Most days find Keith Ellison on foot, somewhere around Minneapolis, breaking up the day with a long walk often while listening to horror fiction on podcasts.
It’s a favorite genre for Minnesota’s attorney general, one that he likes to point out offers many parables for the sort of societal strains in which his office is playing an increasingly central role.
Now midway through his first term, Ellison has become the public face of two towering matters that could come to define his legacy: the prosecution of four former police officers charged with killing George Floyd, and the enforcement of politically polarizing emergency orders issued by Gov. Tim Walz designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus that killed his mother earlier this year.
And yet the pressure isn’t visible on Ellison, at least not publicly, even as a familiar Republican adversary emerges as a leading contender to challenge him in 2022 — setting up a potential rematch of the bitter and personal campaign that Ellison won two years ago.
“I’m not feeling the weight,” Ellison said recently. “I should be, maybe, but I’m not.”
Ellison’s second year in office already had been turned upside down before he agreed to take on the prosecution of the four former Minneapolis officers involved in Floyd’s May 25 death.
By then, the pandemic had forced his staff to work remotely while investigators fanned out across the state for cases of price gouging and fraud. Soon enough, Ellison’s office started taking businesses to court that had defied statewide shutdown orders.
That situation boiled over again last week when multiple establishments around Minnesota publicly rejected statewide restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19. As Ellison’s office filed suit against the renegade businesses, Republican legislative leaders sided with them while warning the attorney general of retribution next time they vote on his budget.
“If you start fining these people $10,000 apiece, you can expect that money to come out of your budget,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.
For Ellison, the pandemic has been personal practically from the outset: His mother, Clida Martinez Ellison, died at 82 from the virus in March.
“I really don’t want anybody to go to the funeral that me and my brothers had to go to,” he said.
“The biggest penalty anyone is going to face is losing a loved one,” he added. “Don’t be scared of me. Be fearful of COVID-19. That’s the problem, not the Attorney General’s Office. We’re trying to preserve life.”
The former congressman and longtime civil rights lawyer has transformed the Attorney General’s Office into a bigger player in criminal justice in his second year — and in ways that surprised even Ellison.
Just months after Ellison and Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington wrapped up a yearlong task force study on deadly police encounters, Ellison took on the prosecution of the officers involved in Floyd’s death.
“What strikes me is how common and routine this kind of thing really is in the society we live in,” Ellison said. “The drivers to this stuff is not limited to just policing or even the criminal justice system, but it is a structural socioeconomic problem and we really have yet to figure out a way to make sure everybody can have an opportunity in this society.”
The trial, scheduled for March in Hennepin County, will be globally watched. Ellison insisted that he feels more pressure in presenting “the very best, most truthful case that I can” than in sweating the jury’s ultimate decision. Still, he conceded, the outcome “probably will explain a lot about my first term, there’s no doubt.”
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, who recently offered to help Ellison review whether to file charges in a November St. Paul police shooting, described the attorney general as willing to tackle thorny issues like police brutality in an apolitical way.
“He faces what every one of us face: an opportunity to demonstrate leadership at the risk of social opprobrium,” Orput said of Ellison’s role in prosecuting the officers involved in Floyd’s death.
Perry Moriearty, a University of Minnesota law professor whose client, Myon Burrell, was granted a commutation last week by the state pardon board on which Ellison serves, has also noticed a more active role by Ellison’s office in working with county attorneys and promoting justice reform.
“He doesn’t see himself slipping into a pre-existing slot and role that was formed and where he just puts on the suit and does it,” Moriearty said. “I think he is trying to think about how the role can be different and how he can make the most difference.”
Doug Wardlow, the Republican attorney and former legislator who Ellison defeated in a bruising 2018 campaign, said he is “actively planning” to run again and is wasting no time in painting Ellison as a partisan.
Wardlow will try to set Ellison’s defense of the COVID-19 emergency orders against rising violent crime in the Twin Cities, blaming Ellison for inaction on the latter. He’s also pointing to a recent report that Ellison did not disclose political contributions from a private law firm that his office has since hired to help litigate a massive ongoing lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Ellison’s office has countered that the connection was made known in campaign finance reports and news releases.
“It’s really unfortunate that he puts his political agenda ahead of the things his office should be focused on — principally the safety of Minnesotans and the rule of law,” Wardlow said.
Wardlow is general counsel for MyPillow founder Mike Lindell, who is exploring a GOP run for governor in 2022. At a rally supporting President Donald Trump earlier this month, Wardlow echoed claims of voter fraud and suggested without evidence that ballot irregularities played a role in his 2018 defeat to Ellison.
“Of all the things that really, really make me fearful for the fate of the nation is this sort of campaign to undermine democracy,” said Ellison, who noted that Wardlow’s campaign was ordered to pay $46,000 in fines after the election for exceeding campaign spending limits.
Ellison said he is just as likely to seek local office as higher office one day, though he ruled out a run for Minneapolis mayor. His friend and mentor, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, first showed Ellison the possibilities of serving as attorney general. Now Becerra, a former U.S. House colleague of Ellison’s, has been tapped to be Health and Human Services secretary in the Biden administration.
Though Becerra became known for high-profile suits against the Trump administration, many of which were joined by Minnesota, Ellison said his office would remain focused on issues like consumer protection and wage theft. He’s forging partnerships with area law schools, both as a means of establishing a pipeline of young lawyers and to collaborate on an expungement unit, and next month he will launch a task force on women’s economic security.
“I don’t see myself here in this job forever,” Ellison said, “but I absolutely do not see it as a steppingstone either.”
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755