Will Minneapolis voters elect a reformist county attorney?
A race on Tuesday for the top prosecutor in Hennepin County, Minnesota, clarified the ongoing debate over what Minneapolis residents really think about police reform two years after the murder of George Floyd. The murder, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, sparked a national movement to reform the criminal justice system and local city council efforts to dismantle and defund the police department. But since then the city has sent mixed messages about how to move forward.
In May 2020, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. Last month, Chauvin was sentenced to 21 years in federal prison for violating Floyd’s civil rights during the arrest that led to his murder. But at the time, the officer’s fate seemed anything but certain.
The killing of Floyd, and a string of other cops who walked away unscathed after killing black men, has led to global protests against police brutality. Leading county prosecutor Mike Freeman sided with Chauvin shortly after the incident, saying there was “other evidence that does not support a criminal charge” in Floyd’s killing.
Initially, there was momentum behind a plan to fully fund the Minneapolis Police Department. But amid the pushback from local law enforcement, some city council members softened their stance and offered another plan to overhaul, but retain, the department. And after an election move to replace the city’s police department with a public safety department failed last November by 56% to 44%, mainstream media and politicians were quick to assert that the people of Minneapolis did not want major police reform. “Minneapolis voters have flatly rejected a proposal to reinvent policing in their city,” NPR wrote of the vote.
A jury ultimately decided otherwise, convicting Chauvin earlier this year, much to the relief of Floyd supporters. And on Tuesday, Hennepin County voters chastised Freeman’s approach to crime and what his critics said was an unwillingness to hold police accountable for murders and other instances of brutality. Voters sent former chief public defender Mary Moriarty to the top county attorney spot with 36% of the vote in the seven-vote, nonpartisan primary. Moriarty came in far ahead of police-backed candidate, retired judge Martha Holton Dimick, who won just under 18% of the vote and will face Moriarty in the general election in November.
Dimick is backed by Freeman and local police and sheriff unions, as well as centrist Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and the Star Tribune editorial board. She served as a county district court judge for a decade before retiring in January to run for Hennepin County prosecutor. In a Star Tribune op-ed last month, Dimick said she was depressed after watching video of Floyd’s murder, but since the murder “many criminals have heard the message that we don’t care about their actions, and they acted accordingly.” Her campaign has focused on cracking down on repeat offenders and violent crime, and she told the Star Tribune last month that while she supported some efforts to reform the criminal justice system, “we need to send the message that there will be consequences if you commit a crime.”
But Dimick’s approach fared poorly on Tuesday among Hennepin County residents, who overwhelmingly chose Moriarty’s reformist approach — focused on restorative justice, alternatives to incarceration, ending racial disparities in the justice system, police accountability and the removal of cash bail for non-violent offenders.
“Community members, elected leaders and organizations that support our campaign don’t always agree with each other on every issue – but we all agree on one thing – that the status quo doesn’t work. not,” Moriarty said in a statement. Tweeter celebrating his win on Tuesday night.
The Hennepin County prosecutor’s race was one of at least two in Minnesota in which police-backed candidates fared poorly amid an ongoing debate over how to balance justice reform criminal with public security. Also in Minneapolis, candidate Don Samuels, who was backed by Frey and local law enforcement, lost 2 points in his main Democratic challenge against incumbent U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar despite institutional support, outside spending and the support from local law enforcement.
The county attorney office, once held by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is responsible for criminal prosecutions in the state’s largest county and rose to national prominence after Freeman announced in September that he would not seek to be re-elected amid scrutiny of his handling of the Floyd case. Freeman held the position for more than two decades for non-consecutive terms – he was first elected in 1990 and served from 1991 to 1999, when Klobuchar took the seat. He was re-elected in 2006 and has held the position ever since.
Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who the Star Tribune endorsed alongside Dimick for the top two spots, got 16% of the vote and came in third place. Winkler presented a platform for reform that highlighted police accountability and cash bail reform.