The Democratic incumbent attorney general contends with a Republican newcomer.
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has been through his share of political scrapes in his career, sometimes going from underdog to winner right before the closing bell.
Four years ago, Ellison trailed in the polls to GOP nominee Doug Wardlow, but ended up winning by four percentage points, becoming the first Black candidate ever elected to a statewide office in a partisan election in Minnesota.
“Every single day I will wake up and I will fight to protect the rights of all of us!” Ellison told the exuberant crowd on that night in 2018.
Ellison at the time was wrapping up a 12-year stint in the U.S. House, where he’d made history as the first Muslim member of the House or Senate. Prior to going to Congress in 2007, he spent four years in the Minnesota House. His legal career included work as a criminal defense lawyer and a legal aid attorney.
As he seeks a second term, the Minneapolis Democrat finds himself locked in a tight battle with Republican political newcomer Jim Schultz, a corporate lawyer who lives in suburban Minnetonka.
Schultz has spent his legal career practicing corporate law, with his most recent private sector job serving as counsel for Varde Inc., a global investment firm. He has also served in a leadership role in the Human Life Alliance, a nonprofit that works to end abortions.
Schultz won the GOP nomination at the party’s convention in May, branding Ellison as, “The most radical, extreme attorney general in history.”
The momentum of that convention victory carried over to a Republican primary victory against Doug Wardlow, the My Pillow Company lawyer who had carried the party’s banner against Ellison in 2018.
RELATED: 2022 Voter Guide: What to know about Minnesota’s elections
Schultz’s campaign strategy has been to tap into voter anxiety over the wave of violent crime in the Twin Cities metro. He has tried to connect the dots to Ellison.
“Do you trust Keith Ellison to keep you and your family safe?” Schultz asks viewers in a campaign ad.
Crime stats are starting to trend downward compared to 2021 but are still higher than they were before the pandemic and the riots that followed George Floyd’s murder. More than 200 Minneapolis officers have left the MPD, after successfully filing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder claims in the Worker’s Comp system and the Public Employees Retirement Association Fund.
Shultz’s rhetorical attacks on Ellison rely on voters being unfamiliar with the role the state attorney general’s office has traditionally played in Minnesota. The office, held by Democrats for the past 50 years, has never been viewed as a primary law enforcement agency.
The US Attorney General heads the Department of Justice, which includes the FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshals, Bureau of Prisons, Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Attorneys, and other agencies. The comparable functions in Minnesota are led by the state public safety commissioner, state corrections commissioner, local law enforcement and county prosecutors.
“There are 87 counties in our state. They elect their county attorneys. And the county attorney’s job is to prosecute crime. They do a good job,” Ellison remarked in TPT Almanac debate last month.
“Sometimes they seek our help. And we have a great success rate.”
The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office is composed of at least 150 civil attorneys who represent state agencies in lawsuits and handle consumer protection cases. Ellison has followed the tradition of his predecessors Lori Swanson, Mike Hatch and Skip Humphrey by filing lawsuits.
He’s made headlines with legal actions against opioid manufacturers, a Utah solar panel company, and a suit accusing the Fleet Farm chain of negligence for selling firearms to prolific straw purchasers.
The office has a handful of criminal attorneys who come in at the request of local prosecutors to assist with complicated cases. The Attorney General’s Office Criminal Division helped secure convictions of double murdered Lois Reis of Blooming Prairie and Devin Weiland who shot Albert Lea police officer Kody Needham.
Ellison says he’s proud of the work of his criminal division, who’ve won convictions in every case they’ve worked. He asked the legislature for extra funding to hire more criminal lawyers, but it was lost in the shuffle when Senate Republicans and House Democrats couldn’t reach an agreement on major spending bills before the session ended.
Schultz says if elected, he won’t wait for lawmakers to send more dollars, but would instead reallocate resources. He says he’d lay off civil attorneys, if necessary, in order to hire more criminal attorneys.
The state’s largest law enforcement organization, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, has endorsed Schultz. Dozens of county sheriffs have also come out in support of the Republican.
They’ve cited Ellison’s support of Minneapolis Ballot Question 2, which was ultimately defeated by that city’s voters. If it had succeeded, the MPD would’ve been replaced by a new department of public safety controlled by the city council, and minimum staffing quotas would’ve been stripped from the city charter.
“Right now, we have an attorney general who has undermined law enforcement in this state and has emboldened criminals,” Schultz remarked in the TPT Almanac debate.
Schultz adheres to the Republican theory that the crime wave in Minnesota and across the nation was caused by the anti-police sentiment that took hold with Minneapolis leaders after George Floyd’s murder.
City council members, including the attorney general’s son Jeremiah Ellison, took part in a rally in Powderhorn Park, appearing on a stage with the words “Defund the Police” on a banner. The younger Ellison said it was time to “dismantle” the Minneapolis Police Department.
That never happened but attack ads are filled with false claims that police were defunded, and Ellison helped make it happen.
Ellison’s led the state’s efforts to enforce Governor Walz’s COVID-related executive orders temporarily closing businesses during the pandemic. He ultimately took 24 businesses to court for defying those orders and won all of the cases.
Schultz has criticized Ellison for those actions, accusing him of being anti-business in his approach. Ellison said the 24 cases were a tiny number, considering there were thousands of businesses in the state that complied with the orders to protect customers and employees from the virus.
RELATED: MN egg producer to donate more than a million eggs as settlement
Minnesota has no laws barring price gouging, but during the pandemic Gov. Walz issued an executive order limiting companies from raising prices more than 20%. Armed with that temporary power, Ellison brought price-gouging lawsuits against some companies, including Sparboe Eggs of Litchfield.
Sparboe denied any wrongdoing but agreed to donate one million eggs to nonprofits as part of an out-of-court settlement with the Attorney General.
In debates, Schultz blasted Ellison for going after Sparboe.
“An attorney general who sues the company’s CEO, Beth Sparboe Schnell, donated $2,500 dollars — the maximum individual donation allowed — to Schnell’s campaign.”
Schultz has also accused Ellison’s office of failing to stop the Feeding Our Future fraud case soon enough. Ellison’s staff represented the Department of Education, which was in charge of administering those COVID-related child nutrition grants.
The Attorney General’s staff became involved when the agency stopped approving new nutrition sites after suspecting fraud. The alleged fraudsters sued MDE, alleging racism. Ellison’s attorneys said the judge in the case made it clear to them with his comments in the courtroom that they’d be fined heavily if they didn’t allow the new sites.
Once the site applications went through, federal money began to flow to those sites, allowing more fraud. In the meantime, the MDE went to the FBI which launched an extensive federal investigation that has led to 50 indictments so far.
Schultz and other Republicans have faulted Ellison and Gov. Walz for not going public with their suspicions at the time. Ellison and Walz both said they didn’t want to comprise the FBI investigation by tipping off the fraudsters.
Watch the latest political coverage from the Land of 10,000 Lakes in our YouTube playlist: