Two challenge embattled Hutchinson for Hennepin County sheriff

As Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson was resisting calls to resign over his drunk driving saga this week, he gained a new challenger in his re-election bid.

Suwana Kirkland, the director of Dakota County Community Corrections, said it was a coincidence that she joined the race Wednesday, the day Hutchinson faced growing calls to resign. She said people, whom she didn't name, have asked her to run for six months.

"Six months ago, I wasn’t ready but again because I kept getting pursued and pursued, I said you know what? It’s time," Kirkland said in an interview. "It has nothing to do with the current situation."

Kirkland joins Jai Hanson, a Bloomington police officer who has been in the race for several months, as Hutchinson's top challengers. The incumbent sheriff said this week that he planned to run for re-election in November after pleading guilty to fourth-degree drunken driving and facing allegations that he lied to first-responders that a cab driver was behind the wheel of his county-owned vehicle when it crashed Dec. 8.

Hutchinson declined an interview this week about his path forward. He has not spoken publicly since Dec. 26.

In her interview, Kirkland did not criticize Hutchinson's work or legal issues. Hanson took a different tactic, saying voters should hold Hutchinson accountable for a rise in violent crime.

Auto thefts, home invasions and gun crimes are playing out as the backdrop of the sheriff's race. This week, suburban police chiefs and mayors wrote letters to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman blaming Freeman for what they called a sense of lawlessness and lack of accountability. Freeman, who is retiring after this year, denied going light on prosecutions.

Hanson said he would try to forge a good relationship with the next county attorney.

"If we don’t see eye to eye on (prosecutions), I’m going to listen to the people," he said. "And when the people are saying to me, we’re sick of people getting carjacked, houses broken into, I will champion and advocate for them and not the politics of whatever county attorney we have."

Kirkland said she would advocate for an approach that includes holding criminals accountable while promoting community programs.

"It’s really getting to the bottom of why they’re doing what they’re doing, but also having a mind frame of, we’re gonna hold them accountable as well," she said.

Kirkland, who holds a leadership position in the National Black Police Association and was the first Black woman hired as a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy, said her experiences make her ideally suited to be the sheriff. The agency needs to get creative to hire a diverse group of deputies from different backgrounds, she said. 

Hanson grew up in south Minneapolis and said, "seeing what’s happening to our communities, you either can just leave and be done with everything or fight back."

The county's largest city, Minneapolis, has seen 300 officers quit over the past two years. Both candidates said they would have the sheriff's office assist Minneapolis if the police chief asked for help. Hanson said he did not favor having deputies take over Minneapolis's 911 calls, which the city has struggled to handle.