Keith Ellison is well-versed in campaigning with political baggage.
The Minneapolis lawyer and politician climbed the Democratic political ranks, from the Minnesota Legislature to Congress and Democratic National Committee deputy chairman, while contending with controversies — from decades-old ties to the Nation of Islam to one-time public support for a federal fugitive. Now, as he mounts a bid for Minnesota attorney general, he is trying to move past an allegation of domestic abuse from a former girlfriend.
After a dip in public appearances, Ellison has resumed a busy campaign schedule. On Thursday, he held a St. Paul news conference to condemn legal efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, with several activists at his side. At a Labor Day picnic in Duluth, he vowed to stand up for unions. And in a State Fair visit he called for affordable student loans and medications.
“I spent my life trying to stand up for equal rights for people,” Ellison told the Star Tribune last week. “ ... That’s what I’m going to do as Minnesota attorney general. I’m going to stand up to make sure everybody is treated with fairness, equality and dignity in this society.”
In his interview, Ellison again denied the allegation last month by ex-girlfriend Karen Monahan that he dragged her off a bed by her feet during a fight in 2016. As Republicans try to win an attorney general seat that Democrats have occupied for almost half a century, the party has been relentless in its criticism of Ellison — and of other DFL candidates who associate with him.
“His views are too radical and the controversies surrounding him will be a hindrance,” said Doug Wardlow, the GOP candidate for attorney general. Ellison’s campaign has hit back by pointing to Wardlow’s work as a lawyer for a legal foundation with ties to the Christian right, which has fought same-sex marriage and transgender rights.
Support in Fifth District
Ellison emerged as a force in Minnesota politics on the strength of organizing ability, bold progressive politics and, more recently, outspoken opposition to the Trump administration. He spent two terms in the Minnesota Legislature before landing on the national stage as the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006. His deeply Democratic Fifth District congressional seat, which includes Minneapolis, elected him six times. He was a prominent early supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid and serves as deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Community activism has been a family tradition since he was child in Detroit, and before — his grandfather organized black voters in the rural South, Ellison said.
When he arrived at the University of Minnesota Law School in the late 1980s, he spoke out against racism and police misconduct. He led the Black Law Students Association and was spokesman for a Committee Against Police Brutality. He went on to spend 16 years as an attorney, largely focused on civil rights and public defense. He ran the Legal Rights Center for five years, a job he said formed his skills as a manager and trial lawyer.
Matt Entenza, who went to law school with Ellison and served with him in the Legislature, would occasionally sit in on his closing arguments at the Hennepin County courthouse. Entenza, who served as House minority leader from 2003 to 2006 and has been an unsuccessful candidate for statewide offices, including governor, said lawyers would talk about Ellison’s cases.
“He was just a phenomenal, phenomenal lawyer,” Entenza said.
If elected, Ellison’s emphasis on progressive change and Trump administration pushback would have to be balanced with the office’s other duties: enforcing consumer protection laws, advising state agencies and assisting rural county prosecutors in major felony cases. Supporters say Ellison is well prepared, but opponents have questioned whether he is fit to be Minnesota’s chief legal officer.
The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis has endorsed Wardlow. “We trust that as Attorney General, Doug Wardlow will have our back,” the union said.
State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, who’s worked with Ellison in private practice, called him a coalition builder who has brokered honest conversations about how to improve police-community relations.
However, Wardlow said many people he talked to at the State Fair were concerned with Ellison’s “support in the past for cop killers.” In 1992, following the murder of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf, Ellison participated in a rally in support of United for Peace, a gang coalition aimed at stopping intergang violence. Some people connected to the coalition were later implicated in Haaf’s murder. And in 2000, Ellison spoke at a fundraiser for Sara Jane Olson, a federal fugitive who eventually pleaded guilty to putting pipe bombs under police cars.
“I believe in innocent until proven guilty, right?” Ellison said. “And it just seemed to me Sara Jane Olson ... she might be being held accountable for her political ideas from the ’60s.”
During his first congressional bid, Ellison’s long list of parking tickets, some unpaid, and overdue campaign finance filings were widely aired. So was an old connection to the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, an anti-Semite who has said Jews control the nation.
Million Man March
As a law student, Ellison defended the Nation of Islam in columns published in the student newspaper in 1989 and 1990. He also participated in Farrakhan’s “Million Man March” in Washington, D.C., in 1995, and helped other Minnesotans travel to it. He later disavowed Farrakhan. In a letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council during his 2006 U.S. House campaign, he said he had long since distanced himself from the group and regrets dismissing concerns of anti-Semitism.
“At the time, I thought the caller of the Million Man March had some important things to say. As I continued to listen, I changed my mind,” Ellison said Thursday.
Farrakhan said in 2016 that Ellison and another congressman visited his hotel suite when he was in Washington. Ellison said he encountered Farrakhan at a hotel around 2008 and ran into him unexpectedly at a 2013 event.
As for the recent allegation from his ex-girlfriend, Ellison said he has been open to talking with voters about it. But he said, “people really don’t ask about it that much anymore.”
“It’s personal. It’s painful. It’s not true,” he said.
Ellison weathered past controversies with continued strong support from voters in the Fifth Congressional District. Wardlow said the statewide electorate is different.
On social media, Republicans have shared recent photos of Ellison they say show extreme views. In one, Ellison is wearing a T-shirt in the Minneapolis Mayday Parade with the message “Yo No Creo En Fronteras” [I do not believe in borders], from the L.A.-based band Las Cafeteras. The following week, Trump called out Ellison’s T-shirt at a rally.
“I went to a concert and got a T-shirt, so what? ... This stuff is not what people are worried about,” Ellison said. “They are worried about the critical issues: safety, they are worried about the prosperity of their family.”
In another instance, Ellison tweeted a photo of himself holding “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.” The post drew criticism, as Antifa members have physically attacked right-wing protesters. Ellison said he wasn’t familiar with Antifa when he took the photo.
At the fair, people who stopped by the DFL booth primarily asked Ellison about policies. But one young man questioned his selfie with the Antifa book. Ellison said Trump had mentioned Antifa, and he thought the president would be scared of the book.
“Then it turned into a big ordeal, so I was surprised,” he told the fairgoer.
Without further questions, the two posed for a photo.
Staff writer Miguel Otárola contributed to this report. Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044