Keith Ellison thinks his campaign for Minnesota attorney general took off when he was furthest behind.
Just weeks before election day, the DFL nominee was trailing his GOP rival Doug Wardlow in public opinion polls. But that moment, Ellison said — and the prospect that he could lose the election — caused both activists and regular voters to really consider what they might be getting in a new AG.
“When the polls started showing me up four, down four, down seven, it really sorta kickstarted people’s evaluation, thinking, ‘If it’s not going to be Keith, who is it going to be?’” Ellison said last week. “And when they answered that question, a lot of people — from moderate independents and moderate Republicans and on to the left — got pretty worried.”
Ellison, who represented Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. for six terms, had breezed through a five-candidate DFL primary to replace incumbent Attorney General Lori Swanson, who jumped into the race for governor in early June instead of running for another term as the state’s top legal officer. But just before the primary, Ellison’s former live-in girlfriend, Karen Monahan, went public with her claims that he had emotionally — and on one occasion, physically — abused her.
As Ellison was trying to put together a general election campaign, he was also responding to those charges, which he denied. Some Democrat-leaning women’s advocacy groups, including NOW and UltraViolet, said he should drop out of the race, and Wardlow made Monahan’s allegations a centerpiece of his campaign.
But then, even as polling showed him behind Wardlow, two things happened. First, the DFL released the results of an investigation it had commissioned reporting that it was not able to substantiate Monahan’s allegations. Then, a court ordered the release of Ellison’s divorce records, which showed that he had not been accused of abuse during the marriage.
Soon after, Ellison and the party began to take the campaign to Wardlow. Wardlow, they said, was a Christian conservative activist who had brought court challenges to LGBTQ rights and had an anti-labor record in his one term in the Minnesota House. To challenge Wardlow’s claim that he would run a nonpolitical AG office, the party released captured audio of Wardlow saying he would fire 42 Democratic assistant attorneys general “right off the bat.”
“I’ve never believed that he was apolitical,” Ellison said. “I always believed that his past was an indicator of what he would do. And as time unfolded, I think I was right.”
Soon, one DFL-leaning group after another called press conferences to criticize Wardlow on labor, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, abortion, and politicizing the AG office. There were no additional polls released publicly, but Ellison’s campaign seemed to be gaining momentum. The focus of the election had moved from Ellison’s personal life and his political past to talking about Wardlow.
“The interesting thing about Minnesotans’ attitudes about civil rights, as much as we have these institutional biases and disparities, Minnesotans really do not like overt expressions of bias and bigotry,” Ellison said. “So my thing was to talk about … what he really stood for, what he really believed.
“But the inflection point of the campaign is when my poll numbers started looking bad; it opened the door to really start talking about, you know, who he was.”
Ellison ran behind the other statewide DFLers on the ballot, but he ultimately defeated Wardlow 49 to 45 percent. A third-party candidate, the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party’s Noah Johnson, who had endorsed Ellison, received 5.7 percent. Still, Ellison called it “the hardest campaign I ever went through. We knew it was going be a tough campaign, but with the Karen stuff it was just that much more challenging.”
Ellison has been using borrowed office space in downtown Minneapolis to prepare his transition to the AG’s office. He has already named his congressional office chief of staff, Donna Cassutt, to the same position with the attorney general’s office. He said his next big task is to appoint a chief deputy attorney general, and then to prepare a supplemental budget request.
One area for which he may ask for additional resources: the office that helps county attorneys handle criminal appeals, something those officials have been asking him for.
He’s also begun meeting with Swanson’s staff. “We’ve had a few meetings so far, but they’ve all been pretty introductory,” he said. “There are a lot of passionate people over there, a lot of people who really care. I’m looking forward to working with them.
“You don’t get into [working at the AG’s office] because you’re looking to amass a fortune,” he said. “These people are folks who could work in any big law firm they want and literally make millions and millions. But they would rather serve the public interest. Many of them are already fighting some great cases. Lori Swanson has brought some good cases. She brought the 3M case. She brought the Minnesota School of Business case. She brought the, the insulin cases. These are all the kinds of cases that I’d be looking to bring.”
