UPDATE: This story has been updated to include new information from Keith Ellison’s media availability.
It is a political event that has a prominent place on the must-do list for any campaign: After a hard-fought primary, the losing candidates get together with a party’s nominee to pledge their support. People who just days ago were rivals of varying degrees of bitterness get together and act like reunited family.
The DFL’s 2018 edition of this de rigueur event, held on Thursday, was probably doomed from the start, given circumstances beyond the party’s control. But it went ahead anyway, since not having it would raise more questions than holding it.
The problem wasn’t the people who had joined the press conference, held in the State Office Building in St. Paul. State Party Chair Ken Martin announced that losing candidate Erin Murphy was throwing her support to winner Tim Walz. And the titular head of the party, Gov. Mark Dayton, was there to switch his endorsement from Murphy to Walz. “Obviously primaries are a big family food fight, but at the end of the fight we’re still a family,” Martin said.
No, the problem with the unity message arose because of two people not in the room: Attorney General Lori Swanson and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.
Swanson, who finished third in the DFL primary for governor, hadn’t asked to attend, which was probably for the best, because she wasn’t invited. “We invited Tim Walz and Erin Murphy today and we wanted to focus on those candidates that represented our values and ran positive campaigns focused on the future of Minnesota,” Martin said.
Walz had been unhappy when, in the final week of the primary, Swanson launched a TV attack pointing out that Walz had missed almost 60 percent of votes in the U.S. House this year in order to campaign. A mailer echoing that message was sent out simultaneously by an independent expenditure committee created to boost Swanson’s candidacy, one that by law is not allowed to coordinate with any candidate.
“When I got asked last week [about the TV ad and mailing] I just said I was disappointed in how it was run because I know what the DFL stands for,” Walz said. “I saw two campaigns run our way, and those are the two campaigns standing here.”
‘At this point we support him’
And then there is what might be dubbed The Problem with Keith. The U.S. Congressman from Minneapolis easily won the party nomination for attorney general, getting nearly half the vote over four party rivals. But the victory came just days after allegations of emotional and physical abuse were raised by the son of a former live-in girlfriend, Karen Monahan. For weeks, Monahan had been using social media to talk about an abusive relationship, without naming Ellison. But she confirmed her son Austin’s description of what she termed “narcissistic abuse,” and said Ellison once grabbed her by the ankles and pulled her forcibly from a bed during an altercation.
Ellison denies the abuse and denies the existence of a video of that incident, which Austin Monahan says he viewed and that Karen Monahan says she recorded but won’t release.
As of now, Ellison is on the ballot — with the DFL label beneath his name. “Keith is our nominee … and at this point we support him and we continue to support him,” Martin said Thursday.
Party attorneys are looking into the allegations, including reviewing emails that Karen Monahan has posted on social media that include conversations between her and Ellison.
In the meantime, the DFL and its candidates need to decide how closely they want to be tied to Ellison. Most have endorsed the #metoo movement and have called on elected officials accused of wrongdoing to resign, including U.S. Sen. Al Franken. Ellison, however, is a vigorous campaigner with a strong organization that has long helped the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts. As deputy chair of the national party, Ellison also has a national base, especially in the progressive wing of the party. Having him absent from the campaign is not something the party leaders would prefer.
On Thursday, Martin said it would be up to individual candidates to decide how or if they’ll appear with Ellison.
So Will Walz and Flanagan appear with him? “We’re focusing on our campaign,” Walz said. “We’re not campaigning with any campaign right now other than ourselves.”
Ellison did appear at Walz’ election night party, but left after just a few minutes and did not appear with Walz or Flanagan. When Walz was asked about the allegations by Monahan and her son, he said: “We take these allegations seriously. I believe there is a process in place to start seeing what’s behind those allegations. I have not spoken to Congressman Ellison since these allegations came out.” Not having to answer the questions about Ellison Thursday might have been the first positive thing to come out of the primary for Murphy.
More trouble ahead?
Party media handlers ended the press conference after just 19 minutes, and then stepped in to end an impromptu press gaggle in the hallway with Martin that followed.
But the hurried exit isn’t going to make the problem go away for the party. Since one of those Ellison defeated Tuesday was Matt Pelikan — who actually won the party’s endorsement in June — the DFL now has to decide whether to endorse Ellison in place of Pelikan.
Had the allegations not come to light, Saturday’s meeting of the central committee in Cambridge would have been quick and celebratory. Walz, Flanagan and Ellison all would have gotten the party’s imprimatur and headed off toward November. That’s what two DFL aligned labor groups — state and local government workers organized as AFSCME Council 5 and the AFL-CIO state board — did Thursday.
On the same day, however, another national Democratic ally, the National Organization For Women, called on Ellison to withdraw from the race. “Keith Ellison says he wants to protect women from domestic violence and sexual assault,” the organization stated. “That starts by believing survivors.”
Yet while Walz and Flanagan likely will get the star treatment Saturday, more trouble may be in store for Ellison. Martin said he wasn’t certain that an endorsement would come out of Saturday’s meeting, and that it would be up to central committee members.
Ellison’s campaign spokesman Sam Fettig said he doesn’t know if the candidate will attend the central committee meeting. Ellison kicked off a door-knocking effort Friday morning near North Commons Park in Minneapolis with a group of supporters. UPDATE: Ellison said this morning that he will attend the meeting and seek the DFL endorsement and expects to get it. In his first press conference since the allegations surfaced, Ellison again denied the charges of abuse and said he will continue to talk to supporters and others to keep or regain their trust.
At the press conference, Dayton said that since he’s in “semi-retirement,” he wasn’t invited to the central committee meeting, adding, “thank goodness.” The DFL governor said he still supports Ellison, who he endorsed one day after the congressman filed for the office in June.
Rather than talk about Ellison on Thursday, Dayton focused on GOP nominee Doug Wardlow. “Given Mr. Wardlow’s proven priorities in terms of divisive social issues, I think it would be very destructive to the state and all the agencies that depend on that office in a non-partisan, non-political way,” Dayton said. “So I continue to support Keith Ellison for attorney general.”
When asked about the allegations, he said “I don’t know. We’d all like to know the truth. The trouble is it’s hard to find the truth when it’s yes and no.”