MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) is frustrated.
He’s frustrated that his Republican challenger Jim Schultz, a hedge fund lawyer, has not practiced law in a courtroom; that Schultz has made public safety — an issue over which the attorney general’s office has limited authority — a central theme of the race; and that a preliminary finding that Schultz violated campaign finance law has apparently done little to slow Schultz’s momentum.
But most of all, Ellison cannot abide how Schultz has questioned the part that Ellison played in the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in May 2020.
“Now I’m having to defend my role — I’m having to defend my role in Chauvin?!” Ellison exclaimed, his voice cracking with emotion during an interview at a Democratic Party office in South Minneapolis. “The one thing that I thought was, ‘OK, they can’t say I didn’t do that. They gotta give me that one.’ They won’t give me that one.”
It comes as something of a surprise to many progressives, not least Ellison himself, that the man who oversaw the Chauvin prosecution is locked in a fight for his political life.
“Maybe it’s partially my fault for not raising the alarm because I thought at some point, people will see and we’ll start to be separated,” he said, referring to the lead he imagined he would enjoy over Schultz by now.
Even as Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) leads his GOP challenger, Scott Jensen, by 8 percentage points, Ellison trails Schultz by 7 points, according to a KSTP/SurveyUSA poll released Tuesday.
Other public polls have shown a closer race, which is more consistent with Democrats’ internal surveys.
“When you talk to Republicans you’re going to hear hope but never confidence.”
But Minnesota Republicans, who have not held the state attorney general’s office since 1971, are beginning to express cautious optimism.
“When you talk to Republicans you’re going to hear hope but never confidence,” said Amy Koch, a former Republican Minnesota state Senate leader. “I’ve literally never seen a Republican attorney general in my life.”
In some ways, the political peril facing Ellison is not out of the ordinary for an incumbent Democrat in a statewide office during what is expected to be a very strong midterm election cycle for Republicans.
Ellison’s challenges also speak to the current political climate in Minnesota, which might best be described as “light blue” — nominally, rather than deeply, Democratic. Ellison is more progressive than Democrats who have won statewide in Minnesota have been in recent history. And in 2018, he got lucky with Republican opponent Doug Wardlow, who was a more explicitly right-wing figure than Schultz.
But the policy dimension of the race with the greatest national implications is the post-George Floyd debate in Minnesota about how best to balance police accountability with the need for public safety. That debate has mirrored the national discussion, only more so: After a brief but sharp turn to the left on criminal justice policy, Minnesota is in the throes of a conservative backlash to rising crime in Minneapolis and other major cities.
The Question 2 Comeuppance
Few would dispute that Ellison’s campaign would be in better shape if he had not spoken out publicly in support of a “yes” vote on a controversial Minneapolis referendum in 2021 that proposed an amendment to the city charter’s policing requirements.
The referendum, Question 2, would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a new and more holistic Department of Public Safety. The new department would not have been bound by minimum police funding requirements, but the City Council would have been free to fund the hiring of police officers as it saw fit. The council would also have had a greater role in running the new department than it currently has in managing the police, which the mayor oversees.
As a decades-long advocate for greater police accountability, Ellison supported Question 2’s passage.
“The opportunity to make change doesn’t always come around. It’s not every day,” Ellison told HuffPost. “The murder of George Floyd opened up a window where maybe we could make things better.”
That stance has been costly, according to Joe Radinovich, a Democratic strategist and former state lawmaker, who opposed Question 2 and is supporting Ellison. “It’s the primary leverage that the Republicans and Jim Schultz have on him,” he said.
Koch concurred, calling Ellison’s stance on Question 2 a “big misstep.”
Ellison’s support for the policy change has prompted Schultz to accuse him of wanting to “defund” the police, since proponents of the referendum wanted to eliminate the minimum police funding requirements expressly for that purpose, Schultz argued.
“He’s extreme,” Schultz told HuffPost during an interview at a McDonald’s in Wayzata. “He backed defunding the police.”
Ellison does not regret supporting the referendum, however, noting that he has always opposed “defunding” the police and that it is unfair to lump him in with proponents of the charter amendment who had more radical demands.
“We’ve always wanted to just say, ‘Look, we need the police to be here because they’re critical to our safety, but we need a better relationship and we need some reform,’” he added. “That’s what I was calling for — all the time. Never anything else.”
