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Ellison’s agenda to focus on economic issues as Minnesota AG: ‘Our middle class is hanging on for dear life’

Keith Ellison
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Keith Ellison: “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.”

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.

Doug Wardlow
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Doug Wardlow
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.”

The agenda

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.”

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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by David Markle on 12/10/2018 - 12:00 pm.

    Frankly, I fail to see how Ellison can accomplish much outside the proper and traditional role of Attorney General.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/10/2018 - 02:37 pm.

      It won’t be for lack of trying. Many of the things listed that he wants are not up to the AG to deal with. His job is to enforce the laws equally to all. Unfortunately that’s not going to happen.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/11/2018 - 06:09 am.

        Yes, like county attorneys, the job of the AG is to enforce the law. Nearly always left unstated is the next part: that they want to enforce.

        The job of the AG is to enforce the laws he or she wants to enforce. And Wardlow would do nothing to enforce laws against wage theft. Because when conservatives tell us they’re tough on crime, they aren’t talking about that crime.

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/10/2018 - 12:13 pm.

    Man, I’m glad Ellison got in instead of Wardlow. What a huge difference that will make.

    His ex-girlfriend can still release the video (or show it privately to neutral 3rd parties) any time she wants. And if it shows what she claims it shows, that will end Ellison’s political career. Given that she hasn’t, I expect that it doesn’t exist. So until she produces the evidence she claims she has (and which other victims can only wish they had) I’m done listening to any criticism of Ellison as an abuser.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/10/2018 - 02:34 pm.

      The claims made against Wardlow were just propaganda. He would not have taken away anyone’s rights (because he wouldn’t have the power to do so) and as for firing all Democrats, that happens with pretty much every President so why should the AG be any different? They get to choose their own employees when they take office.

      Ellison will spend the next 4 years pushing a left wing agenda that has no basis being done by an AG.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/10/2018 - 03:18 pm.

        No, that’s completely false. There are a lot of things the AGs office can do that will impact people’s rights. And Wardlow was completely unfit for the job. People figured that out, which is why Ellison won despite the abuse allegations.

        • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/10/2018 - 04:21 pm.

          How exactly was he unfit for the job? He wasn’t going to take away any LGBT rights. The job of the AG is to enforce the law equally. Unfortunately people on both sides seem to forget to do that and instead resort to partisanship. Wardlow was no less qualified than Ellison. At least Wardlow wasn’t acused of abuse (by at least 2 women).

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/10/2018 - 04:34 pm.

            “Unfortunately people on both sides seem to forget to do that and instead resort to partisanship”

            Funny that you should decry “partisanship” when you are posting in support of the man who would have fired employees based on their political affiliation.

            But that wouldn’t have been partisanship, would it? Or would it have been cool because other officeholders have done it?

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/10/2018 - 04:59 pm.

            He’s a terrible lawyer with zero ethics. Retired Republican Supreme Court justices came out and said Wardlow was unfit and endorsed Ellison. It would be hard to find a worse person for the job. Ellison would not have been my first choice, but he’s a million times more qualified than Wardlow.

            Even with the abuse allegations, neither or which has held up, Ellison is still an easy choice.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/10/2018 - 03:53 pm.

        The AG has the power to enforce rights, and to choose which rights to emphasize. I doubt LGBT rights would have been high on his agenda.

        “[A]d as for firing all Democrats, that happens with pretty much every President so why should the AG be any different?” I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say it’s probably because a state AG is not the President, and they are governed by different policies.

      • Submitted by ian wade on 12/10/2018 - 06:02 pm.

        Uhhh, no. You can’t dismiss actual actions and statements from Wardlow as “propaganda.” His beliefs made it quite clear that, like Trump, he had no intention of caring about anyone other than his base.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 12/10/2018 - 02:36 pm.

      Given the fact that she’s absolutely disappeared since the election, I think we can safely say that the tape never existed and this entire allegation was nothing more than a Hail Mary attempt at derailing Ellison’s political career.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/10/2018 - 03:23 pm.

        She took up with the right-wing crowd supporting Wardlow (including retaining Wardlow’s former law partner as her lawyer) but after the election, those people no longer had any use for her. I feel a little bit sorry for her, even though I think she was lying about the tape.

