MANKATO — At least three things distinguish Jacob Birkholz from the two other candidates for Blue Earth County Attorney.
Birkholz doesn't sport the gray hair on Chief Assistant County Attorney Pat McDermott's head or in longtime Mankato attorney Karl Friedrich's beard. Birkholz is the only candidate pledging to make regular appearances as the prosecutor in local felony trials. And Birkholz is easily the most aggressive critic of current County Attorney Ross Arneson, who isn't seeking re-election after 27 years in the office.
"Obviously I'm not the same age as Mr. McDermott," said Birkholz, who was in elementary school when McDermott graduated from law school and was preparing for kindergarten when Friedrichs picked up his law degree.
But Birkholz had something of a head start when it comes to understanding the role of a county attorney. His father, Dan Birkholz, was Watonwan County Attorney for 22 years.
"I grew up with my dad as a prosecutor, county attorney and great role model," he said.
Now managing the Mankato branch office of the St. James-based Birkholz Law firm, Jacob Birkholz said he's packed plenty of relevant experience into his first decade as a lawyer. His practice is split evenly between family law cases and criminal defense.
"And I do a lot of courtroom and trial work, which is one big reason why I think my experience definitely qualifies me for the job," he said.
Beyond his qualifications, Birkholz said he offers something McDermott can't. The message is in all of his campaign materials, always capitalized: "It's time for A New Direction."
"People are hungry for a change," Birkholz said.
At the center of that desire is the controversial prosecution of Minnesota State University head football coach Todd Hoffner on child pornography charges — charges that were dismissed as unfounded by a district court judge but only after Hoffner was arrested, jailed and fired from his job.
"They're acting first and investigating later and causing many negative outcomes," Birkholz said of Arneson's office. (See accompanying story).
Looking to be hands-on
Birkholz, while he grew up in St. James, was born in Mankato and attended Bethany Lutheran College before earning his bachelor's degree in chemistry at MSU. He graduated from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in 2005 and now lives in Mankato with his wife, Emily, and their four children.
Although Birkholz's criminal law work has been as a defense attorney, he said that's given him a strong understanding of criminal prosecution. More than two years working as a clerk for district court judges also gave him a behind-the-scenes look at that component of the process.
He sees it as key for the county attorney to directly prosecute some cases to set the tone for assistant county attorneys in how criminal cases should be handled. In essence, leading by example.
"The county attorney's role, in part, is to be a leader in the office ...," he said. "Delegating all of the work, you lose that ability to have that active management and the understanding of what's going on."
Arneson used that approach, and it played a role in the Hoffner case being wrongly charged, according to Birkholz. It also made it more difficult for the office to back down when it became apparent that the charges should be dropped.
Promising better communication
Birkholz said he intends to improve the relationship between the county attorney's office and one of its primary clients if he's elected.
"I look forward to maintaining a positive and healthy relationship with the County Board, which seems to be strained in recent years," he said.
The sort of legal advice required by the board, which can range from employment law to zoning issues to land acquisition through eminent domain, is outside Birkholz's primary practice currently.
"I do handle some real estate cases and civil litigation," he said.
Birkholz said the key, both with the board and with the heads of county departments, is to be open to dialogue when potential legal disputes are looming.
"In civil cases, including eminent domain, the real skill I'd be bringing is collaboration, communication and mediation," he said.