Unfortunately for Ellison, almost every other Minnesota Democrat, including Walz and Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith — who are campaigning hard for Ellison — opposed the charter amendment. Voters in Minneapolis — a liberal city that Ellison will surely carry by a wide margin — ultimately rejected Question 2, 56% to 44%.
The “yes” on Question 2 side, by contrast, was closely linked in the public’s minds with activists and lawmakers who explicitly supported either reducing police funding or abolishing policing altogether.
The ballot question originated in a pledge adopted by nine Minneapolis City Council members in Powderhorn Park in June 2020 to “dismantle” the police department and replace it with a new agency that would employ a public health approach to fighting crime. The pledge’s adoption elicited chants of “defund the police” from the crowd witnessing the pledge in the park and was accompanied by a City Council proposal for significant cuts to the police budget that could be used elsewhere.
Several of the council members who signed the pledge expressed misgivings within months of signing it, however, and Mayor Jacob Frey (D) ultimately approved a much smaller police budget reduction of $8 million that would go toward programs that address the root causes of crime.
“The reason that Question 2 in Minneapolis has become shorthand for ‘defund the police’ and is a somewhat viable analogy for a lot of voters is because of the direct relationship between those council members who” took the Powderhorn Park pledge and those pushing Question 2, said Radinovich, who managed both of Frey’s mayoral campaigns.
He clarified that he does not think conflating Ellison with the council members who made the pledge is fair to Ellison.
“There is a cruel irony here in that Keith Ellison is saddled with the baggage of the more fringe elements of the movement.”
“There is a cruel irony here in that Keith Ellison is saddled with the baggage of the more fringe elements of the movement,” he added. “Nuance is lost in politics.”
None of this would have resonated as much politically were it not for a nationwide increase in crime that has hit Minneapolis hard.
Carjackings in Minneapolis increased by 57% from 2020 to 2021, prompting calls by state lawmakers to make carjacking its own criminal offense, rather than something that falls under the category of an assault or a robbery.
The city’s murders also more than doubled from 2019 to 2021, rising from 46 a year to 96 a year. (Murders have since begun trending downward; there has been a significant decline between the numbers so far this year and the total at this point last year.)
“You have that many people shot and killed after George Floyd and you’re talking about defunding the police?! Uh-uh,” said the Rev. Jerry McAfee, pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, a predominantly Black church in North Minneapolis.
McAfee, an opponent of Question 2, has worked with Ellison to combat police misconduct for decades and gives him enormous credit for prosecuting Chauvin and Kim Potter, a suburban police officer who fatally shot a Black man during a traffic stop in April 2021.
McAfee also praised Ellison’s support for a local anti-violence program called “21 Days of Peace” that involves community members — in coordination with police — stationing themselves at high-crime intersections as a form of deterrence.
“Historically, what he has done for this community has been awesome,” he said. “I know the heart of this man.”
But McAfee has also told Ellison’s son Jeremiah, who represents McAfee’s community on the City Council and took the Powderhorn Park pledge, that Jeremiah’s support for reducing police funding was out of step with the community.
“I’m trying to tell you Jeremiah: This is not what Black folks sayin’!” McAfee remembers telling the younger Ellison.
It’s likely that Jeremiah Ellison got the message last November when he nearly lost his reelection bid. Four of Ellison’s colleagues on the council who had supported Question 2 were not so lucky.
At the same time, Frey, the mayor who opposed Question 2, fended off challenges from more left-wing candidates. He ended up presiding over the creation of a new Office of Community Safety to house the police department and other anti-violence initiatives. The office aims to employ the public health approach of Question 2 without raising fears of inadequate police funding.
Still, the political fallout from rising crime and Minneapolis politicians who supported anything remotely associated with calls to “defund the police” continues unabated. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who supported Question 2, nearly lost her Democratic primary in August to former City Council member Don Samuels, who was heavily critical of Omar for supporting Question 2. (Radinovich, who considers Ellison far more “pragmatic” than Omar, managed Samuels’ campaign.)
‘The Many Versus The Money’
Ellison would much rather be running a campaign focused on taking on Big Pharma, COVID-19-era price gougers, slumlords, bad employers, and negligent gun sellers.
“You have an attorney general who comes in four years ago who is more proactive in terms of his desire to help Minnesotans,” said Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris, a Democrat who supported Omar’s challenger. “He’s been able to stretch the limited resources very well to protect consumers.”
