Ex-Bush ethics lawyer exploring bid for Franken's former Senate seat

Ex-Bush ethics lawyer exploring bid for Franken's former Senate seat
© Richard Painter campaign website

Richard Painter, a vocal critic of the Trump administration who served as White House ethics counsel to former President George W. Bush, announced on Wednesday that he is eyeing a potential Senate bid.

Painter has set up an exploratory committee for the Minnesota Senate seat vacated by former Democratic Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenCongress sends bill overhauling sexual harassment policy to Trump's desk Senate approves bill reforming Congress's sexual harassment policy Kamala Harris to keep seat on Judiciary Committee MORE that’s now held by Democrat Tina SmithTina Flint SmithAl Franken reflects on 'the experience of women in this country' in Thanksgiving note Minnesota New Members 2019 Senate GOP beats expectations with expanded majority MORE. Franken resigned in January following allegations of sexual harassment.

Despite being a Republican for three decades and serving in the Bush administration, Painter has not decided which party he will represent in a potential run. Should he move forward, though, running as an Independent candidate may be the best option, he told The Hill in a telephone interview.

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“It’s a different party than it was 30 years ago. The question is whether there’s a place for me as a Republican candidate,” he said. Thirty years ago, he says, “I think the path forward would be quite obvious, but that’s not where we are.”

Painter said another reason to run as an Independent would be to shake up the two-party system.

“These parties have been dominated by big money and political bosses; the most powerful senators tell other senators what to do,” he said. “The political parties are increasingly different from the people who elect them.”

Running as a Republican also means he would have to battle it out in a primary. Karin Housley, a Minnesota state senator, has announced that she is throwing her hat into the ring.

“It’s important for voters to have a choice in any election, so we welcome our new opponent to the race,” Bryan Piligra, a campaign spokesman for Housley, said in a statement to the Minnesota Star Tribune. “Karin Housley has given a voice to the many Minnesotans who are fed up with the dysfunction, partisanship, and obstruction in Washington. Having another extremist in the U.S. Senate will not end the plagued status-quo — they would make it even worse.”

Since Trump took office, Painter has positioned himself as a key critic of the Trump administration, often quoted in articles and frequently interviewed on cable news.

He’s also taken shots at the Trump family, saying that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE, Jr. holding a meeting with Russian lawyers who’d allegedly offered compromising information about Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRoger Stone fundraising off promise not to testify against Trump Rivaling chants of 'USA,' 'lock him up' greet Flynn after sentencing hearing The Hill's 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown MORE, during the campaign “borders on treason if it is not itself treason.”

As a vice chair of the left-leaning watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Painter is part of the lawsuit against Trump alleging that the president is violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution by not fully relinquishing ownership of his businesses.

A link to the exploratory committee’s website features a large picture of Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, along with the words “Zero Tolerance for Corruption.”

Although Painter says he still holds many GOP-aligned views on fiscal policies, many of the other issues are out of line with his beliefs.

“My main concern is the corruption in government and the big money in politics,” he said.

Should he decide to move forward, that could present a problem. Political elections, even special elections, often cost tens of millions of dollars. Spending in the special election to fill the Senate seat left open by now-Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPresidential historian: Trump's actions may be 'definition of treason' if he knew about Russian interference efforts Trump admin seeks to roll back Obama-era policy on school discipline: report Trump: Sessions 'should be ashamed of himself' for allowing Russia probe to proceed MORE went over $42 million, according to the nonprofit group Issue One.

However, the idea of not having a large war chest doesn’t bother Painter.

“It is how the voters feel about the different options, what voters want,” he said. “I don’t see this money doing much to get a constructive message.”

He said there is an appetite for an “independent candidate who doesn’t have much money but spends money getting a real message about positions on issues is the solution to the problem. I’m not going to spend the money I have attacking the candidates.”