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What we learned from the first Minnesota Attorney General debate

Among other things, that Keith Ellison and Doug Wardlow have starkly different positions on … pretty much everything.

The Almanac panel
The Almanac panel from left to right: co-host Cathy Wurzer, DFL nominee Keith Ellison, GOP nominee Doug Wardlow, co-host Eric Eskola and Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party candidate Noah M. Johnson.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

 It was the first debate between the major party candidates for Minnesota attorney general, and  — if nothing else — it moved the two men from talking about each other to talking to each other.

Not that it resolved any of the vast differences between DFL nominee Keith Ellison and GOP nominee Doug Wardlow. Ellison is a progressive Democrat who has led his party’s left flank in the state Legislature and, since 2007, as a member of Congress. Wardlow is a conservative Republican and a libertarian who is comfortable among the Tea Party.

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And while they don’t appear to care for each other all that much, the forum Friday night on TPT’s Almanac   — where they were joined by Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party candidate Noah M. Johnson  — was civil, with each apologizing each time they interrupted the other, which they frequently did.

So what could voters learn from the forum?

1. No one can say the candidates for attorney general are all the same

They could say it, but it just would be hard to justify given the three names on the ballot. Ellison is a progressive Democrat, Wardlow is a conservative Republican and Johnson is part of an effort to legalize recreational marijuana.

On issue after issue, Ellison and Wardlow took starkly different positions. Wardlow criticized Ellison for supporting policies that keep state and local law enforcement from asking about the immigration status of people with whom they come in contact. Ellison has been critical of Trump Administration immigration policies, while Wardlow has said he supports them. And while both Ellison and Wardlow have said they would be willing to put the clout of the state behind national litigation to uphold or knock down national policy, their targets would be completely different.

Yet both also accuse the other of threatening to politicize the office by making it a player in the national debate over Trump Administration policies. Ellison cited a current lawsuit by 20 Republican attorneys general against the Affordable Care Act and its protections for people with pre-existing conditions — something more than two million Minnesotans have. It has become a major campaign point nationally, with Democrats saying it is proof that the popular feature of Obamacare is opposed by Republicans.

Wardlow said he wouldn’t have joined the suit had he been in office. “I don’t think it’s right for Minnesota.” But Wardlow said that the state had “a great system” for covering pre-existing conditions before Obamacare passed and said Ellison helped break that system by voting yes. And he said Ellison had committed to joining litigation in other areas, from net neutrality to child separation at the border “to obstruct the president’s agenda.”

Responded Ellison: “It is appropriate for the attorney general of the state of Minnesota to join with other attorneys general — Republican or Democrat, Doug — when it is to the benefit to the people of the state of Minnesota.”

2. In Minnesota, all the children are above average. And all the candidates for attorney general are “extremists”

That is at least how Ellison and Wardlow are trying to portray each other. During the forum, TPT showed a Wardlow ad that describes Ellison as “extreme” five times in less than 30 seconds. It raised allegations that Ellison was supportive of Sara Jane Olson, who was charged with trying to kill police officers in the 1970s; voted against the Farm Bill in Congress; and said he supported open borders.

Ellison and state Democrats have been pointing out Wardlow’s legal work for a national group that has challenged LGBT protections and the Affordable Care Act. In the same segment that aired the Wardlow ad against Ellison, a video from Ellison’s website showed Wardlow testifying in St. Paul against schools providing unisex bathrooms for transgendered students. While Wardlow said he was testifying on behalf of a client, that client was the Alliance for Freedom, a national conservative legal organization that is the centerpiece of the DFL claims that Wardlow is too conservative.

3. Keith Ellison appears to have lost his mojo

Keith Ellison has long been one of the DFL’s biggest assets. That is partly true because he has bucked up the organizational clout of his 5th Congressional District, the state’s bluest and truest progressive district. But it is also true because he is an excellent campaigner and has been willing to share his popularity with other candidates in the state. And as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, he has been sharing it nationally.