  3. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/10/2018 - 01:14 pm.

    Barring all the hype from certain folks, Minneapolis and many other Minnesota municipalities are the exception that proves the “hanging on for dear life” phenomena everywhere else, i.e., well educated and effective people mostly still run local government to keep the wolves at the door fighting over scraps; they used to keep the wolves under control a little better before the Reagan years gave state Republicans a post-Watergate creation mythology to help the Wall Street wolves now and then instead of our native Main Street fauna and their customers (Minnesotans).

  4. Submitted by Josh Lease on 12/10/2018 - 01:15 pm.

    maybe he’s planning to care about more than just Mpls.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/10/2018 - 02:11 pm.

      Ya tink?

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/10/2018 - 04:22 pm.

      Doubtful. He’s only cared about his career and his agenda so far in his political life. Not likely to change any time soon.

      • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/10/2018 - 05:33 pm.

        Must be a good career and agenda, apparently why more Minnesotans voted for Keith Ellison instead of your ‘God, Guns and Gays, Give to the rich’, guy; curious who Republicans would have run if they knew they would face Rep. Ellison.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 12/10/2018 - 03:27 pm.

    Of course, rural Minnesota is most challenged. The tariffs really hurt the farmers and small business people who live there. Smart Democrats realize that Republicans take rural
    Minnesota for granted, following Trump’s focus on serving the big money guys. Ellison could surprise a lot of skeptics.

  6. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/10/2018 - 06:52 pm.

    “Attorney general to assist in discovery and punishment of illegal practices”

    Just part of the job description. Hopefully the hiring of undocumented workers will be a priority (which is illegal) and perhaps the Attorney General could aid Federal law enforcement in this endeavor.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/11/2018 - 12:11 pm.

      I’d rather he focus on state issues. But if you really want to do something about undocumented workers, institute a system to electronically verify legal status and harshly punish offending employers. Then, institute a guest worker program.

      But the GOP will never go for that. Their corporate overlords like hiring undocumented workers. It’s good to have a ready supply of cheap labor that is easy to control and intimidate.

      But again, that’s a federal issue.

  7. Submitted by Roy Everson on 12/11/2018 - 03:42 am.

    There are two words to describe a dozen major-party candidates in the last half century who promised to restore “nonpolitical” professionalism to a DFL-run AG office. Those words are “Republican” and “loser”.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/11/2018 - 09:56 am.

    One thing about Keith, he really does like to work for the under dog, had him as a state representative and congressman, probably a little to far left for me, but; one really needs to answer the question, who needs an AG more for justice, large corporations etc. with armies of lawyers, or the everyday person? In this humble opinion, the voters hired a pretty good guy to speak for those that have little to no voice, and are fundamentally at a justice disadvantage, be they city or country folk. Read some place about “justice for all” .

  9. Submitted by richard owens on 12/11/2018 - 02:44 pm.

    Keth is our best chance at opposing all of the EPA rollbacks on air, water, superfund clean-ups and regulating polluters.

    States AGs may file suit to stop or delay the willful gutting of our environmental regulations.

    Also, we will ask the AG’s office to take up the cause of the people who have only Frontier Communications for internet service and can’t get working services. Injustice exists all over Minnesota’s rural areas who cannot get decent internet service and have only one provider or none.

    The AG can solve many problems individuals cannot.

  10. Submitted by Constance Pepin on 12/16/2018 - 06:37 am.

    I hope Ellison’s aides enlighten him to the insensivity and offensiveness of saying “with the Karen stuff it was just that much more challenging.”

  11. Submitted by Sharon Anderson on 12/16/2018 - 10:50 am.

    The MNAG Office is to Support and Defend the Constitution, Rule of Law.

  12. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 12/16/2018 - 02:05 pm.

    Even though it is not his primary job, Keith did terrific work on increasing voter registration in the 5th. hopefully he will do that state wide.

  13. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/17/2018 - 08:47 am.

    For an African American Muslim to win state wide office tells a lot about how our electorate has changed and / or about how bad a candidate the Rs chose. Wardlow would have been better off with no campaign at all: Every time he spoke he lost ground.

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