Mitra Jalali Nelson, a St. Paul City Council member and former aide to Ellison in Congress, told HuffPost that prior to Ellison’s election, she had very little awareness of what the attorney general’s office did. “He’s completely changed what the office is about and made it a community-facing office in a way that has never been true,” she said.
On the trail, Ellison is especially fond of touting his advocacy for a state law capping out-of-pocket insulin costs and his efforts to defend the law against legal challenges from Big Pharma.
“This entire fight is one of the many versus the money,” he said at a Nov. 1 news conference about his work on the insulin law. “That is the challenge: Will we be able to afford our lives?”
The Republican Attorneys General Association, an umbrella group backing Schultz, is funding a super PAC, Minnesota Freedom, that has run vicious attacks ads depicting Ellison as soft on crime. One misleading spot, which prompted condemnation from faith leaders, even features a fictional conversation among prison inmates about why they are supporting Ellison. The ad calls him, without evidence, “the criminal’s choice for attorney general.”
But while Minnesota Freedom’s ads focus on crime, RAGA depends on donations from the pharmaceutical industry, the National Rifle Association, and fossil-fuel companies, all of which have been at odds with Ellison in court.
Now Minnesota’s campaign finance board has issued a preliminary finding that Schultz’s campaign illegally coordinated with Minnesota Freedom. Specifically, the state agency pointed to the fact that the person who placed the ads for Schultz’s campaign appears to be the same person who placed them for Minnesota Freedom.
“It’s completely baseless. There is zero coordination,” Schultz told HuffPost. “That will be borne out.”
Schultz also refused to call for Minnesota Freedom to take down its ads, claiming he doesn’t comment on any ads except the ones his campaign runs.
In the meantime, Ellison’s backers are seizing on the alleged infraction as evidence of Schultz’s coziness with the corporations that fund RAGA.
“Keith has been standing up to Big Tobacco and Big Oil to stop their price gouging,” Sen. Tina Smith (D) told HuffPost after speaking on Ellison’s insulin panel. “And this guy has been — on the face of it, according to initial determinations — coordinating with those very same dark money players in this campaign.”
‘We Set The Wrong Tone’
Ellison has protested mightily against the idea that voters should unseat him simply over a disagreement about his stance on a local referendum that has nothing to do with his responsibilities as attorney general.
In fact, if voters want to concern themselves with candidates’ personal views, they should give greater weight to Schultz’s opposition to abortion rights, he argues. Schultz is a co-founder of an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy center” that discourages women from getting abortions in ways that abortion-rights proponents maintain are misleading.
“The stakes [of this race] are whether or not women can count on safe, legal abortion into the future,” Ellison said.
Schultz, who called for going on “offense” against Democrats’ attacks in the public debate over abortion rights, has nonetheless promised to defend existing Minnesota law, which protects abortion rights. That stance prompted Wardlow, who competed against Schultz for the GOP nod this time, to dub Schultz “pro-choice Jim.”
Ellison doesn’t buy Schultz’s assurances that he’ll defend the state’s existing abortion laws. “He’s trying to represent himself as a moderate,” he said. “He’s not.”
Schultz also says he acknowledges the validity of President Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in 2020. But Democrats think that if the state’s results are close in 2024, he cannot be counted on to defend the integrity of the state’s election system.
“Every other Republican has fallen in line for fear of the Trump base and I have no expectation that Jim Schultz will be any different,” Radinovich said.
If Ellison sounds idealistic when discussing women’s rights or consumer rights, he resorts to a technical argument when disputing Schultz’s case that he has not adequately used the attorney general office’s resources to tackle crime.
Minnesota law does not allow the state attorney general to prosecute criminal cases unless a county prosecutor requests the office’s help, Ellison notes. Shifting attorneys into the attorney general office’s currently small criminal division, as Schultz proposes, would necessarily gut the agency’s consumer protection division, according to Ellison.
“He’s talking about changing the attorney general’s office in a way that it never has existed.”
“Who’s going to do the opioid cases? Who’s going to do the landlord-tenant cases? Who’s going to do the wage theft cases? Who’s going to do just basic fraud cases?” Ellison said. “He’s talking about changing the attorney general’s office in a way that it never has existed.”
Schultz responds that he would have more success lobbying the state legislature for additional funding, which would make cuts unnecessary.
“I’m very hopeful that we can keep the current staffing levels,” Schultz said.
