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Why is Keith Ellison leaving a safe seat in Congress to make a risky bid for Minnesota attorney general?

Rep. Keith Ellison
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Rep. Keith Ellison speaking with members of the press on Tuesday after filing for attorney general of Minnesota.

At first glance, Keith Ellison has a good gig: as the representative of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District — the state’s most liberal, by far — the Minneapolis Democrat could have a seat in the House of Representatives as long as he wanted it.

Since entering Congress in 2007, Ellison has built a national profile: First gaining national recognition as the first Muslim elected to Congress, Ellison grew into a prominent progressive with substantial clout among the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. He’s slated to play a big role in the 2018 midterms as the No. 2 official at the Democratic National Committee.

But Ellison has decided to give up his enviable setup: on Tuesday, he announced he will run for attorney general of Minnesota, after sitting Attorney General Lori Swanson launched a last-minute bid for governor.

For someone with a national profile like Ellison, ditching a comfortable seat in Congress for an office like state attorney general may seem like a lateral move — or even a step down in terms of influence, power, and prestige. Facing a competitive DFL primary and what could be enthusiastic opposition from Republicans in the general election, Ellison is also no sure bet to be Minnesota’s next attorney general.

Why Ellison is making that risky move now is rooted in the realization that in the Donald Trump era, the best place to advance a progressive agenda might not be in Congress, but in the courts.

A ‘people’s lawyer’

After he filed his paperwork to run for attorney general at the State Capitol on Tuesday, Ellison spoke with MinnPost and outlined his vision for the attorney general job: a “people’s lawyer,” Ellison said, “who holds people in power accountable and makes sure the average person has a fair shot.”

Ellison, who practiced civil rights law before first running for Congress in 2006, said he loves being a member of Congress, but sees an opportunity to make more direct impact on people’s lives as attorney general. “As attorney general, you get to enforce the law, and you get to make sure the powerful follow the rules.”

“There’s some things a member of Congress can’t do. You cannot take immediate action to protect rights of people. A member of Congress can introduce legislation, try to make the law better, but an attorney general can very pragmatically sue to make sure people’s credit card companies are not taking advantage of them.”

Past attorneys general in Minnesota, including Swanson, made consumer protection work central to the office’s mission. Ellison plans to follow suit, but he also sees the office as a necessary counterweight to what he sees as the destructive policies coming out of Trump’s Washington.

He argued this political moment makes the attorney general role more essential than ever, and it’s a big reason why he’s running now.

“Certainly, it’s a way to push back against some unfair things the Trump administration is doing,” Ellison said. “It’s not just the travel ban, it’s also things around the Internet, climate, a number of things the administration is doing to weaken rights, both social and economic, of Americans. It is at the local level that fight is being waged.”

Trump era puts attorneys general in the spotlight

The idea that Democrats should invest significant resources — like time, money, and talent — to win those fights on the local level has become increasingly popular in the age of Trump.

After hemorrhaging state legislature seats and governors’ seats during Barack Obama’s presidency, the DNC’s new leadership — Ellison and party chair Tom Perez — made a point of renewing efforts to invest in state parties and political networks.

With Democrats shut out of power in D.C., state attorneys general have become essential figures in the party’s efforts to block Trump’s agenda. Over the past 18 months, the group of 23 Democratic attorneys general have filed 47 lawsuits against the administration, over items like DACA and the travel ban to carbon emission standards for vehicles and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  

The case of the travel ban — the executive order to limit travel to the U.S. by nationals of a select group of countries — may provide the clearest example of why the attorney general gig appeals to people like Ellison.

In January of 2017, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson led the first challenge of the so-called travel ban, which prohibited nationals of a group of Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the U.S. That lawsuit, joined by Swanson, ultimately prompted a federal judge to suspend the executive order, forcing the Trump administration to weaken it. (“Is it fair to say a big part of my day now involves the Trump administration?” Ferguson asked in January. “Yes.”)