Once he’s sworn in on Jan. 7, one of his duties will be to gain a full understanding of those cases. “I’ve already read all the files and the pleadings of the major cases,” he said. “There’s what the public knows about a case. And there’s what the lawyers doing the case know about the case. I know about the public side of it because I’m not an attorney general yet they can’t read me in on the finer points. So we’re gonna look into that. “
He is also doing a listening tour of the state to hear from residents about what they want him to start working on. He has already gone to Duluth and has meetings set next month in Albert Lea and north Minneapolis.
“We know that people are concerned, very concerned, about health care, drug prices, educational prices, student loans,” he said. “People are concerned about how do they afford their lives given the pressures, given that their wages are stagnating, given that everything seems to be going up in price. And this is beyond just dollars and cents. It’s actually into issues of dignity, respect, expectations about society and life.”
“One thing that we learned about people in this situation and not just in this AG race, but in my political time, people who get in economic dire straits, their first impulse is to blame themselves,” he said. “And only when somebody in some advocacy group or or an AG says, ‘No, this is a scam that they went around a lot of people. You’re not alone. You’re not by yourself.’”
“We’ve got to have some politics that allows us to have a middle class that is big and robust and expectant,” Ellison said. “Our middle class is not expectant anymore. Our middle class is hanging on for dear life and it’s not right, man.”
Ellison said he will be especially interested in economic justice issues, especially for women under a state law known as the Women’s Economic Security Act. “The economy does not treat men and women the same way,” he said. “More women are on minimum wage than men. Women live longer than men. That means they survive on Social Security longer but because they earned less, they have less. It’s a great piece of legislation. But as with all legislation, it needs enforcement. So we want to look into it and see what we could do.”
He said he also wants to work to enforce wage and hour laws. “We want to want to make sure that people get every penny that they’ve earned,” he said. “We’re going to prioritize these, these economic issues that can help restore the middle class and everybody who wants to be in the middle class.”
Taking on Trump
Like the other DFLers in the primary, Ellison made an issue of legal challenges to Trump administration policies. As an example, Ellison cited a bill he’d introduced to ban so-called anti-poaching agreements among fast-food franchises, in which the businesses promised not to hire each other’s workers, a move that helped hold down wages. The bill went nowhere, but a suit filed by a trio of state attorneys general got a consent decree within weeks.
After the primary, Wardlow tried to make efforts to challenge the Trump administration a liability, claiming Ellison wanted the job as part of an anti-Trump crusade.
“He wanted to make everyone think that my existence was to just be all about Trump,” Ellison said. “The truth is, it never was. Now, do I expect to be into conflict with the Trump administration? Of course. Is that why I’m in this job? Absolutely not.
“When I talked about the no-poaching agreement, that doesn’t have to do with Trump,” he said. “When I talk about the drug prices that have been skyrocketing, that’s not necessarily about Trump. When I talk about contract farming, trying to do right by our family farms, that’s not Trump.
“At the same time, when you talk about the travel ban — which I think is unfair — that is Trump,” he said. “When we talk about what (U.S. Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos is doing to student loan servicing, that’s Trump.”
Yet he admitted that the allegation by Wardlow about his anti-Trump fervor had some impact because it “made fair-minded Minnesotans wonder, ‘Does Ellison care about me and my family?’ And the answer was: yes, is yes, and is going to be yes. To me, I just thought it was sort of a clever way to change the subject, but it was never really an authentic critique of the position I was taking.”
Another issue raised by Wardlow was Ellison’s role as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee. During the campaign, Ellison would only say that he would consider resigning. After he won, he said that he had, in fact, left the post.
“I will miss the DNC because I liked helping change some of the philosophy of the Democratic Party, focusing on the nonvoter, increasing voter turnout, engaging more people, participation at the grassroots level, using politics to build community,” he said.
“I still believe in those things, and I still think that they need to be done. I think there’s still people carrying on that legacy and, after I get myself squared away, if I have the time. I’d go do a weekend, you know, help out for them. But I can’t manage ongoing responsibility because I have to do my job here. I just can’t.”