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Amid concerns over Ellison, DFLers find a unifying issue in AG race: opposing Doug Wardlow

After weeks of struggling to deal with abuse allegations made against Ellison by his former live-in girlfriend, Karen Monahan, Ellison supporters are going on the offensive. 

At a press conference last week, labor leaders from across the state gathered in St. Paul to both praise Keith Ellison — and warn the rank and file about GOP nominee Doug Wardlow.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

DFL leaders might be conflicted about the validity of allegations against their nominee for Minnesota attorney general, Keith Ellison.

They are not conflicted at all, however, about Doug Wardlow.

The Republican nominee is becoming the unifying element as DFLers try to push Ellison’s campaign onto the offensive after weeks of struggling to deal with abuse allegations made by the six-term congressman’s former live-in girlfriend, Karen Monahan.

The unofficial campaign slogan for the closing weeks of the general election appears to be: “Keith Ellison: He’s Not Doug Wardlow.”

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Two weeks ago, a lengthy essay signed by former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges — along with 17 other women and gender nonconforming activists and elected officials — warned about Wardlow and echoed the conclusions of a DFL-commissioned investigation of the Monahan allegations.

And at a press conference last week, labor leaders from across the state gathered in St. Paul to both praise Ellison — and warn the rank and file about GOP nominee Wardlow.

“Whenever the UFCW needed him, Keith’s been there,” said Jennifer Christensen, president of UFCW 1189, “and I think it’s really important that we stand by our friends who have been there for us. Loyalties kind of come and go, it seems like these days. But the UFCW is there and our word means something.”

Bill McCarthy, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said the choice for labor is “crystal clear.” While in the Legislature, Wardlow supported right-to-work laws and opposed prevailing wage rules on public construction projects, McCarthy said. He had a voting record with the labor group of zero.

McCarthy said there hasn’t been a concern about the allegations against Ellison among labor leaders. “Our membership has known that Keith has stood with them over the years on every front.” But he said the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions are now working through independent expenditure campaigns and it’s door-knocking operations to let members know about Wardlow and what they view as his anti-labor views.

The campaign is also touting an endorsement by his likely successor in Congress: state Rep. Ilhan Omar. In a video, Omar says she is excited to support Ellison and echoes his campaign theme of being “the people’s lawyer.”

DFL pounces on Wardlow comments

That Ellison is trying to shore up support among organized labor and needing a boost from a progressive icon such as Omar this late in the campaign indicates how this is not a normal general election for a DFL-nominated candidate. The DFL base should be safely secured by now, leaving the campaign free to attract independents and persuade the undecided.

Ellison was always going to have challenges in Greater Minnesota, where — taking a regular page from the GOP playbook — he can be portrayed as a Twin-Cities-oriented liberal. But the Monahan allegations continue to linger. Later this week, a Hennepin County court official will unseal records of the divorce between Ellison and his former wife, Kim. The couple, who say the records reveal nothing about domestic abuse, which Kim Ellison said didn’t happen in their marriage, will appeal.

Jennifer Christensen, president of UFCW 1189
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Jennifer Christensen, president of UFCW 1189: “Whenever the UFCW needed him, Keith’s been there.”
Still, it keeps the allegations in the public eye for another week, something the Wardlow campaign and the state and national GOP also are trying to do.

While the race is considered close, based on the few public polls conducted, a large majority — 69 percent — said they didn’t know enough about Wardlow to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him. In the same poll, however, Ellison was upside down in his favorable/unfavorable rating: 20 percent to 31 percent. Another 29 percent who said they recognized his name reported being neutral in their opinion of him.

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Those numbers help explain why Wardlow’s media has been focused on driving up Ellison’s unfavorable numbers with ads that term him too extreme, and that highlight the Monahan allegations. Ellison, in turn, is hoping to reach the 69 percent of voters who don’t know Wardlow in order to define him as a partisan conservative before Wardlow can define himself as someone who seeks to depoliticize the office.

Wardlow didn’t help that narrative with remarks he made before a closed-door fundraiser last week. In comments recorded by a DFL tracker, Wardlow first repeats assertions he’s made publicly about wanting to return the office to one that is governed by the “rule of law” and the Constitution, before going on to say he intends to “fire 42 Democrats right off the bat and get Republican attorneys in there.”

DFLers pounced on the recording as evidence of what they have long been saying: that Wardlow will politicize the office from the political right, despite his statements to the contrary.

Supporting Ellison ‘without reservation’

The Hodges et al. essay, headlined “Without Reservation, We Support Keith Ellison,” is co-signed by Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray and state Rep. Rena Moran, as well as other people well known in progressive and DFL circles.

