To Win Reelection, Keith Ellison Has to Survive the Black Lives Matter Backlash

Minnesota is still living in the long shadow of George Floyd’s murder, the uprising it sparked, and the backlash that followed. Keith Ellison’s reelection bid for the state’s attorney general is playing out in that shadow.

Represetative Keith Ellison (D-MN) speaks at a news conference, urging Congress to protect programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. (Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Do you trust Keith Ellison to keep you and your family safe? According to Jim Schultz, the Republican nominee for attorney general in Minnesota, this is the single defining question of the race to lead the state’s attorney general’s office for the next four years.

One ad claims that Ellison is “extreme” and has “let violence spread like cancer.” Schultz has focused so intensively on crime, his messaging has verged on the surreal. “It’s a sad day in Minnesota when I hear from countless parents who are too concerned for their children’s safety to let them go trick-or-treating in their own neighborhoods,” Schultz tweeted on the morning of Halloween. “We are losing the state we know and love.”

Schultz is not running an original campaign playbook. Republicans have attacked Democrats over crime in congressional races throughout the country, and local elections in overwhelmingly Democratic cities like Los Angeles and Portland have been similarly dominated by concerns about crime, homelessness, and public safety. The potency of those attacks was made clear in San Francisco earlier this year, where voters recalled progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin despite zero evidence to suggest that Boudin’s reformist policies were responsible for any sort of surge in the city’s crime rate.

Boudin paid the price for voters’ frustration with the visible effects of overlapping crises in housing and public health. But he at least was the district attorney in San Francisco, responsible for prosecuting crime. Ellison is not a district attorney. He’s an attorney general, whose job is largely not to prosecute violent crime, but to protect the civil and consumer rights of Minnesotans. Schultz’s campaign is predicated on dramatically reorganizing the office away from its consumer protection function and investing resources into criminal prosecutions — even though it’s not clear that a state attorney general has any legal authority to usurp criminal prosecutions from local authorities.

“The way that Jim Schultz describes it, it sounds like he’s running for chief of police,” Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St Thomas and former prosecutor, said. “And even if it was a county attorney, someone whose primary job is prosecution, that person isn’t charge isn’t in charge of the police either.”

The attorney general in Minnesota can typically only prosecute criminal cases in two situations: when invited to do so by a county attorney or asked to do so by the governor. Ellison, in his first term, was called in very memorably by Governor Tim Walz to prosecute former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Where Ellison’s supporters say he’s thrived as attorney general is in a very different arena: using his office as a weapon to prosecute corporate malfeasance. In his first term, Ellison has sued fossil fuel companies including ExxonMobil and Koch Industries for misleading the public about the effects of climate change; sued Fleet Farm for knowingly selling firearms to straw buyers; sued one of the state’s largest and most notorious landlords over the conditions of their housing units; and sued JUUL and its investor Altria for misleading the public about the effects of its products and reached settlements with opioid manufacturers that have netted the state hundreds of millions of dollars. Ellison has also created a unit in the attorney general’s office to fight wage theft.

“He’s been remarkably effective,” Perry Moriearty, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, said. “He’s surrounded himself [with] staff that are really, really good. And I’m a defense lawyer — I don’t love every prosecution out there.”

Corporations Strike Back

Ellison’s office is a far cry from the one he inherited from his predecessor Lori Swanson, who, according to reporting from the Intercept, pressured government employees to do political work on her behalf and was reluctant to attend political events in the Twin Cities for fear of being seen as too progressive.

It also stands in stark contrast to what Schultz, a corporate hedge fund lawyer who has never prosecuted a case or served in public office, is offering. Schultz has accused Ellison of making it “his office’s mission to drive Main Street businesses into the ground and out of state” and said that he would not use the resources of the attorney general’s office to file suits against major corporations. He’s also an opponent of abortion rights who previously served on the board of a far-right antiabortion organization, a live issue given that Ellison has promised to fight for the rights of people from surrounding states to come to Minnesota to receive abortion care.

