ROCHESTER – Attorney General Keith Ellison won the DFL Party endorsement for a second term Saturday, a contest seen as among the most challenging for the party on the statewide ticket this fall.
He walked onstage as Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” blared through Mayo Civic Center arena, a defiant theme that Ellison carried through with a rally cry of an acceptance speech. He was the only nominee at the party’s state convention and won on a unanimous voice vote.
Ellison called the GOP the party of “greed, fear and lies” and extolled his supporters to go to every corner of the state to fight for “justice and inclusion.”
“We have endured threat after threat to our basic dignity but I’m telling you the DFL Party was made for this moment,” Ellison said. “No one is outside our compassion. We’re here to fight for all.”
Delegates also endorsed Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Secretary of State Steve Simon and State Auditor Julie Blaha over the weekend. Blaha, who is recovering from COVID, attended the convention virtually.
Simon, like other secretaries of state across the country, has faced threats and legal action since the 2020 election that some falsely claim was stolen from former President Donald Trump. GOP-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen has said Simon should be imprisoned for his handling of the state’s elections; Simon has not been accused of any crime.
At the GOP convention last weekend, endorsed Secretary of State candidate Kim Crockett’s campaign played a video with a common anti-Semitic trope depicting liberal donor George Soros as a puppet master controlling Simon and elections lawyer Marc Elias. All three men are Jewish. GOP party chair David Hann later apologized.
Simon was emotional as he told delegates the story of his great-grandfather, who fled Lithuania and escaped the Holocaust after Jews there lost the right to vote.
“That is why I have pledged to do everything in my own power as Secretary of State to protect the freedom to vote,” said Simon, who is seeking a third term.
Ellison, 58, is a veteran of bruising political campaigns dating to 2006 when he became the first Muslim elected to Congress. He responded to the prospect of being a target again with a shrug and a counterattack.
“They’re not going to be nice to me. They’re not going to be fair,” he said in an interview before the endorsement. “They’re not going to give me credit for the good work that I do so I’m not going to be sensitive about name-calling. I’m in this job to help people. What are they in it for?”
In 2018, Ellison beat Republican Doug Wardlow by a the smallest margin of all DFLers on the statewide ticket, barely 4 percentage points. The first Black man elected to a statewide office in Minnesota, Ellison now seeks reelection during a midterm with a Democrat in the White House, which historically would leave political winds blowing in favor of Republicans.
The Republican plan of attack against Ellison is sharp. Endorsed candidate Jim Schultz calls Ellison a “radical” and holds him responsible for a rise in violent crime.
During Ellison’s first term, he oversaw the high-powered legal teams in the prosecutions of former police officers in the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. But Ellison’s campaign hasn’t been highlighting the trials or public safety.
“We will talk about crime because everybody has a right to be safe,” he said Saturday, adding that his office will continue to take over the most serious cases when smaller counties need help.
Under Ellison, the Attorney General’s Office worked closely with Walz during the pandemic to craft executive orders and later successfully defended the orders against more than two dozen court challenges.
Republican candidates, in contrast, “share this simplistic idea that the Attorney General’s Office is a prosecutorial agency,” Ellison said. “They like to talk bad about me, but they don’t talk about what they’re going to do.”
The GOP candidates, he said, all “agree women shouldn’t have the right to choose,” the environment doesn’t need protection and the Jan. 6 insurrectionists were heroes.
Ellison, a criminal defense attorney before serving in Congress, also said he’s “emotionally shook up” by what happened in Buffalo, N.Y., where an 18-year-old white man is accused of a racist attack on Black people, killing 10 at a supermarket.
He described the attack as a combination of the accused shooter having been subjected to “horrific messaging” combined with the “toxic availability” of guns. Ellison said he wants to “make people understand political rhetoric can explode into violence” and pledged that “hate talk is not going to go unrebutted.”
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar singled out Ellison for a boost during her convention speech Friday night. She praised his generosity, fairness and “moral clarity.”
“Not every state attorney general would have stepped up after the murder of George Floyd, but he did,” she said.
The good news for Ellison’s campaign is that the Republican candidates have a primary battle. Although Wardlow lost the endorsement to Schultz a week ago, he said he plans to run in the GOP primary.
Latonya Reeves, a 43-year-old probation officer from Minneapolis, called Ellison’s work on the Derek Chauvin case “a blessing” but said it’s made him a target. Unlike his Republican challengers, Reeves said, Ellison brings a rational voice to difficult conversations.
“We have to have someone who’s clear-headed,” she said. “Everyone’s upset. Now, where do we go from here?”
Bill Nienaber, a 49-year-old software developer from Andover, said Ellison should be able to appeal to a broad cross-section of voters. He pledged to spend coming months organizing to help the DFL connect with voters across the state.
“Racial justice issues are not urban issues,” Nienaber said. “They’re American issues.”