Climbing Minnesotaƒ?TMs political ladder: A Q & A with Matt Entenza

By Eliot Brown

[img_assistfid=132thumb=1alt=Matt Entenza]

Matt Entenzaƒ?TMs career could be on the verge of flourishing. The 1983 Macalester graduate and House Minority Leader for Minnesota is the presumptive Democratic (DFL in Minnesota-speak) nominee for the attorney general seatƒ?”a seat usually held by Democrats in recent decades. With his house just blocks away from campus, The Mac Weekly caught up with him last week.

The Mac Weekly: You call yourself a consumer watchdog. What would that mean on the attorney general level?

Matt Entenza: It means being a lawyer for average people against companies that are trying to rip them off. The reality is that big companies have lots of lawyers but the average person doesnƒ?TMtƒ?Ý the attorney general is the peopleƒ?TMs lawyer.

The Vikings, the Twins, and the Gophers all want new stadiums within the next few years. Do you think the teams should get the hundreds of millions they are asking for?

I donƒ?TMt think the stadiums should be a high priority. Iƒ?TMve been saying that publicly for a long time. I do think that itƒ?TMs probably the right time now for the Gophers to get a stadium. Thatƒ?TMs one where almost all the money is private. I also donƒ?TMt think the Gophers are going to be leaving. However, I donƒ?TMt think the Vikings are going to get a new stadium for a long time, if at all. And in the Twinƒ?TMs case, the deal keeps changing, so itƒ?TMs unlikely. Iƒ?TMve always voted against stadiums in the past.

But surely thereƒ?TMs a price one can put on losing a pro team?

There are some folks who say that the public should never invest in public-private partnerships, and I think thatƒ?TMs wrong. Take the Xcel arena, for example. I was a co-author in that bill. I thought a community like St. Paul needed to have an arena because it isnƒ?TMt just for hockey, but itƒ?TMs for a whole range of events and brings a lot of tourists to town. Itƒ?TMs harder to make that case for a baseball stadium, but I do think itƒ?TMs better to have a baseball team than to not have oneƒ?”the tradeoff is how much.

As a consumer watchdog, how does one keep that balance where you find the need to scare away business?

I think that good businesses appreciate the fact that people who break the rules are going to be punished. Companies that break the law are cutting corners and are not only hurting consumers, but are hurting businesses that donƒ?TMt cut corners. I used to be an assistant attorney general, and I found legitimate businesses where often the biggest one thing is to ƒ?go get these people,ƒ?TM as they are able to offer lower prices because theyƒ?TMre cheating.

But regulation is always going to cost money.

True, but most good businesses understand that regulation, as long as itƒ?TMs fairly enforced, is essentially good for businesses because it makes sure there is a level playing field.

Weƒ?TMve been hearing a lot about the clean business of lobbying in Washington. Whatƒ?TMs the scene like here in Minnesota?

I think weƒ?TMre seeing some of the same sort of things that weƒ?TMre seeing in Washington. Thatƒ?TMs why Iƒ?TMve always favored public financing of campaigns. Arizona and Maine do it, and thatƒ?TMs the fairest system. We get less reliance on private contributions and less reliance on money periodƒ?”you force races to be more about grassroots.

Do you think the state or attorney general should play any role in regulating excessive CEO compensation?

Yeah, I think there are a couple of things the attorney generalƒ?TMs office can do. One is the AGƒ?TMs office can look at nonprofits. In Minnesota, our entire healthcare is pretty much nonprofit. All of our hospitals, all of our HMOsƒ?”a lot of the leading organizations are nonprofits. Weƒ?TMre seeing some of the abuses of the private sector go into that area. Different groups have lost sight of their charitable purpose and are now looking more like for-profit companies. If theyƒ?TMre going to get a tax exemption, they shouldnƒ?TMt act like that.

Your wife, Lois Quam, a trustee at Macalester, is the CEO of Ovations, a branch of United Healthcare. Some of [current Attorney General] Mike Hatchƒ?TMs biggest accomplishments have been in the regulation of healthcare. Do you see a potential conflict of interest?

