See more of the story

– Inside a union hall on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison found a small audience eager to discuss the workers’ rights issues that he’s emphasizing in his Democratic campaign for attorney general.

Ellison continued to work the campaign trail even as his Republican opponent, Doug Wardlow, released a new TV ad that hammers Ellison for a domestic abuse claim by an ex-girlfriend.

Jotting down notes as he listened to about a half dozen local labor leaders gathered inside the Laborers’ Local 405 in Rochester, Ellison promised to better enforce existing labor laws and to close a gap in withheld wages that he said cost Minnesota workers millions in lost income each year.

Absent from the discussion was any talk of an allegation by ex-girlfriend Karen Monahan that Ellison he emotionally and in one instance physically abused her. Ellison denies it, and an investigative report commissioned by the DFL Party failed to substantiate the claim.

“If I can be perfectly candid, it’s really the press that wants to talk about that,” Ellison told reporters at the labor roundtable. “Workers want to talk about work rules and fairness on the job site. Other folks want to talk about affordable housing. Still other folks want to talk about opioid addiction. Other folks want to talk about affordable child care.”

Ellison also criticized Wardlow at the labor event as a champion of right-to-work laws that reduce union membership. Wardlow, a former state representative from Eagan, used his first TV ad of the campaign to label his opponent as “Extreme Keith Ellison” for supporting “cop killers,” “open borders” and being accused of abuse.

Ellison participated in a 1992 rally for United for Peace, a group aimed at curbing gang violence. Some linked to the coalition were later implicated in the murder of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf. Ellison also spoke at a 2000 fundraiser for Sara Jane Olson, a federal fugitive who later pleaded guilty to putting pipe bombs under police cars.

“The TV ad contrasts Ellison’s extreme views with Doug Wardlow’s pledge to stand up for the rights of all Minnesotans,” Wardlow’s campaign manager, Billy Grant, said in a statement. “The next Attorney General must defend the laws on the books, not legislate or push a political agenda. And unfortunately, Extreme Keith Ellison has already stated he would do the latter.”

In response, Sam Fettig, an Ellison campaign spokesman, said Wardlow was “seeking to distract and divide Minnesotans based on race and religion with this misleading attack ad, rather than talk about his own radical agenda for the Attorney General’s Office, which he has pledged to use to serve President Trump, criminalize a woman’s right to choose, and further corporate special interests.”

Several Rochester workers who attended the discussion agreed with Ellison’s message and said they remain confident in his candidacy.

“Like I tell my workers: Vote your paycheck because there are people who want to shut us down,” said Scott Parker, business representative of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. “It’s not guns, it’s not God, it’s not babies. Because if I don’t make a decent living what do I provide my family with?”

Barbara Andrew, of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, said the DFL’s investigation of Monahan’s allegations spoke for itself. She was more interested in Ellison’s recent outreach, saying he has met with numerous farmers she knew.

“My own personal thing is I haven’t seen anything substantive,” Andrew said. “One hundred percent I’m confident and believe that he will fight for the workers and the people of Minnesota. I have no doubt in my mind.”

In recent days, Ellison met with farmers in St. Peter and participated in a discussion on voting rights with college students in Moorhead. He and state Rep. Ilhan Omar — the Democrat running to replace him in Congress — made appearances in Moorhead and St. Cloud. On Thursday, he is discussing gun laws at an Eagan event with the group Moms Demand Action.

Ellison also addressed a court effort by the Star Tribune and Alpha News, a right-leaning news site, to unseal the records of his divorce from ex-wife Kim Ellison. A Hennepin County Family Court referee said this week that he plans to decide whether to open the file by Friday, and Ellison on Wednesday called on the judicial officer to deny the motions.

“My ex-wife, Kim, and I are good friends,” Ellison said. “She has said repeatedly that there is … nothing that has ever happened similar to what Karen Monahan falsely accused me of, so it really should not be [unsealed]. It’s unfair to my kids and unfair to her, and I hope the judge turns down the people who want to open up our divorce file.”

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755 Twitter: @smontemayor