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History-making candidates face unique challenges in Hennepin County

Dewanna Witt is the first woman — and first Black person — elected county sheriff, while Mary Moriarty is the first openly gay woman elected as county attorney.
Credit: KARE 11
Mary Moriarty (left) and Dawanna Witt (right)

MINNEAPOLIS — Hennepin County voters elected a new county attorney and a new sheriff by wide margins on Tuesday. Both are women, both will make history, and both face unique challenges right out of the gate.

Dewanna Witt is the first woman, and the first Black person elected sheriff of Hennepin County. She has 23 years of law enforcement experience and is currently a major in the sheriff's office, but she will inherit a job that has been in turmoil for nearly a year following the arrest and law license suspension of Sheriff David Hutchinson, who will remain on medical leave until she takes office.

Mary Moriarty is the first openly gay woman elected Hennepin County Attorney, and faces a different kind of challenge. She is the former chief public defender who spent years fighting against the office she will now lead. As a true outsider, many of the prosecutors and law enforcement officers she'll now work with, endorsed her opponent.

Despite those challenges, both women say they are optimistic and eager to chart a new path forward during a time of change for public safety in Hennepin County.

Mary Moriarty: "It's really exciting right now because we have a new sheriff. We are going to have a new police chief, so there are a lot of new people in positions where we will be able to collaborate."

Dewanna Witt: "I am a collaborative person. I understand that there is no one person, no one agency that can do this, so we have to work across lines to make sure that we get things done. While we're cutting ourselves off with these boundaries, these restrictions, people breaking the law don't do that, so we can't do that, we have to be willing to help each other."

Witt says the most immediate challenge for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office is recruiting and retaining deputies at a time when the sheriff's office has been dealing with controversy in the wake of the turmoil surrounding Sheriff David Hutchinson, all while staffing and burnout continues to get worse.

Witt: "I'm hoping that, a year from now, people are saying Hennepin County Sheriff's Office is one of the top five places people want to work in Minnesota. That's what I got to say. You laugh now, but that's where we're going."

Witt says reaching out to the community will be key to getting there. She says she will look to hire civilians to take over recruitment and retention efforts, which should help ease pressure on deputies.

Witt: "We do our best work when there is trust and respect, and so bringing community into the work that we do has to be a part of that. I was a kid who did not like nor trust law enforcement and those were based off of my own lived experiences. I never saw myself in this position and this is why I choke up because I know what it feels like to be somebody who cannot see the best you have to offer. Not only being the first black person, but also the first woman in this role, I'm thinking already about, 'Who did I just pave the way for?'"

Moriarty says restoring trust is also central to the success of the Hennepin County Attorney's Office.

Moriarty: "We have, in Minneapolis, a number of unsolved crimes. Whether it's shootings, murders, whatever it is, the closure rate is very, very low. And I think part of that is the lack trust with police. So one of my goals is to try to build that in ways that the county attorney can help, in ways the county attorney can help, so that there is more trust in the community."

Kent Erdahl: "What do you see as your biggest challenge, winning the trust of the community or winning the trust of law enforcement?"

Moriarty: "I think the community has spoken. I think the community rejected fear, the same old policies we've had. I think that was clear and it was clear across Hennepin County. Certainly, police chiefs, because I was a public defender, are a little like, 'What is she going to do?' kind of thing, and so, I talked to police chiefs from around Hennepin County, and I plan on being present with them, and I plan on pushing them too, to say, how can we work together. If our closure rates are, say, 24% on carjackings county-wide, what tools are you missing? Because, I, as county attorney, can only hold people accountable if they're actually caught. So I will be working with them, I will be communicating with them, I'll be pushing them for answers because we are going to be partners in this."

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