It’s little wonder that many of the corporations Ellison has targeted for endangering the safety of the public are spending significant sums of money to replace him. Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, and the American Petroleum Institute have all dumped contributions into the coffers of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), as have JUUL and Altria, Pfizer, Philip Morris, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

“To have an elected official who is truly fighting for working people feels too rare,” Andrew Ulasich, an organizer with Faith in Minnesota, said. “And I think [Ellison] is facing a reaction from corporate power for doing that.”

Of course, Schultz’s advertisements and those funded by RAGA don’t attack Ellison as overly hostile toward “Main Street” businesses like ExxonMobil and JUUL. They’re attacking him on crime. The remarkable thing is that Ellison’s most prominent achievement in his four years on the job was rescuing the prosecution of Chauvin and, ultimately, winning a precedent-setting conviction. Chauvin was the first white Minnesota police officer ever convicted of murdering a black person.

Ellison also brought a first-degree manslaughter charge against former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter for the killing of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop last year; Potter was also convicted. If anything, the fundamental disagreement between Ellison and Schultz is about what kinds of criminal behavior are most in need of prosecuting: Ellison has gone after corporations and criminal police officers, Schultz has proposed prosecuting “carjacking gangs.”

Schultz has been complimentary of the prosecution of Chauvin, which he called “appropriate,” but has also claimed without clear evidence that Ellison himself somehow had little to do with it. “You sat in the back of the courtroom, you took some notes, and you opened the door from time to time,” Schultz said at a debate in late October. “That was your role in the George Floyd prosecution, Keith.”

“Jim, how would you know?” Ellison asked. “How would you possibly know?”

Public Safety Amendment

Were this a different elected official with the same record, it might be a very different race. Scott Jensen, the Republican nominee for governor, has repeatedly attacked Walz over his public safety record but has trailed in most polls. But Ellison is one of the country’s most visible elected officials, a black Muslim serving in a state that had never elected a black person to a partisan statewide office until he won his first term as attorney general four years ago, and he is living in a city that for a number of Minnesotans has become a codeword for chaos and disorder.

He also, no matter his job description, hasn’t shrunk from the fight for true public safety. Last year, Ellison, whose son is a progressive member of the Minneapolis City Council, linked up with Ilhan Omar and became the only statewide elected official to endorse a measure to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. It was a politically risky decision, but one wholly consistent with Ellison’s politics and background as a Minneapolis criminal defense attorney, community activist, and US representative well-versed in the department’s gruesome record of racism and violence against marginalized communities.

“I live three miles from where George Floyd was murdered, and I think it’s incredibly hard to be this proximate to that type of human suffering that evokes decades and centuries of what are effectively lynchings of unarmed black men, and not say, ‘Something drastic has to change,’” Moriearty said.

What happened next, in a climate of media-driven fear and police backlash, was predictable: the public safety amendment lost by twelve points and a number of its proponents have paid an ongoing price. Omar’s summer, in particular, may have been a harbinger of things to come: while her fellow Squad members easily won renomination in their respective primaries, Omar only narrowly fended off a challenge from former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels — a conservative Democrat whose support for the Minneapolis Police Department was so robust he co-filed a lawsuit against the city in 2020 in an attempt to force it to hire more officers.

Ellison’s campaign and its allies have focused on informing voters about the work he’s done to hold corporations accountable as attorney general. But in a state that is still living in the long shadow of the murder of George Floyd, the uprising it sparked, and the backlash that followed, Ellison’s fate may be tied to what Ulasich called an “ongoing referendum” on policing.

“I really do think that part of the big support for Jim Schultz right now is a response to that, and it’s coming up in the debates, he won’t let it go, and a lot of people are saying it too . . . ‘Keith is a defunder,’” said Hannah Merrill, Ulasich’s colleague with Faith in Minnesota.

It’s hardly mattered that Minnesota’s homicide rate remains well below the national average and that gun crime in Minneapolis has actually declined significantly in the lead-up to the election, and it’s hardly mattered that Ellison doesn’t have any direct link to the crime rate anyway. The police in Minneapolis have not been defunded.

But “Part of the politics of the moment right now is that people are driven by fear rather than hope,” Osler said. “And I think Ellison is better at hope.”