This year is a rare one as far as Ramsey County’s judiciary goes. For one thing, there’s a coveted open seat, vacated by Judge Gary Bastion’s impending January retirement. Four candidates have applied to fill his spot.
On top of that, Judges Tony Atwal and Elena Ostby have enough challengers to merit an August primary. Judge DeAnne Hilgers will go up against a challenger in November.
That’s not how this usually works. Judges often run unopposed. There’s a general lack of awareness in the public of judicial races.
“No one runs against judges -- no one cares,” says Seamus Mahoney, a challenger for Ostby’s seat.
They should. Judges control the nuances of divorce, who gets the kids on Christmas, who gets life, and who goes free. To Tom Handley, Hilgers’ opponent, it doesn’t seem right that people with so much power can often keep their seats basically by default.
“How is that democracy?” he asks.
That question has been reverberating around Minnesota this year, which saw an overwhelming number of unexpected candidates filing for office. Many of them are nonwhite and nonmale. A record number of women have filed for the Minnesota House. Many cited a general dissatisfaction with partisan politics and the revelations of the #metoo movement as reasons for running. For too long, embattled old white men had been allowed to coast into office, and they were tired of it.
“We do have President Trump running the country,” says Paul Yang, who is challenging Atwal. That fact alone – that the highest office in the country is held by a man who once jovially said the words “grab them by the pussy” -- makes more people feel compelled to step up.
That includes judgeships in Ramsey County. Many of the candidates are outsiders. Both of Handley’s parents were alcoholics when he was growing up; he's in recovery himself. He’s a criminal defense attorney at the Ramsey County Public Defenders Office, and he spends a lot of his time working with defendants who also struggle with addiction.
“The system is just full of people who are struggling,” he says. But few judges understand firsthand what that means.
Yang came to America as a child refugee, escaping war-torn Laos. He was the first in his family to learn English, which meant he had to stand up for his parents early on, right down to filling out the paperwork they brought home from their jobs.
“I just learned early on to help people and advocate for people,” he says.
Calandra Revering, a black woman going up against Ostby, doesn’t see anyone like her on the bench -- though the majority of Ramsey County’s defendants are black.
“I don’t think it’s a secret in Ramsey County,” Revering says. “It’s known in the community that if you’re a minority attorney, you probably won’t be treated fairly.”
She remembers one incident when she was sitting with other lawyers in court, and the judge had to ask twice where “the attorney” was. His eyes skimmed right over her as he searched the entire courtroom, even as the person next to him was pointing in Revering’s direction.
These candidates are running because they believe it’s very unlikely someone like them will be appointed, and they want to give people like themselves a fair shake.
But in order for any of that to happen, they’ll be going up against one of the toughest opponents out there: the status quo. They have to make voters care about races few pay attention to. If they’re even going to attempt this, they need to be confident.
That’s why Revering is packing up her whole life -- her family and her two dogs -- and moving to downtown St. Paul. Leaving her Brooklyn Park home and uprooting her loved ones is hard, but she’s doing it because she believes if she doesn’t, no one else will.