After ‘tough' campaign, Keith Ellison plans to be an active attorney general

Having emerged from a campaign he says included some of the toughest times of his life, Minnesota Attorney General-elect Keith Ellison is planning to be an active presence at the state Capitol.

Ellison will be sworn in Jan 7. In a wide-ranging interview Friday, Ellison said he plans to continue all of the outgoing attorney general’s lawsuits, take positions on legislation during the 2019 session, and sue the Trump administration when he considers necessary.

“My agenda is basically two-fold,” Ellison said. “One, help people afford their lives. Two, make sure that every Minnesotan lives with dignity and respect for who they are as a person.”

The six-term congressman and former state lawmaker said he would advocate for bills that aligned with his priorities, such as House DFL plans to crack down on so-called wage theft, or employers who force employees to work extra hours without paying overtime.

Ellison, a longtime Trump critic who gave up his seat in Congress to run for attorney general, did not say whether he had immediate plans to sue the Trump administration. Yet, he said “we’re looking at” the administration’s policies on the U.S.-Mexico border and the ban on travel from seven countries.

“It’s not about Trump,” Ellison said. “I have no personal need to be in a fight with Trump. If we get into one, it’ll be because the president or his administration has done something to abridge the rights of the people of the state of Minnesota.”

Ellison faced abuse allegations from an ex-girlfriend, Karen Monahan, during the campaign. He denied the accusations, but his poll numbers cratered.

In the final two weeks of the campaign – facing the prospect of losing to Republican rival Doug Wardlow – Ellison’s campaign switched from defense to offense and staged a comeback.

“I got to learn that people care a whole lot more about their own lives than anything I was going through. And they wanted me to focus on them, their household, their kitchen table,” Ellison said.

Ellison said he doubted “more than once” whether he should’ve run, but now says he’s glad he did.

Nevertheless, Minnesota’s next “top cop” still has plenty of skeptics in law enforcement. Ellison was a criminal defense lawyer who handled gang members’ cases and has at times sided with activists during police-community disputes in Minneapolis. 

Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis police union, said days before the November election that Ellison was “anti-law enforcement.” 

Ellison said he has met with county attorneys and police organizations since the election.

“Obviously I’m for law enforcement,” he said “I think we just need to talk to as many people as we can, help them understand that we’re here to help them be more effective at the work that they do everyday. We’ve been doing that work, and we’ll continue to do more of it.”

Ellison said he wants his office to have limited participation in officer-involved shooting investigations, convening stakeholders and offering resources. He said county attorneys should remain in charge. 

Kroll said this fall he didn’t think the attorney general’s office should be involved.

“We won’t be missing in action, but we will be respectful of the people who are already working on these issues, and whose job it is to deal with these issues directly,” Ellison said.

Late Friday, Ellison named Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota executive director John Keller as his chief deputy attorney general. Keller, who has held the top job at the organization since 2005, will be second-in-command in the attorney general’s office.

Ellison said one of the top priorities in his consumer protection division will be lowering prescription drug prices. He has supported outgoing Attorney General Lori Swanson’s lawsuit against insulin makers over skyrocketing prices.