When it comes to job security, being a Democrat representing Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District ranks at the top.
The seat has been firmly in Democratic hands since 1962. Keith Ellison won it in 2006 and was reelected five times, widening the margin of victory to 69.1% in the 2016 general election. A rising star on the national stage, Ellison was deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee and vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
When Sen. Al Franken announced he would be stepping down amid a harassment scandal, Ellison’s name emerged as one of the contenders to replace him, but in the end Gov. Mark Dayton appointed his then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to fill the vacant Senate seat. Some speculated the thought was Smith would be able to win a statewide election, whereas selecting Ellison would be a risky move for the Democrats.
But in June 2018, after Attorney General Lori Swanson opted to run for governor instead of running for reelection, the next day Ellison announced he was seeking the office. It wasn’t the safe decision, but for Ellison it was the only decision.
“The reason I left Congress is because I felt I could be of greater service as the state attorney general,” Ellison said in an interview with MinnPost. “And it turns out I was right.”
But being of service and being right sadly came came in response to several Minnesota Black men being killed by police.
They included Jamar Clark, Philando Castile and on May 25, 2020, George Floyd. But unlike with the killings of Clark and Castile at the hands of Minnesota law enforcement, the state attorney general – Ellison – stepped in to prosecute in Floyd’s killing. And nearly a year later – amid multiple calls for a mistrial with a civil settlement by the city of Minneapolis to the family of Floyd and the chaos of yet another police killing, this time Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center – Ellison and his team successfully prosecuted Derek Chauvin, the officer who was recorded with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8:46. It would come out in trial that Chauvin held a cuffed Floyd for even longer than that – more than nine minutes.
The retelling of the chaos and triumphant prosecution of Chauvin for second degree murder is chronicled in Ellison’s new book, “Break the Wheel: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence.”
“Break the Wheel” is the recalling of the events following Floyd’s murder, with emphasis on Chauvin’s trial. Ellison said it was important to document the successful prosecution to serve a blueprint of how to prosecute law enforcement in future acts of police violence against civilians – even if that prosecution comes at a political cost.
“I almost lost my race (in 2022 for attorney general) because of prosecuting this case, but would I do it all over again? Absolutely,” Ellison said. “In service, you can do much more as attorney general than being in Congress. Now would things (prosecuting Chauvin) have happened the same way if I was not attorney general? I don’t know. But it feels like this wheel just keeps on turning, but we can break the cycle of police violence.”
In the book, Ellison talks about the decision for his office to handle the prosecution of Chauvin and the three other officers involved in Floyd’s killing: Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane. Ellison took the cases over from then-Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.
With Ellison’s retelling of events, he offers new insights into the trial and prosecution strategy, while also reminding the reader of the whirlwind circumstances of the times, including being in the middle of a global pandemic. But one of the more moving passages in the book is when Ellison talks about how an officer drew his gun to the head of Ellison’s son, Jerimiah Ellison, during the 2015 uprising following the police killing of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis’ fourth precinct. Then a congressman, Keith Ellison said his status was not enough to keep his son safe.
“A friend of mine … snapped a photo of the moment and tweeted it, noting in the caption that cops were even aiming guns at a congressman’s son. The position I held then, my job was irrelevant, though. The problem was that my son, clearly unarmed and peacefully protesting, had a gun aimed at him. The photo made my blood run cold, and then boil,” the attorney general wrote.
When it comes to the trial of Chauvin, Ellison takes the reader through all phases of the trial including jury selection, which offers insights into how the final panel of Hennepin County jurors was chosen and the challenges both sides encountered during jury questioning.
“Eric Nelson (attorney for Chauvin) stuck (juror) Number 42. A young white woman, she was smart and aware of current events … When he asked, ‘Do you feel you are serving a higher purpose?’ I knew she was about to go.
“All the jurors knew about what happened to George Floyd. Even the most conservative pro-police officer juror disapproved of what Chauvin did to Floyd,” Ellison wrote.
Ellison’s son was a focus of the defense during jury selection. The Minneapolis City Council announced a civil settlement for wrongful death of Floyd while jurors were being paneled in the criminal case against Chauvin, and Jeremiah Ellison, who represented the city’s 5th Ward on they City Council, was involved in the settlement decision. Nelson accused the father and son of collusion. Ellison wrote he was incensed at the accusation and reiterated his contempt for that suggestion during the interview with MinnPost.
“I had a job to do, and my son had a job to do; they just happened at the same time,” the attorney general said.
Jeff Hayden, a state senator at the time of the killing and trial and a longtime friend of Ellison, said he’s excited for people to read “Break the Wheel” so they can get a true understanding of what went into the rare successful prosecution of a police officer. He also credits Ellison for helping to bring calm during the turbulent times following Floyd’s murder.
“People knew Keith and what he stood for. (By taking over the prosecution of the officers) Keith helped to calm tensions,” Hayden said.
The former state senator, now a lobbyist, said “Break the Wheel” reminds us of the magnitude of the moment.
“I can’t remember a case this big since the O.J. Simpson case,” said Hayden. “I felt encouraged knowing Attorney General Keith Ellison had the case.”