Keith Ellison gave up a safe seat in Congress to run for Minnesota attorney general, saying it was his best chance to push back against the policies of Donald Trump. Now locked in a tough reelection fight, he's arguing that he's been far less of a partisan warrior than his critics claim.
Ellison squeaked into office in 2018, taking a post that Democrats had traditionally won easily. But he was a polarizing figure in the eyes of some voters. The outspoken progressive came from the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, and Republicans tried to draw attention to his past associations with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, though Ellison had publicly renounced Farrakhan when he first ran for the U.S. House in 2006.
His bid for a second term as attorney general comes after four tumultuous years that put Minnesota in the world spotlight over the police killings of George Floyd and other Black men. His Republican opponent, hedge fund lawyer Jim Schultz, says Ellison deserves much of the blame for the surge in violent crime that followed.
To fight back, Ellison has used this summer's U.S. Supreme Court decision rolling back abortion rights to rally Democrats and suburban swing voters. He's also urged those voters to look at his work on more everyday issues such as affordable health care and prescription drugs, consumer and business fraud protections and protections for workers against wage theft — all things that belie his image, he said.
“They think I’m going to be a firebrand and I end up being a fairly pragmatic guy," Ellison said in an interview. "That’s true of my entire service.”
Ellison was already leading a major initiative for greater police accountability when Floyd died under the knee of former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. Ellison went on to lead the prosecution team that got Chauvin convicted of murder the next year, a verdict that potentially averted another eruption of violence.
Ellison also took a step that his Republican critics are now trying to use against him. He strongly backed a charter amendment in Minneapolis that arose from the “defund the police” movement. It would have replaced the city's police department with a loosely defined department of public safety, with details to be worked out later. Voters rejected it.
On the campaign trail, Schultz depicts Ellison as being “at the forefront of the defund-the-police movement” and blames that movement for the departures of hundreds of dispirited police officers in Minneapolis and elsewhere. And he blames those losses for the spike in gun violence, carjackings and other crimes since the pandemic.
“Far left, extreme politicians like Keith Ellison have gotten behind really reckless policies like defunding the police,” Schultz said in an interview. “It's deeply wrong. It's immoral.”
Violent crime has been rising across Minnesota since the pandemic began, with Minneapolis accounting for much of the increase, while its police force has fallen about 300 officers short of its authorized strength. Minnesota saw a 21.6% statewide increase in violent crime in 2021 from 2020, with violent crime in greater Minnesota rising by 16% and by 23.9% in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.
Ellison said he doesn't regret supporting the charter amendment, but he said he never supported “defunding the police" and said it didn't accurately describe the amendment.
He also dismissed Schultz's claim that he's hostile to police, saying he regards policing as a noble profession and that Chauvin did more to invite scorn and demoralize officers than anything he ever did.
“I’m the one who prosecuted him for killing George Floyd,” Ellison said. “So I’m the one trying to restore the honor and dignity of policing.”
Ellison also led the prosecution of former Brooklyn Center Officer Kim Potter, who said she confused her gun for her Taser when she killed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop last year. She was convicted of manslaughter in December. Schultz has said he would support commuting her two-year sentence.
Crime isn't the only issue that has Schultz, a 36-year-old political newcomer, hopeful of being the first Republican to occupy the attorney general's office since 1971. He also accuses Ellison of “unbelievable incompetence” for failing to stop a massive fraud scheme in its early stages, with 49 people charged so far with stealing at least $250 million from federal programs administered by the state to provide low-income children with nutritious meals during the pandemic. Ellison has countered that his office helped uncover the fraud.
If Ellison is to survive both that attack and the policing criticism to win a second term, abortion rights is likely to be the issue that does it.
Schultz vowed this spring to do everything in his power as attorney general to aggressively defend the unborn. After Roe's reversal, he joined many other Republicans trying to pivot away from abortion and back to crime in a state where abortion rights are protected under the state constitution.
Meanwhile, Ellison brought New York Attorney General Letitia James to Minnesota in early September to raise money from abortion rights supporters in the legal community. Soon after, he visited an abortion clinic in Moorhead that moved across the border from Fargo, North Dakota, to escape a trigger ban on abortion. Ellison vowed early on that his office won't cooperate if other states seek to prosecute women who come to Minnesota for abortions.
Ellison said the election is about more than abortion rights or crime. Trump's rhetoric, the Jan. 6 insurrection, the Supreme Court's abortion decision and the rise of “MAGA Republicans” have put democracy in doubt, he said.
“Here’s what we can’t do," Ellison said. “We can’t tell people we got this. Quite frankly, I’m glad people see my race as close because it means they’re going to show up.”