‘People’s Lawyer’ Keith Ellison narrowly wins second term

News Analysis

[Full disclosure: I am not an impartial reporter on this one, as I supported Ellison during his campaign for attorney general.] 

Keith Ellison won a second term as Minnesota Attorney General by about 20,000 votes, promising to continue as “the People’s Lawyer.” His victory was part of a DFL sweep in Minnesota that surprised pundits and pollsters. 

Ellison was elected attorney general in 2018 following 12 years in Congress, four years in the Minnesota House of Representatives, and 16 years as an attorney specializing in civil rights and defense law. As attorney general, he emphasized consumer protection, including legal action against predatory prescription pricing on insulin and other pharmaceutical drugs, defense of the Affordable Care Act against Republican lawsuits, creation of a wage theft unit within the Attorney General’s Office, and more. 

Running against Ellison, corporate attorney Jim Schultz criticized this focus on defending consumers against corporate overreach and said he would move attorneys in the office from consumer protection to criminal prosecution. 

During the campaign, Ellison called consumer protection the “heart and soul” of the Attorney General’s Office. In an MPR debate, Schultz said his top priority was “crime, crime, crime.” 

The Attorney General’s Office has a limited role in criminal prosecution, stepping in only at the request of county attorneys who need assistance in large or complex cases. Ellison asked the state legislature for additional funding for the office’s criminal division to support its assistance to county attorneys. Republicans in the legislature blocked the funding. Nine county attorneys endorsed Ellison, citing his office’s assistance on criminal prosecutions. 

The Hennepin County Attorney asked Ellison to take over the prosecution of the police officers charged in the murder of George Floyd. Police unions, angered by that prosecution and by criticism of police abuses, spent $300,000 to defeat Ellison. The Republican Attorney Generals Association (RAGA) joined the battle with $800,000 in some of the most vicious and misleading attack ads seen since the infamous “Willie Horton” ads in 1988. 

The underlying racism of the attack ads came as no surprise: Ellison has been targeted by racist and anti-Muslim attacks throughout his political career. When he was elected to Congress, he was the first Muslim to serve as a U.S. Representative. 

The two candidates also differed on abortion, with Ellison speaking out in support of reproductive rights. Schultz tried to de-emphasize his position on abortion, but he had a history of anti-abortion positions and leadership positions in anti-abortion organizations. 

Keith Ellison’s victory statement cited the tough times of the past four years, including “a global pandemic, George Floyd killed on our Minnesota streets, the Dobbs decision that stripped women of their rights, and so much more.” Ellison said, “When times get hard, you can get bitter, or you can get better—and we got better.” 

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