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.”