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Familiar faces vie for Hennepin prosecutor's job

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler and longtime public defender Mary Moriarty are running in the nonpartisan race to become the next Hennepin County Attorney.

MINNEAPOLIS — As of Tuesday, there are two familiar faces in the hunt to be the next top prosecutor in Minnesota's largest court system.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, the Minnesota House Majority Leader, formally announced he's running for Hennepin County Attorney next year.  It came a week after longtime Hennepin County public defender Mary Moriarty jumped into the race to replace Mike Freeman, who isn't seeking another term.

Rep. Winkler, a Golden Valley corporate lawyer, has served 11 years in the legislature and is the second highest ranking lawmaker in the Minn. House of Representatives. But he said he believes he can make a difference reforming criminal justice in these volatile times.

"There is a big conversation and a reckoning happening on crime and race and disparities in our criminal justice system, and I think people are really hungry for somebody who can pull us together around a progressive vision for public safety in Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs," Winkler told KARE Tuesday.

Early in his tenure at the State Capitol, Winkler crafted the bill to compensate victims and survivors of the 35W Bridge collapse. More recently, he has led the charge to legalize cannabis and create a blueprint for the cannabis industry in Minnesota.

Winkler has pressed the case that enforcement of marijuana laws has had a disproportionately hard impact on persons of color and the communities they where they live.

"That’s why we included expungement provisions that would lead the nation, that’s why we focused on business development with the communities affected by the war on drugs."

He said he believes the Hennepin County Attorney's Office should proactively build more bridges and partnerships with local communities and organizations, to restore trust in the justice system in wake of George Floyd's murder during an arrest in Minneapolis.

Winkler said he doesn't view his lack of criminal court experience as a liability in this election.

"There is no shortage of courtroom expertise in the county attorney’s office. I think what we need is public-facing leadership and an effort to build trust in communities and across different parts of the county."

Mary Moriarty spent 31 years in the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office and became the first woman to lead that office in 2014. She says she's gained key insights along the way that would help her enact needed reforms in the county attorney's office.

"I have 22 years in the courtroom trying cases. I’ve watched prosecutors. I know how the county system works from the inside. I have experience managing a large law office, the Public Defender's office," Moriarty told KARE.

"I understand the humanity of people who are accused as well as the humanity of people who are harmed by the system. I understand that what we’ve been doing for decades hasn’t worked."

Moriarty said the recidivism rate -- people returning to jail multiple times -- is proof that the justice system is failing to restore and rehabilitate people. She also said the response to people caught up in the opioid crisis needs to take more of a public health approach.

"We incarcerate people – that does not help them overcome their substance abuse disorder or go into recovery. So, we need a harm reduction approach, not continued incarceration of people who struggle with substance abuse disorder."

She said the Hennepin County Attorney's Office could also play a role in curbing police misconduct by scrutinizing behavior captured on body camera footage. She said public defenders and prosecutors are the ones most likely to view body cam footage, so they're in a unique position to play the role of watchdogs.

"When prosecutors see a violation of policy or constitutional rights, they can be talking to that police officer about it, they can be talking to police leadership."

The Minnesota Board of Public Defense suspended Moriarty from her job in 2019, citing social media posts on racial justice, posts members believed were offensive. In 2020, they voted against renewing her as chief public defender, prompting Moriarity to file a lawsuit.  The board agreed to pay her $300,000 to settle the suit earlier this year.

Other candidates are expected to enter the race between now and next spring. They'll all square off in a nonpartisan primary in August of 2022, with the top two candidates moving to the November ballot.