In March, the administration’s modified travel ban was challenged by Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin, which led a Hawaii federal judge to issue to another order blocking the policy. The constitutionality of the travel ban, now in its third iteration, is currently being deliberated by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The promise of taking on Trump — and the national notoriety that affords — has drawn at least one Democratic star to an attorney general post. Shortly after the 2016 election, then-Rep. Xavier Becerra shocked Capitol Hill by announcing he had accepted an offer to become attorney general of California.

Indeed, House service may be losing its luster for ambitious Democrats: The party has been stuck in the House minority since 2011, and in the majority-rules chamber, there isn’t much to do beyond cast "no" votes.

Moreover, top Democratic House leadership posts have been held by the same few people for years: The top three leaders are all over the age of 76, and there’s no indication any are leaving office anytime soon. Becerra was widely considered a viable successor to longtime Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, and his exit from Congress was interpreted as a sign that younger, ambitious Democrats did not see a way up as long as the former speaker and her lieutenants were in charge.

Ellison did not say whether their enduring grip on leadership positions motivated his decision to leave Congress. “I think there’s a wealth of talent in the Democratic caucus,” he said. “I just hope that leadership will continue to give promising young leaders opportunity.”

Losing an ally in D.C.

Some Ellison allies in Minnesota and in the progressive movement cheered his move to head back home to be Minnesota’s top prosecutor.

Isaiah Breen, a former aide to the congressman, said that Ellison may be better positioned as attorney general to impact people’s lives.

“Keith used to be a lawyer. In Congress, he’s been super interested in civil rights issues, prison reform — that’s exactly the kind of work he’d get to as attorney general,” he said.

Breen also added that it’s encouraging to see progressive leaders like Ellison taking an interest in these kinds of state-level posts, recognizing what Breen said was Republicans’ effectiveness in leveraging local policy to achieve political and policy goals.

That point was echoed by Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a grassroots group Ellison has often worked with.

“Keith Ellison is a progressive hero who is willing to challenge power on behalf of everyday people,” Taylor said. “As attorney general, he could make a hugely positive impact for Minnesotans — and by challenging the Trump administration in court, for all Americans."

Whether Ellison wins or loses his race, however, House Democrats will no longer have one of their most vocal, prominent progressives in D.C. come January 2019. According to progressive activists like Heidi Hess, co-director of the group CREDO Action, it’s a big loss.

“He’s definitely one of our strongest allies,” Hess said. “We don’t want to lose any progressives in the House, ever.” At the same time, she said, “we know that AGs have a huge role to play in pushing back on Trump’s agenda as well. We feel like that’s also a place where he’ll contribute to promoting progressive values and defending folks being attacked by Trump.”

Ellison confirmed on Tuesday that he will remain in the deputy chair position at the DNC, though his ability to travel the country and stump for Democratic candidates — something that he’s done a whole lot of over the past year and a half — will be severely limited by the demands of a statewide campaign.

A tough choice

Some Ellison allies back in Minnesota are dismayed at his choice to relinquish his seat in Congress: Several Democrats said there was an effort on Monday, following Swanson’s surprise announcement, to persuade Ellison not to run for attorney general. That effort was rooted in the desire not to add another messy primary — for both attorney general and to succeed Ellison in the 5th — to the DFL’s existing list of intraparty battles.

But it was also animated by a belief that Ellison is more effective in Washington, and that his robust get-out-the-vote operation in Minneapolis — which some allies credit with boosting the DFL’s fortunes statewide — would not be replicated by his successor.

Steven Schier, a longtime professor of politics at Carleton College, said Ellison is giving up an opportunity to advance in Democrats’ leadership track in Congress, especially given the possibility Democrats capture the House majority in 2018.

“He’s certainly leaving some Washington clout on the table by this decision, in that if the Democrats take the House, he will have senior committee positions and agenda power he doesn’t have now,” Schier said.