Quoting extensively from a DFL-commissioned investigation of the allegations of emotional abuse — and one allegation of physical abuse — the essay concludes that the signers do not believe the allegations. “We can say without hesitation or reservation that we believe Keith committed no abuse toward Ms. Monahan,” they wrote. “As a result … we support Keith fully and wholeheartedly in his campaign for attorney general.”

Former Mayor Betsy Hodges
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Former Mayor Betsy Hodges
Part of the essay centers on the worry that Monahan is aligning herself with conservatives to help assure Ellison’s defeat. Monahan, an environmental activist, has in the past been well within the sphere of the DFL, but she recently hired attorney Andrew Parker to represent her in matters related to her abuse allegations. Parker once employed Wardlow in the law firm of Parker Rosen and produces a conservative radio program called The Victory Hour. Recent episodes have been on the topics of “Domestic Violence and Abuse” and “What’s The Difference Between Kavanaugh and Ellison?”

If anything, Hodges and the others write, the investigation by Minneapolis attorney Susan Ellingstad understates the political implications of the timing of the allegations and the ongoing controversy.

“The timing of Ms. Monahan’s allegations, her retaining a Republican attorney who is a former supervisor and active supporter of Keith’s opponent, and her apparent willingness to be used by and possibly collaborate with right-wing, sometimes Islamophobic media, strongly suggests that these allegations have become politically as well as personally motivated.”

In an interview, Hodges said that while the essay was posted on her Medium page, it was a group effort with all signatories offering their ideas and suggestions.

“A whole lot of people wanted the world to know we support Keith,” Hodges said.

And she defended the integrity of the investigation, which has been attacked by Wardlow and Republicans because the attorney who conducted it works for a firm that does work for the DFL and has partners who have donated to the party.

“I’m a survivor of sexual assault myself,” said Hodges, who revealed in 2017 that she had been sexually abused as a child. “I have my own experience of not only being assaulted but telling my story before #metoo, before TimesUp, and I had some very horrific responses when I did tell my story. So I am very sensitive to the experience of anybody who comes forward with allegations of assault.”

But Hodges said there has never been a thoughtful way for people with allegations to come forward. “We have to create that new due process, and we don’t yet have one, but we need one. Because the lack of process is also incredibly damaging.

“In that environment, this independent investigation — weeks long, done by a very credible person — is as close as we’re gonna get,” she said.

She added that she has been impressed with Ellison’s reaction from the start because he didn’t try to discredit Monahan or go on the offensive. “Typically, when any powerful man is accused of abuse, they do everything in their power to protect themself,” she said. “They don’t cooperate in an investigation, they just circle people around them. Keith has been completely open.”

Impact on other campaigns

The signatories have also been troubled by the actions of Monahan that “point to political motivation,” Hodges said. The latest is the association with Parker. “There are all sorts of attorneys in town without that sort of conflict of interest who could have been engaged to move this forward,” she said. “He used to employ and is openly supporting Keith’s opponent. He has a regular show on alt-right radio where he has espoused Islamophobia. You bet I’m concerned about that.”

Monahan has taken to Twitter to push back on the suggestion of collusion with the GOP  on Twitter, saying that she’s been “accused of working with his opponent to bring him down. Basically, be silent, we don’t care about your humanity. Hypocrisy @ it’s finest”

She also took issue with the assertion that she could have helped her case by letting the investigator see cellphone video, footage that Monahan says she took during an incident in which an angry Ellison, she claims, cursed her and tried to pull her off a bed by her ankles. She has said making the video public would re-traumatize her and said survivors such as herself should be believed without having to provide such proof.

One GOP strategist thinks Democrats are as concerned — perhaps more concerned — about Ellison’s impact on other candidates than on whether he can survive the election. “It is clear that the allegations against Keith Ellison are hurting other Democratic candidates across the state,” wrote Gina Countryman, executive director of the GOP-aligned MN Action Network.

She said Ellison would have been a GOP target regardless of the Monahan allegations, and that GOP candidates would have been trying to link their own opponents to Ellison. (At the governor debate last week, GOP-nominee Jeff Johnson noted that the DFL’s Tim Walz  has been “with Nancy Pelosi and Keith Ellison more than 90 percent of the time. I think it’s 94 percent.”)

“Ellison’s career has been littered with controversy of his own making, and his ties to controversy is because he is out of touch with Minnesotans,” Countryman said. “It appears that the Democratic party is beginning to see it as a liability.”