Ellison, Schultz clash on crime and abortion in first debate

Attorney General Keith Ellison and Republican challenger Jim Schultz met Friday for their first debate, putting the spotlight on violent crime and abortion in a spirited yet substantive meeting. 

Ellison and Schultz sat at separate tables on stage at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater, which was nearly empty -- other than campaign staff, a handful of reporters, and production crews. Minnesota Public Radio hosted the debate.

Asked to name his top priority, Schultz said it was "crime, crime, and crime," and frequently criticized Ellison over a spike in violence. For his part, Ellison has made abortion a central theme and casts Schultz as out-of-touch on that issue.

Schultz said Ellison was a do-nothing as violent crime surged in 2020 and 2021. He painted Ellison as "extreme" for endorsing last year's Minneapolis Police ballot measure that sought to replace MPD with a safety agency and eliminate the city's minimum police staffing level.

"Everyone knows the Minneapolis charter amendment was focused on defunding and deconstructing the Minneapolis police force," Schultz said, echoing his recent television ads against Ellison.

Ellison, a Democrat in his first term, said the failed ballot measure brought positive changes, including a new commissioner of public safety. And he pointed to his budget requests that sought an additional $1.8 million for criminal prosecutors in the attorney general's office. Republican lawmakers rejected the proposal.

"The fact of the matter is, if I’m supposed to be this defunder, I must be the worst one ever, because I am seeking more resources for law enforcement," Ellison said.

Schultz said he would try to prosecute more criminal cases in the attorney general's office.

But Ellison said Schultz is misrepresenting Minnesota's system, under which county attorneys handle most criminal cases. Ellison's spokesman has said the office has prosecuted 43 criminal cases that involved charges, winning convictions on 26. The other 17 are pending.

Ellison saves his toughest criticism of Schultz for the abortion issue. Democrats across the state seized on abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

Schultz has a record of anti-abortion views, including support for a crisis pregnancy center, but calls the issue a "distraction." Abortion has constitutional protections in Minnesota because of a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling.

"I didn’t step into this race to get caught up in abortion policy," Schultz said. "I stepped into this race because of the violent crime destroying our communities."

Ellison responded, "You can’t just say I’m only here for one thing. No, you’ve got to deal with everything."

Ellison and Schultz might as well get used to one another. They're scheduled to debate four times in 10 days as the Nov. 8 election draws near.

Ellison won his 2018 race over Republican Doug Wardlow by 3.9 percentage points, the closest of any DFL statewide victory that year. That puts him in jeopardy again this fall.

Ellison's first term is best known for the successful prosecution of two police officers, Derek Chauvin and Kim Potter, who killed Black men.

If elected, Schultz said he would fight to uphold Chauvin's murder conviction, which the ex-Minneapolis cop is appealing. Ellison assembled the legal team that won the conviction, and Schultz said Chauvin was "appropriately prosecuted" for the 2020 killing of George Floyd.

But Schultz said he would vote to commute Potter's first-degree manslaughter conviction. Ellison added that charge against the ex-Brooklyn Center officer, who fired her gun instead of a Taser, killing Daunte Wright in 2021.

 "It was fundamentally politically motivated," Schultz said.

Schultz couldn't commute Potter's sentence alone. The attorney general sits on the three-member Minnesota Board of Pardons, but a unanimous vote including the governor and Minnesota Supreme Court's chief justice is required to take any action.

Ellison defended his handling of the case, noting that a jury convicted Potter on the first-degree manslaughter charge.

"I believe in the jury system. There was nothing political about this. This was entirely by the book," Ellison said, before turning to Schultz. "You would say these things because you simply have zero experience dealing with it (trials)."