It’s also not as if Ellison is trading a safe seat in Congress for a cakewalk to state attorney general; he faces a crowded field of Democratic competitors in the Aug. 14 primary, which includes Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman, veteran state Rep. Debra Hilstrom, and the endorsed candidate, attorney Matt Pelikan.

If Ellison prevails in a primary and faces former state legislator Doug Wardlow in the general election, Republicans may see an opportunity to compete in an election they had written off. The Republican Attorneys General Association gave a preview of possible general election arguments with a press release fired off quickly after Ellison’s announcement, framing him as an “extremist” who is “completely unfit to defend the rule of law.”

Breen, the former Ellison staffer, knows the decision was a difficult one for his old boss. “The image here is not of a guy who is champing at the bit to get out of dodge. I think this was a really difficult decision, and I think it’s not as cut and dry as, he could get more done in this job,” he said.

“I think this was tough, I think it was measured, and I think it has a lot more to do with the sort of good Keith knows he can do as attorney general rather than being able to do good at all.”

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Comments (29)

Buy your seat license for the

Buy your seat license for the "peoples stadium"

Buy a night in the Lincoln bedroom of the "people's house"

I wanna be the "people's lawyer". Yeah, go with that.

Ellison's history with the Nation of Islam and Lewis Farakhan will be recited again, this time to a group of folks for whom it will matter. Also, Minnesota very narrowly missed electing Trump, those are "the people", too. People who do not necessarily want a loose cannon tilting at windmills with their tax dollars.

Ellison's Run for AG

All well and good that Ellison wants to be where he believes he could make a stronger difference, but he could have thrown his hat in after Lori Swanson withdrew her name after the first ballot and the endorsement of Matt Pelikan. Why didn't he? This is what stinks about politics.

Very little time for careful thought

As I understand it, Lori Swanson's decision to withdraw from the AG race caught everybody off guard. Matt Pelikan was then given the endorsement just a few minutes later. I would hope that any serious candidate would give the matter more than 5 or 10 minutes thought before committing to a major career change.

Statewide Voting

Could the presence of Rep. Ellison on the ballot help mobilize larger amounts of minority voters in the metro that would help all the DFL candidates in the governors race and other statewide contests?

More likely

Ellison on the ticket will hurt Democrats statewide.

Two thirds of Minnesotans

live in the Twin Cities metro area.
That's where statewide elections are won.
Racial attacks on him such as we're already hearing will help get out the DFL vote.

Nope

The problems with Ellison go far beyond race and even his religion. The metro area is not Minneapolis and St. Paul. It includes a lot of conservative suburbs too.

DFLers don’t need to win outstate to win statewide. They just need to not get totally destroyed. Ellison will get totally destroyed. If its Ellison along with Murphy and Quade, Republicans are going to dominate this year.

Telling Democrats what to do

Whenever I see posts like this, I suspect a Republican in the woodpile,
telling Democrats what to do to benefit their opposition.

I don't think you understand

I don't think you understand what an Ellison campaign means to Republicans. Speaking for myself, I 100% endorse his decision to run. Gonna be swell.

What racial attacks are you

What racial attacks are you already hearing? There's so much to criticize Ellison for, I can't imagine why anyone would stoop to race.

Exactly!

As stated:

"The Republican Attorneys General Association gave a preview of possible general election arguments with a press release fired off quickly after Ellison’s announcement, framing him as an “extremist” who is “completely unfit to defend the rule of law.”"

If he should make it to the general election it will be an avalanche of ugliness from the GOP. Every unpaid parking ticket or Louis Farrakhan reference will be a "black" mark smeared on every candidate on the D side.

Ideas, principles, merit has nothing do with it when the R's can smell hate in the water....

Isaiah

I find it both highly ironic and very sad, that those who claim their politics are an out growth of their faith use fear of the Other, when that faith is full of prophetic admonitions to welcome the Other, as well as the alien in one's midst, as the Chosen People were once aliens in the land of Egypt. Indeed, their leader was once an undocumented alien in His earliest days.

