Overshadowed by the battle for control of Congress, Keith Ellison’s narrow reelection as Minnesota’s Attorney General holds important lessons for Democrats as they seek to articulate positions on criminal justice. Elected in 2018 on a pledge to be the “People’s Lawyer,” Ellison entered this years’ race with a strong record of protecting worker and consumer rights and leading the successful prosecution of the police officers accused of killing George Floyd and Daunte Wright in 2020. That he won by just 20,000 votes (a fraction of his 100,000 vote margin of victory in 2018) revealed how successfully Republicans narrowed debates over police reform and crime into simplistic narratives about “law and order.” But it also demonstrated that Democrats can win on platforms that deliver racial and economic justice as well as public safety.
Asked why he traded a safe seat and a leadership role in Congress for what many viewed as a step down to state office in 2018, Ellison explained that with Republicans in control of the White House and Senate, state attorneys general had key roles to play in countering attacks on civil liberties, consumer and environmental protections, and other “things the administration is doing to weaken rights, both social and economic, of Americans. It is at the local level that fight is being waged.” The first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, he took a lead in opposing Trump’s Islamophobic travel ban while targeting corporations for wage theft, negligent gun sales, misleading marketing of opioids and profiteering on pharmaceuticals, and overcharging for housing and healthcare. After the Supreme court overturned Roe v. Wade, Ellison pledged to defend abortion rights not only in Minnesota but also for people who would need to travel from other states to end a pregnancy.
Although little of this gained notice outside of Minnesota, Ellison’s prosecution of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd won him praise from a broad range of Democratic Party leadership. “It was an act of courage to take on that case the way he did,” centrist Senator (and former prosecutor) Amy Klobuchar stated. “Whatever future he wants to lay out for himself, there are many of us who would support him in that,” leftist Representative Pramila Jayapal gushed, stating that “the recognition of him and what he did for our country—and it really is for our country, and for Black people across the country—is immeasurable.”
Recognizing the resonance of Chauvin’s conviction, Republicans moved quickly to neutralize its appeal. “Tim Walz, Mayor Frey, they all sat on their hands while Minneapolis burned,” charged Ellison’s challenger Jim Schultz, picking up a narrative established by other Republicans who accused Democratic leaders of Minnesota and Minneapolis with failing to prevent the uprising that followed Floyd’s murder. Without mentioning Ellison or Floyd, Schultz linked that charge to the prosecution of Chauvin by suggesting Democrats “enflamed” unrest by criticizing the police. “We can see the straight line from that period to the 100 murders in Minneapolis last year and the incredible crime we’ve seen throughout the metro,” Schulz claimed, linking the prosecution and protests to rising crime rates in 2020. “What we need is support for law enforcement, not the revolving door that we’ve seen.”
In the context of rising crime rates across the country, that narrative proved potent for Schultz and other Republicans who offered few concrete solutions to either crime or police misconduct. A thirty-six-year-old corporate lawyer with no courtroom experience, Schultz gained an early boost when the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which had backed a Democrat in 2018 and had been expected to endorse Ellison’s 2020 challenger, Doug Wardlow, endorsed him four months before the GOP primary. “There are a lot of law enforcement officers in the state right now that are afraid to do their job—afraid of making a mistake then facing the potential of losing your job, being charged, usually you’re found guilty within 48 hours of an incident and that’s tough,” the association stated in explaining their endorsement, which helped Schultz beat Wardlow handily in the August primary.
Ironically, moderate Democrats narrowed Ellison’s options by distancing themselves from any discussion of police reform. Facing his own reelection challenges, Governor Tim Walz responded to charges that he supported “defunding the police” by authorizing increased funding for the state patrol, diverting COVID-19 funding into local police budgets, and increasing state aid to help local departments hire more officers. He and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey spoke out forcefully against a ballot initiative that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a “public-health oriented” Department of Public Safety. “I know to my core that we have problems,” Frey said. “I also know to my core that we need police officers,” he added, echoing the Republican talking point that reform meant decreasing the police force. Opposition from Walz and Frey, along with Democratic Senators Klobuchar and Tina Smith, was key to convincing many voters that support for the initiative would “defund the police.”
The only statewide candidate, Democrat or Republican, who lived in the urban working-class communities most threatened by both violent crime and police brutality, Ellison pushed back from a position of strength. Backing the Minneapolis initiative, he argued that rather than “defund,” it would augment police with mental health and social workers who were better prepared to deal with incidents like the one that ended with Floyd’s murder. When Schultz charged Ellison with endorsing “the most reckless and extreme public safety policy in Minnesota history,” the attorney general responded, “I think you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You don’t live in the city. You’re not part of this thing. You’re just standing from a distance throwing rocks.” The campaign supporting the initiative also insisted it would result in “an expansion of public safety.”
With Ellison holding a slight lead in the race, Republicans doubled down on efforts to link him with crime and chaos. The Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), which had supported the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, 2021, funded a series of television ads calling Ellison the “criminal’s choice” and suggesting he had instigated the rise in crime by shielding criminals from prosecution. Although Schultz distanced himself from the misleading and racially coded ads, Democrats filed a complaint with the state Campaign Finance Board alleging illegal coordination between his campaign and RAGA. By late October, polls showed Schulz pulling ahead in the race.
Ultimately, Ellison won reelection. But the outcome was far closer than the comparative strengths of the candidates suggest it should have been. Minnesota Democrats have not lost a statewide election since 2006, and Walz’s margin with the same electorate was nearly ten times that of Ellison. That difference in part reflects the lower profile of the attorney general’s race, and reluctance of some white voters to support a Black Muslim from Minneapolis; but it also reflected the challenges posed by substantive criminal justice reform. While Walz and other moderates were able to avoid discussions of racial justice and outbid Republican promises to increase funding for police, Ellison demonstrated the Democrats can win with the more nuanced and progressive agenda that he brought to his work as attorney general
William P. Jones is a historian of race and class in the United States and a member of Dissent’s editorial board. He is author, most recently, of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.