Ford elected St Louis County Attorney by 88 votesby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
Just 88 votes of the 80,000 votes cast for St. Louis County Attorney last month are now causing historic change.
A recount just gave the job to the challenger and ended the tenure of the man who's held the job for a generation.
Duluth, Minn. — Melanie Ford had never run for office when she decided to challenge Alan Mitchell. He's been the St. Louis County Attorney for 28 years. No one had ever challenged him.
The vote was close all the way through election night. The morning after, it looked like Ford was the winner. But then some late returns gave the race to incumbent Mitchell.
Now, a month later, a recount found a few reporting errors, mostly in townships where votes are counted by hand.
Paul Tynjala is St. Louis County's top election official. He says those kinds of mistakes are understandable.
"That's definitely a paperwork error and 99.99 percent of the time it makes no difference. And it even wouldn't have made any difference if it had been a big margin," he says. "But in a close race like this, it's huge. It was a huge change."
Melanie Ford is 50 years old. She only got her law degree 11 years ago, after a career in commodity-trading. She worked in the St. Louis County Attorney's Office for three years and has been in private practice since then.
She says she wants to use the County Attorney's Office to make changes in society.
She's met with advocacy groups that work with crime victims, minorities, people with mental illness. She asked them how the office could work better for the people whose lives it's most likely to affect.
"When I worked in the office, no one encouraged me to go out to detox, for example, and spend a day, and see what really goes on," she says. "That kind of thing. I think it gives you good insight how to better do your own job, if you see how it affects someone else."
She also says the office needs to be more accountable to all members of the community.
"Many, many people of color came to me said they weren't getting fair treatment," she says. "And I'm sure that nobody thinks they're being unfair in the County Attorney's Office, but as a white privileged person you see things differently than the other side."
Ford says she won the election in part because of her promise to focus on equal treatment.
But the chief public defender for northeastern Minnesota says her win had more to do with her high-profile campaign while the incumbent kept quiet.
Fred Friedman has worked opposite Alan Mitchell during his entire tenure as the St. Louis County Attorney.
"Nobody has ever come to me and said that somebody received a harsher penalty because somebody in the St. Louis County Attorney's office argued, 'This is a person of color, give them a harsher penalty,'" Friedman says. "I've never heard that in my life and this is my 34th year."
Friedman says Mitchell has run a stable office without the high turnover that plagues many county attorney offices.
For his part, Alan Mitchell says it's a relief to be voted out of a job that demands long hours and offers little thanks.
Maybe the narrow margin takes away some of the sting.
"I think this was just a number of people who listened to things that were not necessarily true, and some who wanted a change, and that 49 percent voted for a change," Mitchell says. "And the other 49 percent, who I believe understand the working of the office and the people in the office, felt that it was doing a great job."
Mitchell says he doesn't know yet what he'll do next. Melanie Ford will take over in January.
- All Things Considered, 12/06/2006, 5:19 p.m.