Congress

Congress just isn't a good job. The hours are terrible. It mostly consists of fundraising. You have to be there for 30 years before anyone takes your calls. You have to spend way too much time in airports. And Congress doesn't do anything anymore. Word was all over the street that Keith was unhappy in the job, and when there was a chance to get out, he took it.

Hard to Explain This One

I can understand Rep. Ellison's frustration with Congress. What I can't understand is whether he honestly thinks he can win a statewide election. Is he that out of touch with the realities of the state?

The haters statewide have resented Rep. Ellison since he was first elected to Congress. Now, in a statewide election, they're getting out their ax handles and looking forward to a good ol' time. Between Ellison running for AG and Rep. Omar running in the 5th, it's going to be heretic-bashing time at the ballot box.

No doubt about it, RB.

Over the last few years, there have been Islamaphobes holding seminars in every far flung community in the state, warning about the "danger" of Sharia Law. I fear Mr. Ellison's announcement will bring that propaganda to a fever pitch.

Plenty of Column Inches

between now and November will revolve around this calculus. Will Ellison, Murphy and Omar do more to bring out the haters, or the (usually less involved in midterms) progressives? And how much of a factor will Trump be?

What I can't understand is

What I can't understand is whether he honestly thinks he can win a statewide election. Is he that out of touch with the realities of the state?

It's an interesting question. One thing is certain is that Keith has worked very hard to increase the chances of candidate like himself winning a statewide election. You see this in how hard he has worked to register and turnout voters. Given that his seat was beyond safe, his actions were consistent with the idea that he would run at some point statewide.

Keith has his problems surely. But Minnesotans like the idea of a Democratic attorney general. They have a sense that a Republican attorney general would sell their interests to the highest bidder. Just yesterday, it was made clear how hard Republican attorney generals are willing to work to hurt their constituents. This will be made clear during the campaign.

On Reflection . . .

I would hesitate to rule Ellison out as a viable statewide candidate, except I don't see it happening this year. He jumped in at the last minute, without warning. Establishing a big city African-American Muslim liberal outside his home territory would take months of background work.

I'm not voting for him.

A "people's lawyer" ? That's interesting, when you get him one on one, he has a very elitist disposition, and I have seen first hand on several occasions, he is not a people person. If people for Keith stop being so tribal on his behalf, it's easy to draw this conclusion.

Exactly

Outstate DFLers are going to have to pretend they don’t know who Keith Ellison is.

Ellison too liberal

Eillison's house seat was secure because his district matched his far left politics. It remains to be seen if his extreme liberalism will play well statewide.
As an official of the Democratic Party, it is disturbing that he chose to thumb his nose at the party's endorsed candidate and is mounting a primary challenge. I dislike the caucus system as undemocratic and would prefer that the primary determines who is endorsed but in Ellison's case he should be backing the party's choice.
I want our attorney general to concentrate on Minnesota issues and not be wasting my tax dollars on advancing his political agenda. If he wants to be a player on the national stage, he should stick with a national office.

In this case

The party’s choice was a joke. You can’t have some unknown guy a few years out of law school running the AGs office. This years endorsement process was even more ridiculous than usual.

Should be fun...

Trump haters and Ellison haters. Two sides of the same coin. I wonder if we will be able to tell them apart.

How fun politics is these days when few are civil.

False equivalence

Most 'Trump haters' hate what he does....
most Ellison haters hate what he IS.

Alas

I fear RB Holbrook might be correct, and Frank Phelan's comment painfully accurate. The election will be a sad illustration – not a "test," because recent years have already shown us at least part of the outcome – of the hypocrisy of much of Minnesota's "Christian" community. If nothing else, it might put to bed the notion of "Minnesota Nice." Either that, or prove what some critics have suggested: that "Minnesota nice" is facile and shallow.

