Candidates square off ahead of Dakota County attorney primary

  • In US
  • 2022-07-29 14:31:00Z
  • By Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.


When Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom retired in February 2021 after 34 years in office, the Dakota County Board of Commissioners appointed his deputy chief, Kathy Keena, as his interim replacement after interviewing two applicants: Keena and Elizabeth Lamin, a homicide and violent crimes prosecutor in the Ramsey County Attorney's office.

On Aug. 9, primary voters will whittle the field of four candidates down to two who will advance to the Nov. 8 election.

The candidates once again include Keena, who has served in the county attorney's office for 22 years; Lamin, the director of Violence Intervention and Community Partnerships in the Ramsey County Attorney's office; attorney Matt Little, a former Lakeville mayor and recent state lawmaker; and Jeffrey Sheridan, a criminal defense attorney who has successfully appealed dozens of cases, including two blood alcohol testing cases that reached the United States Supreme Court.

As the county's chief prosecutor, the county attorney oversees roughly 100 employees, including 45 attorneys whose work ranges from felony prosecution to civil commitments, child support enforcement, anti-crime initiatives and filing petitions on behalf of abused and neglected children. The office also serves as the in-house legal counsel to the county board and all county departments.

Kathy Keena

  • Age: 58

  • Occupation: Appointed interim Dakota County Attorney in 2021; formerly chief deputy in the Dakota County Attorney's office.

  • Relevant experience: Dakota County Attorney - May 2021 to present; Chief Deputy Dakota County Attorney - July 2019 to May 2021; Criminal Division Head, Dakota County Attorney's Office - June 2013 to July 2019; Assistant Dakota County Attorney - April 2000 to June 2013; Lyon County Attorney - 1992 through 1997; Assistant Lyon County Attorney - 1990 to 1992; Board of Directors, Minnesota County Attorney's Association - 2021 to present.

  • Endorsements: Former Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie, Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins, Dakota County Board Chair Kathleen Gaylord

  • What are your three biggest priorities?: "(1) Continuing our efforts to protect public safety by prosecuting crime in a fair and just manner to hold people accountable for the crimes they commit; and ensuring the rights of victims are protected; (2) reducing criminal justice involvement with those living with a mental health and/or substance use disorder; and (3) addressing the criminal case backlog caused by pandemic related court closures."

  • Why are you seeking this job?: "I am seeking to retain the position of Dakota County Attorney because public service is my calling. I have devoted over 22 years of my life serving the residents of Dakota County. As the Dakota County Attorney, I lead a staff of nearly 100 employees and manage a budget of $8.4 million to ensure the many duties of the office are performed and performed well. I have experience in every facet of the work performed by the office; and equally important, I have the necessary leadership experience to carry the office forward. Dakota County is a premiere county in which to live, work and play and I have, and will continue to work hard to keep it that way."

  • Website or contact:

Elizabeth Lamin

    • Age: 45

    • Occupation: Assistant Ramsey County Attorney, homicide and violent crimes prosecutor and director of Violence Intervention and Community Partnerships for the Ramsey County Attorney's office.

    • Relevant experience: 15 years with the Ramsey County Attorney's office specializing in homicides and shootings; currently focuses on special projects related to youth auto theft, car-jackings and gun violence intervention. She previously worked in Ramsey County Attorney's child support division, and before that for Stearns County.

    • Endorsements: Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, AFSCME Council 5, State Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, various Ramsey County prosecutors.

    • What are your three biggest priorities? Lamin said that Dakota County lacks treatment courts offering services to veterans and the mentally ill, which would free up resources to focus on violent crime. "Around 10 years ago, we had a problem with tow truck drivers taking older vehicles and selling them for scrap. I helped write the legislation … to close that gap and require proof of ownership. Dakota County can help lead in (combatting catalytic converter theft) if we put together a collaborative coalition with multi-agency police and prosecutors, and ensure that the scrap yards are following the law."

    • Why are you seeking this job? "I've been on the front line…for a long time. I've seen things that work, I've helped bring things that work, and I see areas where we need work. After 33 years of the same administration in Dakota County, I bring both that front line and fresh perspective, like pointing out that Dakota County is the only county without a veterans court. I want to stop the revolving door (of repeat offenders), and I'm a tenacious advocate for victims. I have great relationships with community organizations and police at all levels. For me it's the culmination of my professional career. This is a good opportunity to have someone lead with experience and integrity, and that fresh set of eyes."

    • Website or contact:

Matt Little

  • Age: 37

  • Occupation: Attorney with Little Law in Farmington.

  • Relevant experience: Has run his own private practice for eight years focusing on civil litigation, insurance denials and motor vehicle accidents. Served two terms in the state Senate representing the Lakeville area, 2017-2020. Two term mayor of Lakeville (2013-2017). Prior: Lakeville City Council.

  • Endorsements: U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn.; 11 current and former state lawmakers; 11 labor unions including the St. Paul Building Trades Union; a "Candidate of Distinction" award from Moms Demand Gun Sense.

  • What are your three biggest priorities?:"The office needs some leadership in these times. We have gun violence in our metro area and rampant throughout the country, and we haven't heard one word from the Dakota County Attorney's office. They should be taking some sort of action and they're not. We have to be a strong voice on women's rights and women's control over their own bodies. We also need to do a better job reducing the dangerous drugs in our community like methamphetamines and fentanyl, and shift our focus away from marijuana."

  • Why are you seeking this job?: "I have the experience of running a large office and making change in hard places. I think I can provide the leadership necessary for this role based on my prior experience. I want to be where I can make the greatest possible change in people's lives. This position has a great amount of leeway to do that, using prosecutorial discretion and expungement to help people get their lives back. (I'm the only candidate) with elected experience. … In America, justice can't be for some - it must be for all. That means rejecting all the false labels and social codes that set people against each other, and embracing the needs that we all share: safe schools, communities and neighborhoods."

  • Website or contact:

  • Jeffrey Sheridan

    • Age: 61

    • Occupation: Criminal defense attorney in private practice with Sheridan, Dulas and Hunstad in Eagan.

    • Relevant experience: Criminal defense attorney, former public defender in the 1980s through mid-1990s. Successfully argued two U.S. Supreme Court cases against warrant-less blood draws springing from police DWI stops.

    • Endorsements: N/A.

    • What are your three biggest priorities?: "My primary focus is to change the culture of that office. They are old school 'tough on crime, lock 'em up and throw away the key.' They refuse to acknowledge that every piece of data shows this mindset doesn't work. An overwhelming majority of (felons) return to the community. … I want everybody who works in the county attorney's office to ask, 'What can we do with this guy in this moment to make sure he never stands in front of a judge again?' That's the county attorney's job. He isn't supposed to be the cop's lawyer. He's supposed to represent everybody."

    • Why are you seeking this job?: "I have been representing folks at the pointy end of everything the county attorney's office does - civil commitments, paternity cases, child support, contempt actions, criminal cases, homicide. What I want is for the person who took over after 34 years of Jim Backstrom is to be better. … I could retire at any moment. Can I walk away from this without at least trying to make it better? The answer is no. I've been successful. I'm the only guy who is going to be taking a pay cut if he wins this election. This is my home. This whole failed experiment we've been performing on ourselves for the past five decades, somebody has to say enough."

    • Website or contact:


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