Not really. United Health Group does very little business in Minnesota. Theyƒ?TMre a for-profit company and we require by law that our healthcare in Minnesota for HMOs is delivered by nonprofits, so United canƒ?TMt participate. They do some work with one of our HMOs but all they do is process claims and things like that. They do work in a few other areas but they have minimal involvement. So thereƒ?TMs certainly no conflict with our hospitals or HMOs, and I want to be very aggressive about that. That being said, if any issue comes up about Loisƒ?TMs company, thereƒ?TMs a normal process that we have at the AGƒ?TMs office. The career lawyers would take the caseƒ?”I wouldnƒ?TMt even be included in itƒ?”and they would make the right decision.

Youƒ?TMd recuse yourself and your subordinates would have full autonomy from day oneƒ?”the first time it gets filed?

Yeah, itƒ?TMs a normal thing to do. Everyone whoƒ?TMs been an attorney general as a lawyer has had some clients or some involvement and you have to be kept away from that. If thereƒ?TMs ever an issue, I would be walled outƒ?”they would have total autonomy in anything they need to do, as they should.

Whatƒ?TMs the priority on healthcare in your agenda?

Itƒ?TMs ultimately to make healthcare affordable and accessible. I think what that means since we have nonprofit healthcare in Minnesota is making sure youƒ?TMre fulfilling your nonprofit purpose, and thatƒ?TMs to maximize the money that they spend on healthcare, as opposed to other outside business ventures, excessive compensation, etc.

What do you think Democrats in Congress can learn from your experience as minority leader in the Minnesota House?

In 2004, we beat 14 incumbent Republicans, including some who had served for 12, 14 years. We stayed focused on core issues that make peopleƒ?TMs lives betterƒ?”education, healthcare, jobsƒ?”where Republicans talked about more divisive social issues. Of all the [Democratic] legislative seats won across the country, we won 20 percent of them here in Minnesota.

Youƒ?TMve attacked Governor Pawlenty for raising fees while maintaining a pledge to not raise taxes. What do you have against fees?

That comes out of your walletƒ?”it doesnƒ?TMt make a difference if you call it a fee or a tax. And the Governor is not raising taxes, what heƒ?TMs done is protect the few wealthy people at the expense of everybody else.

So is that to say that Democrats are actually ready to vocally support raising taxes?

We have. Ever since Iƒ?TMve been leader, we have campaigned every year to raise the income tax on the highest families that make more than $250,000 a year. And we did that in 2004 when we won all those seats.

Rich people are an easy target. We canƒ?TMt always keep raising taxes on them and not anybody else and expect to get where we want to be, right?

Our plan called to put taxes back to where they were in the late ƒ?TM90s when we had the biggest economic boom weƒ?TMve ever had. Since then, weƒ?TMve had huge tax cuts on the wealthiest, and the economy has gone backwards. The reality is that the wealthiest people pay less in taxes as a percentage of income than anybody else and thatƒ?TMs not fair.

In the past two decades, Democratic candidates have had a really strong record of winning the attorney general seat. At the same time, Democratic attorney generals often run for Governor, and since 1970, have always lost. Thoughts?

Well, Iƒ?TMm not running for Governor, Iƒ?TMm running for attorney general. So I feel good about the fact that people like Vice President Mondale, who went [to Macalester], and a whole h
ost of other AGs have won over the last 40 years. I will point out that nine governors of other states were AGs and I believe there are 10 U.S. Senators right now who are AGs. But thatƒ?TMs not my race.

Is that to say it never will be?

What I will tell you is this: I have no interest in federal officeƒ?”Iƒ?TMve had opportunities to run for Congress, for U.S. Senate and other seats, and I really like St. Paulƒ?Ý but right now Iƒ?TMm 100 percent focused on the AG.

If Hatch were to stop running for Governor and switch back to attorney general, what would your plans be?

Mike raised a half million dollars this past yearƒ?”he out-raised his Democratic opponents substantially, other than Kelly Doranƒ?”the guy with all the billboards who is writing his own checks. He also has said not only if he wins the endorsement, but he is going forward if he just does well at the [DFL] convention. And it is inconceivable to me that he is not going to do well at that convention.