With the primary election next month, Minnesota’s 2018 races are still packed.
In an effort to get her name heard above the din, Minnesota attorney general candidate Debra Hilstrom has spent recent weeks traveling the state to meet voters.
The DFL candidate has represented District 40B — which includes portions of Brooklyn Center in Hennepin County — in the Minnesota House of Representatives since 2001. She was the first in her family to graduate from college, and the first to obtain a graduate degree, though one of her two children followed in her footsteps as an attorney.
On her way to southwest Minnesota Tuesday, she stopped by the Hutchinson Leader offices for 15 minutes to talk about her background and campaign for this Q&A:
Tell us about your background and what brought you to the attorney general race.
“I have served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for 18 years working on issues of consumer protection and public safety. While serving in the legislature I went to law school and became a lawyer. I have prosecuted cases for the Anoka County Attorney’s Office. I left that position to run to be the next attorney general. I’m a mom and a wife. I have been married for 32 years, I have two children, Stephanie is 28, Jeremy is 24. My passion has really been protecting Minnesotans and consumers. No one should be too big that they’re above the law, and no one should be too small and be below its protection. So I want to be the next attorney general and protect Minnesotans.”
Often lawmakers have a career in law before they are elected. You took almost the opposite route. Why did you do that?
“When I first got to the Minnesota House of Representatives, I had a state representative from Hermantown say, ‘What is one thing you wish you had done in your life that you didn’t do?’ We were kind of part of a group, a committee where we all had to say that. I said, ‘I wish I had gone to law school.’ So, he asked me what I had done today to go to law school. So ultimately I went to law school. It made me a better legislator. It also enabled me to prosecute cases. So I’ve written the law and had the opportunity to go to court and protect the law, and protect victims of domestic violence, financial exploitation of vulnerable adults, and prosecuted cases of people who illegally sell firearms. So it gives me a unique perspective, which is why I tell folks I think I’m uniquely qualified for this position. I’m the only one in the race that has both written the law and defended it in court.”
You mentioned you had a unique perspective. Can you tell us more about that?
“When you have the ability to go write the law, in 2009 for example, I passed a law that defined financial exploitation of adults, what kind of cases could be prosecuted, what cases they were, what to look for. I created that 1-800 number you can call to report abuse and neglect. Then I went to the courtroom and prosecuted people who financially exploited vulnerable adults. So I had the ability to see what was working in the courtroom based on the laws that were passed, and what still needed to be looked at. We found out that if the victim died before the case was finished, the law wasn’t clear on whether or not the state could ask for restitution. So I was able to go back to the legislature and have it make a decision. We passed the law and changed it so that an estate can, in fact, ask for restitution now. It wasn’t the case before. So it gives me a unique perspective in that I’ve done both. I’ve written the law, prosecuted it, and then come back and changed it where it needed to be changed.”
What experience have you had with cases on the scale of an attorney general?
“I’ve kept a full felony caseload. I’ve prosecuted well over 3,000 felony crimes in my time. I think I’m the only one in the race who has argued a case before the Minnesota Supreme Court. I’m the only one who has done a grand jury case. I’ve done everything from assistance with fraud to prosecuting folks who sell illegal firearms. The attorney general takes on people who violate the law.”
With so many packed races, what about this particular race should stand out to voters as an important one?
“The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office is the office people call when they need assistance. Most people contact the office when they are having some kind of difficulty. Those issues may not rise to the level of national importance, but to many it’s the most important issue they are dealing with in their life. It might be about if they get to keep their job, whether they keep their housing, whether someone is trying to collect a debt from them that maybe they don’t owe, whether they’re not getting access to health care, or someone is not paying a bill, they got treatment but the insurance company is not paying the bill. Most of the folks who are calling the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office are asking for assistance. And so people should care about this position because it’s where you go. The big people all have their lawyers, the corporations have their lawyers. The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office is where everyone else goes when they need help.”
You’ve talked about your experience in your courtroom. What else do you think stands out about you?
“I’ve been a fighter. I’ve been taking on the issues. When folks came to take away health care in Minnesota I fought them back and stopped them from taking the health insurance folks need. There was some proposal in the legislature that said you should only buy the insurance you wanted, like a menu. So you better not pick the wrong kind of cancer if that would be the law. If you picked prostate cancer and you got lung cancer, you wouldn’t have insurance. We heard those proposals at the legislature, I defeated those. I’ve already stood up to big industry, as you might call it, to protect Minnesotans.”
What kind of work do you expect to take on if you are elected?
“The opioid epidemic has been a huge issue across Minnesota. Pharmaceutical companies lied to doctors and lied to Minnesotans. They said opioids are not addictive, you should take them. Opioids were overprescribed and we saw that Minnesotans were taking them and becoming addicted. For awhile there were more deaths related to prescription opioids than heroin. Minnesotans need the ability to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable. We’re doing it both here in Minnesota, and it’s a national lawsuit where people are joining together. Democratic and Republican attorney generals are joining together to take on the pharmaceutical companies over the opioid epidemic. I plan to do that. I have taken them on in the legislature to hold them accountable, and I’d do that in the attorney general’s office.”
“We are starting to see more and more companies getting bigger and bigger. You are seeing more federal lawsuits where you have to join in.”
“I expect I will be an aggressive attorney general.”
You have served in the House of Representatives. How much do you see your politics playing a role in your job if you are elected as attorney general? Do you see your history with the DFL painting your perspective?
“When someone calls the attorney general’s office, they need to have help whether they are democrat or republican. Just like when you call 911 and the first thing they say isn’t ‘Are you democrat or republican?’ That’s just not a question you ask. No matter who you are, you are entitled to assistance when you call the attorney general’s office. That is the kind of attorney general I’ll be. There will be issues, of course, people will perceive to be democratic or republican. But the job of attorney general is to hold people accountable to the law. You don’t write the law. You enforce the law as it’s written. You can advocate for changes at the legislature, and that very well might be part of the role people expect you to take on in different issues, and perspectives differ. But once the law is written it is the job of the attorney general to hold people accountable to that law. ... The job is to be the lawyer, to do the job.”
What kind of work are you the most passionate about?
“Both in the legislature and as a prosecutor, I really worked on protecting vulnerable adults. That is one area I have worked on my entire career. Also, working on domestic violence. Right after I graduated from college, I was a domestic violence advocate. I would take women or men who had been abused and help them clean up the mess from the incident, and if they wanted, take them downtown and help them get orders for protection if they needed it. I worked on that issue even before getting elected. For a year I was a domestic abuse advocate. Serving in the legislature, I worked in the area of public safety. I chaired the judiciary committee, so I set the budget for public defenders and women’s shelters and the whole court system. That was part of the job of the chair. I had to get it through the legislature. And I’ve prosecuted those cases as well. Making certain no one is too small for the protection of the law was really my focus in the legislature, whether you’re talking about it in a criminal sense or the civil sense.”
“We saw people specifically targeting veterans. They would get veterans to sign over their benefits to get a little bit of money up front. We said ‘No, you can’t do it that way,’ because they were charging outrageous amounts. They were getting veterans to sign over their long-term benefits for a little bit of money up front. So I took that issue on.”