Every politician on the November ballot will be claiming to "serve the people" of the state, or the county, or their district, so chastising Ellison for claiming the same thing, as Curtis Senker is happy to do, is simply an early example of the sort of hypocrisy I expect to see from Republicans and others who like to call themselves "conservative," from now until the ballots are counted in November.

For the time being, I remain ambivalent about whether Dave Carlson and/or Pat Terry might be correct. Plenty of bigots in rural Minnesota will vote more **against** Ellison than **for** whoever the other candidate turns out to be, but bigotry isn't limited to rural areas. There's plenty to go around, and in that context, perhaps Dave Carlson, if he's correct, might be on to something. On the other hand, if outstate Minnesota is as bigoted as I've just characterized it, Ellison energizing urban voters of color might just as easily serve to motivate rural and small town voters who view candidates of color as "the other" that Frank Phelan noted, and in my years here, I've already witnessed the tendency of Minnesota Republicans to gather in a feeding frenzy when they smell hatred in the water.

I'm not sure either party will leave a very good taste in many people's mouths by November.

Re: Statewide Voting

I purposely began my earlier comment with "Could" and ended it with a "?". It will all certainly boil down to energizing the constituents and getting out the vote. I'm actually pretty scared this might not end well...

The State's lawyers, not the People's lawyer

I'm a big Keith Ellison fan and have supported him throughout his congressional career, but I'm unhappy with his jump into the AG race. I served as an assistant AG for seven years (six under Humphrey, one under Hatch) and from that experience I think the business about the AG being "the People's lawyer' is misleading and dangerous. The AG is, first and foremost, the chief legal advisor to the State and its agencies.

Yes, the AG has some areas of enforcement authority: nonprofits, consumer protection, Medicaid fraud, and a few others. Every AG likes to brag about these kinds of enforcement actions, and rightly so in most cases. And the AG can be an effective advocate for policy reforms.

But the Attorney General and his or her office's primary responsibility is to be the legal advisor to the State and its agencies. 90+% of the work is important but mundane legal work: writing and interpreting contracts, interpreting and applying statutes and regulations and advising state agencies what the law allows and doesn't allow them to do, drafting state agency regulations, defending state agency actions, advising state agency decision makers in contested administrative law cases, defending criminal cases on appeal, and a hundred other things that do not make for a sexy 6 o'clock news sound bite. We were trained that we were really lawyers defending our democratic system of government, even when we personally and even when our boss disagreed with our client's on policy grounds, and during the Humphrey years this was the norm.

To do this well and credibly, an AG needs to be as unpolitical as the state auditor or secretary of state: he or she needs to be a neutral, fair, credible legal advisor and advocate for the interests of the State government and no one should be able to say that his or her legal advice is based on political consideration rather than the law. That's why Hatch and Swanson were such miserable AGs: they applied a political lens to their legal work and refused to defend or advise agencies if it might put the AG in a bad light, or if the AG disagreed with them on political or policy grounds.

Keith Ellison may turn out to be such an exemplar of separating legitimate political work from legal work and be an excellent Attorney General. He has the intellect to do so, and he has a working knowledge of state government from his (few) years in the Legislature. But he isn't talking or campaigning to be that kind of AG, and that disappoints me. He sounds like he'd like to be a Jefferson Sessions of the left more than, say and Edward Levy or Elliot Richardson, fair, judicious, independent lawyers who didn't let their political opinions drive their legal responsibilities.

I'm happy Lori Swanson is leaving, but I'd like to see her succeeded by someone who understands what the AG's proper and necessary role is and will fulfill it responsibly.

The AG's Proper and Necessary Role

Doug Wardlow understands what the AG's proper and necessary role is, and will fulfill it responsibly, as evidenced by the fact that he often speaks about what the AG's proper and necessary role is, and how he intends to fulfill that proper and necessary role, when he becomes Minnesota's next AG.

the job

If it was the job of the attorney general to be an advisor, the position would be an appointed one. As it is, it's elective. So if we like Ellison's approach to the job, we can vote for him. If not, we can vote for someone else.