That changed five weeks ago when his former live-in girlfriend, Karen Monahan, raised (and expanded upon) charges first published on social media by her son: that Ellison engaged in what she called narcissistic abuse and once physically abused her during a 2016 argument, yanking her by the feet while she laid on a bed.

Ellison denied the physical confrontation and said that cell phone video of the incident that Monahan says she recorded hasn’t been released because it doesn’t exist. Both the state and national Democratic parties have said they are investigating. The National Organization for Women quickly called on Ellison to step down but many friends and family members, including Ellison’s ex-wife, have come to his support.

The Monahan accusations, however, have put him on the defensive, which has made him far less helpful to other candidates. Friday it seemed as though they also have robbed him of his willingness to be assertive when needed. He knew the questions about Monahan would come up, either directly from Wardlow or through questions by hosts Eric Eskola and Cathy Wurzer.

It turns out that it was all three, and Ellison spent a lot of his time responding to the charges. “They’re not true. I have said that they are not true,” Ellison said. He also said he didn’t know when the investigations will be complete because they are independent.

When Wurzer asked him about Monahan’s offer to speak with investigators, but only if she could appear before them with Ellison, he said he wouldn’t agree to do that. “We broke up two years ago for a reason. I don’t want to be in the relationship and therefore I left the relationship and so to get back in touch with her again is not something I’m interested in doing,” he said. “I’ve met somebody new and I’m trying to pursue my life and move on.”

Wardlow, echoing his campaign ad, said, “I think two credible, strong allegations of domestic abuse is enough,” a reference to Monahan and a 2006 allegation by another woman.

“There’s none actually,” Ellison said.

“There are two,” Wardlow said.

“There’s zero,” Ellison. The 2006 allegation was from a woman who his campaign got a restraining order against, he said.

But more-importantly to his election efforts, Ellison wasn’t always effective Friday at turning the spotlight on Wardlow. In trying to portray Wardlow as too conservative, he cited a lawsuit led by Alliance for Freedom that challenged a Colorado state finding against a baker who refused to provide a cake for a same-sex marriage. 

Ellison, however, did not tie Wardlow directly to that case, instead saying the issue “is live right now in this race” and saying he would defend the rights of LGBT residents of Minnesota in a similar case.

He did accuse Wardlow of helping with legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act, but such charges required listeners to know more about the background of the case than most voters probably do. During the debate, Ellison’s campaign sent press releases dubbed “Fact Checks” with background and several accusations that Ellison could have made himself on the program to Wardlow — and to voters.

One example of that was Ellison’s failure to challenge Wardlow’s assertion that he wouldn’t be involved in national lawsuits on national political issues. While the forum was airing live, the campaign sent out a copy of a Wardlow campaign piece that asked supporters to rank the things he would do if elected. One of them is “Defend President Trump’s agenda in court.” Ellison didn’t mention it on air.

4. Showing up is 80 percent of success

No one knows that better than Johnson. While much of the forum focused on Ellison and Wardlow, by Almanac’s rules, any candidate with at least 5 percent support in an independent poll gets a spot on the couch, so Johnson was also given a spot on the show’s couch. His pitch: that marijuana laws are antiquated and that there are benefits to making recreational use legal in Minnesota.

But he also took positions that place him squarely among the state’s progressive voters. He countered Wardlow’s claim that those on the left want open borders, saying that it remains very difficult to gain entry into the U.S. After Ellison and Wardlow argued over which candidate supported law enforcement more, Johnson said “the attorney general is the people’s lawyer, not just the police’s lawyer.” And he said he was concerned with the Trump travel ban and other “extremely discriminatory” immigration policies that he said targeted people because of their religion.

None of those positions were groundbreaking, but if there are DFL voters unsure of Ellison due to the Monahan allegations, Johnson could appeal to them. Which is why Wardlow was likely happier than Ellison that Almanac’s rules put Johnson in the room.