told Minnesota Lawyer on July 11. “It should focus on Minnesota and keeping Minnesotans safe.”
Billy Grant, Wardlow’s campaign manager, acknowledged Monday that Wardlow made the comments. He said Wardlow was ill that night and should not have appeared in public. “He should have just gone home and gone to sleep,” Grant said.
“It was an error for sure,” he said. “He wishes he hadn’t said that.”
But lawyers at Monday’s press conference were not in a forgiving mood. Hagen said that she was “horrified” when she heard about the comments.
“Affiliation has nothing to do with excellence, experience, dedication or anything that counts in being a public attorney,” she said.
“To purge or politicize that office for a personal agenda is wrong on more levels than I could even stand up here and count today,” she later added.
Glidden echoed that theme. “To hear that Doug Wardlow has said, out loud, that he intends to purge from office 42 Democrats — however that number was arrived at — is shocking,” she said. “It is a promise to retaliate on the basis of political opinion.”
All three lawyers at the podium Monday said they plan to vote for Ellison. The press conference was organized and promoted by the state DFL Party.
‘Much ado about nothing’
Grant said Wardlow has no party-affiliation litmus test for his hires, but that doesn’t mean he would make no changes. Turnover is normal after an election, he said.
“The story is much ado about nothing,” Grant said. It’s safe to say that Keith Ellison would replace a lot of the same people if he got elected, he said.
“The reality is that no matter who wins, they are going to get their own people in there,” Grant said. “That’s just the truth of it.”
It has been true in the past.
In early 1999, incoming DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch immediately fired 17 attorneys, mostly from the office’s criminal and health-licensing divisions. Within seven months, about 100 employees had either left or been fired by Hatch, though he replaced roughly half of them, according to a July 26, 1999, report by Minnesota Public Radio.
Citing a 2008 Nick Coleman column in the Star Tribune, Grant said Hatch’s successor, Lori Swanson, fired or forced out 50 of 135 attorneys from their jobs.
Marty Carlson, a private-practice attorney who left the AG’s office around that time, said some staff attorneys involved in an office unionization effort back then were fired by Swanson. But from his observation, he said, most left voluntarily because they saw “the writing on the wall” and knew they wouldn’t last under Swanson.
“I saw what was coming and I resigned,” Carlson said. “A lot of people did that.”
At Monday’s press conference, Cox tried to draw distinctions between the actions of Hatch and Swanson and Wardlow’s pledge.
During the 2018 primary campaign for governor, Swanson was accused of politicizing her office by demanding improper personal loyalty and political work from employees. Those who didn’t cooperate often found their career advancement opportunities frozen, according to whistleblower D’Andre Norman, who worked for Swanson during those years.
Cox has publicly criticized Swanson for those actions in the past. But he said Monday that Wardlow’s pledge to political donors is a much worse problem.
Wardlow was not discussing who would advance professionally under his leadership, but who would be ousted based purely on political identity, Cox said. That is antithetical to any American attorney general’s obligations to serve the law, he said.
“It’s just something you do not do if you want to run a quality, ethical attorney general’s office,” Cox said.