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Foley stakes claim for AG seat as experienced, non-political arbiter

Tom Foley

In more ways than one, he's something of an elder statesman.

Boasting an impressive resume, a wide breadth of experience, as well as an old-school disdain for partisanship and a desire to be a neutral arbiter in the state's legal affairs, Tom Foley is hoping that's enough to propel him past a crowded field of DFLers with their eyes on the empty Minnesota attorney general seat.

No less than five DFL candidates are vying for the seat of incumbent Lori Swanson, who's abandoning the position after three terms to make a bid for governor. While speaking highly of Swanson—Foley entered the race only after Swanson left it—he said there's a number of issues that need to be addressed in a different way; modern problems that require modern solutions, tempered with experience.

While youngster (and DFL-endorsed) Matt Pelikan has touted his unabashedly liberal values and high-profile congressman Keith Ellison expounded on a dynamic national vision for the role, Foley is doggedly non-political—he's a DFLer, make no mistake, but in the eyes of Minnesotans, they should view him as a universal public servant, he said.

"I would like to keep politics out of the attorney general's office," Foley told the Dispatch via phone Thursday, Aug. 9. "Your decisions should not be political and that's how I operated as county attorney and that's how I'd operate as attorney general."

Public servant, yes, but not a falsely modest servant. Foley said he sports a candidacy backed up by the best resume among the DFL candidates and a sterling record to prove it.

"I'm the most qualified. ... None of the other candidates have any administrative experience running a public law office. I started a number of innovative programs when I was Ramsey County attorney," said Foley, who noted he started a victim witness protection program, founded one of the first family violence and child abuse programs in the United States, formed an environmental prosecution unit, a sexual assault division and a drug unit in the early days of such programs.

Foley shrugged off the notion that Ellison—with his two-edged sword of a national reputation and "extremist measures"—would waltz through the primary. Pelikan? An inexperienced lawyer, Foley characterised—an opportunist taking advantage of populist sentiments across the state.

"I think people want experience and, more, accomplishments," said Foley, who noted—between him, Mike Rothman and Debra Hilstrom—he's the most distinguished member of a group of candidates who are banking their bids on experience and accolades.

Foley, 70, grew up in a number of communities around southern Minnesota, the son of a district court judge in that part of the state. He worked his way through college at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, then earned his law degree at the University of Minnesota Law School, before taking his first job out of college—fittingly, in the state attorney general's office.

Throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s, Foley bounced around a number of prominent offices in the state—a state criminal prosecutor for a couple years, deputy Minnesota commissioner of corrections for a couple more, then Ramsey County attorney for 16 years, whereupon he was appointed vice-chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission in Washington, D.C. for three years, then a short interim stint as Washington County attorney before being appointed the governor's office chief on Capitol Hill by former Gov. Jesse Ventura.

In the midst of those various roles, he made failed bids for U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and a gubernatorial run as Doug Johnson's running mate in 1998.

He's been primarily in private practice since the early-aughts—litigating general business, finance and personal injury cases, as well as being retained by the National Tribal Alliance.

Looking forward, Foley said he plans to tackle civil rights issues—particularly, he noted, for the numerous immigrant communities in Minnesota—as well environmental protections, gun regulations, school safety, mental health, sex trafficking, consumer protection, elder law and, perhaps most prominently, the opioid crisis.

"They talk about what they want to do," said Foley, who noted the lawsuits he brought against pharmaceutical companies for Native American interests across the country. "I'm already doing it."