More importantly, though, Schultz seems to understand that, in politics, resonating emotionally takes precedence over making rational arguments.
Beyond any policy proposal, Schultz wants to let voters upset about crime know that he feels their pain. His most credible promise may be that he would use his bully pulpit to fulminate against crime and speak more sympathetically about cops than Ellison has.
“We set the wrong tone over the past few years,” said Schultz, who faults Ellison for failing to credit police officers when they do good things. “Keith Ellison and others have treated law enforcement as fundamental adversaries and not as partners to deal with our crime problem. We have to reset the tone in our state.”
“I can’t hire more police officers,” he added. “But what I can do is help create an environment in which people want to serve, want to join the force, and also, people aren’t leaving in the droves that they have been because they feel that they’re being undermined.”
One Twin Cities resident active in Democratic Party politics strongly considered voting for Schultz for precisely this reason.
“Even though the rational part of my brain says that the attorney general’s office doesn’t deal with street crime, the prospect of sending a strong and unwavering signal that we care about crime more than we care about being politically correct … that connected with me on a basic level,” said the prominent Democrat, who requested anonymity for professional reasons. “And I think unfortunately it is going to connect with a lot of voters.”
The Twin Cities Democrat filled in Schultz’s name on a mail-in ballot, but never submitted it. The individual now plans to vote for Ellison in person, having concluded that Ellison’s steady management and consumer protection work are not worth sacrificing to make a statement about crime.
“Democrats are at the crossroads of getting the crime issue right or wrong,” the prominent Democrat said. “The people who get it wrong deserve punishment, but I don’t want to be the person to exact that punishment.”
‘A Chilling Effect’
Ellison and many of his more progressive allies do not think his support for Question 2 is the main reason he is struggling.
Schultz also calls Chauvin a murderer. But the law enforcement unions backing Schultz are punishing Ellison for holding one of their own to account, according to Ellison.
“I raised my kids to believe that the time is always right to do what is right,” said Ellison, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “And I believe that, but the truth is that a lot of these folks, they’re after me because of these cases that I did.”
Carin Mrotz, a progressive activist who lives in North Minneapolis, also blames some moderate Democrats for giving credence to Schultz’s attacks on Ellison with their own broadsides against the left in the past two years.
“Moderates have run so hard against their own left flank and progressives within their own party that they put us in a situation where it’s hard to be elected when we need to,” Mrotz said at a fundraiser for Ellison at a brewery in northeast Minneapolis.
One thing that many of Ellison’s supporters agree on is that his defeat would be a major setback for criminal-justice reform and for progressives’ place within the Democratic Party.
“The message we’re going to see is that there is a waning period for the progressive vanguard of this party,” said Radinovich, who supports “Medicare for All” and backed Bernie Sanders’ presidential runs, notwithstanding his criticism of the contemporary left’s policing views.
Ellison foresees his potential loss having a “chilling effect” on other prosecutors considering going after the police and a “chilling effect on statewide candidates of color.”
“If you’re a prosecutor, and there is a flagrant murder by somebody who carries the badge and you see that I don’t win, are you going to have to calculate pursuing justice or keeping your job?” he said. “That’s on the line.”
“I’ve been targeted because of my religion ― and race too ― for a long time.”
Ellison believes his identity and the place he occupies in the progressive firmament have made him a target. He became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, before rising to the roles of co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“Taking me out is a bone to them,” he said. “I’ve been targeted because of my religion ― and race too ― for a long time.”
At every stage of his political career, Ellison has faced adversity — from Republicans and from establishment Democrats. For example, aides to former President Barack Obama intervened to thwart Ellison’s bid for the DNC chairmanship in 2017.
In 2018, Ellison’s bid for attorney general was nearly derailed by a vague — and subsequently discredited — accusation of misconduct from an ex-girlfriend represented by a Twin Cities attorney active in conservative politics. One of the feminist leaders who called for him to withdraw from the race went on to be felled by accusations of racism within her own organization.
For strength — then and now — Ellison relies on Islamic prayer, which he conducts five times a day.
“I ask for God’s forgiveness and assistance to deal with the emotional challenges,” he said.
Ellison has moments when he wonders whether running for attorney general — and agreeing to take the Chauvin case — were worth all of the heartache. He invariably concludes that he knows no other way to live his life.
“If there’s a chance for me to help, I should help,” he said.