Rich Stanek jumped into Minnesota’s governor race in February with a distinctive pitch.
In a year when rising crime is a top issue for many voters, his 38 years in law enforcement — including a dozen years as sheriff in the state’s largest county — set him apart from the crowded field of Republican candidates hoping to challenge DFL Gov. Tim Walz this fall.
“Every group I talk to, I start out by asking them how many of you have brothers, sisters, moms, dads, sons, daughters, nieces or nephews that serve in law enforcement, and always one-third to one-half of the room raise their hands,” Stanek said. “Law enforcement is a good solid profession. I know that people, particularly these delegates and Republicans, love law enforcement.”
But as the most recent candidate to join the race, Stanek is struggling to catch up in support and endorsements that others have built over months or nearly a year campaigning. A recent serious car accident sidelined him from in-person campaign activities just weeks before the state Republican Party’s mid-May endorsing convention.
“It doesn’t seem like, by any objective standard at this point, that he is actually building a campaign that can win,” said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. “His campaign has been completely invisible.”
In his pitch to delegates, Stanek says he stands out of the field in another aspect: he’s won races in Hennepin County, an area that has cost Republicans statewide races dating back to 2010. “That is where Republican governor campaigns go to die,” Stanek said.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Stanek started his career in law enforcement in 1986 as a patrol officer in the city, rising through the ranks to eventually serve as commander of criminal investigations. He continued to serve as an officer, even as he moved out to the western suburbs and ran for a seat in the state House.
He served five terms in the Legislature, chairing a House judiciary and public safety committee, before former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Stanek in 2003 to lead his Department of Public Safety.
“I could work my way around a spreadsheet. I could work my way around public policy,” he said. “I understand the nuances of the state Capitol.”
Stanek held the administration job for only a year, resigning after a 1992 deposition surfaced in which he admitted to using racial slurs. The comments from his deposition, which were in response to a police brutality case against him, surfaced again from Democratic-aligned group Alliance for a Better Minnesota after Stanek announced his run for governor, calling him “dangerous for Minnesota.”
In the deposition, Stanek tells an attorney questioning him that he used racial slurs in court cases to describe what others said. Later in the deposition, when asked whether it’s ever appropriate to use that word, he said anything said in his home is “his business.”
Stanek said the deposition record is “murky” and he went on to be elected two years later as Hennepin County Sheriff, where he served three terms and as vice president of the National Sheriff’s Association. He lost his bid for re-election in 2018 to Dave Hutchinson.
Since then he has consulted on public safety issues. He said he was inspired to enter the governor’s race after watching a December GOP governor candidate forum where he felt no one was talking about how they were going to win the race in November.
Bob Stein, a former NFL player and the first president and CEO of the Timberwolves, got to know Stanek during his time as sheriff and said it was an easy decision to back him in the race for governor.
“Nobody supports carjackings, and the question is, how do you stop them?” Stein said. “And who knows how to stop them and do what is necessary to stop them and still hold police accountable for responsible actions? That’s Rich.”
Stanek said Walz is particularly vulnerable on the issue of crime after his response to the riots that broke out after George Floyd’s killing and the destruction that followed in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But he’s not the only Republican candidate trying to make the riots and public safety a central issue of their campaign.
It’s a top issue for gubernatorial candidate Kendall Qualls, as well as state Sen. Paul Gazelka, who is touting his work at the Capitol on public safety. Gazelka recently won the backing of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, as well as Waseca officer Arik Matson, who is still recovering after he was shot in the head while on the job.
Stanek said the association has endorsed Democratic governor candidates in the past, and the endorsement shouldn’t be an indicator of who is leading on the issue in the race.
“It is what it is, but I don’t rely on the MPPOA for basic guidance about public safety and how to make Minnesota safe again,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’ve got a proven track record of doing it.”