PLYMOUTH, Minn. ― Minnesota, typically known for its picturesque lakes and friendly people, has been thrust into the national spotlight in the past year for being at the center of the Me Too movement.
It has lost two state lawmakers and a popular U.S. senator amid sexual misconduct allegations. Most recently, a state lawmaker whose 23-year-old daughter accused him of touching her inappropriately announced he would not seek re-election.
But of all the scandals, the biggest one looming over the midterm elections is a domestic abuse allegation against Keith Ellison, 55, the six-term Democratic congressman who is running for attorney general. Not only is it giving a jolt to the Republican side, but it’s worrying some Democrats who would ordinarily vote for Ellison.
His loss would take the state attorney general’s office out of the Democratic Party’s control for the first time since 1971 and deprive the state of a liberal advocate devoted to combating the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration and health care policies.
What’s more, if the scandal thwarts Ellison’s bid for statewide office, it will likely have halted the rise of one of the activist left’s most prominent stars.
His defeat would be a “major blow,” said Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “I don’t know if he recovers.”
In August, Ellison’s ex-girlfriend Karen Monahan accused him of emotionally abusive behavior, referring to it as “narcissist abuse,” a term that has become popular online but has not been recognized by the field of professional psychiatry.
Monahan’s most potent allegation is that Ellison attempted to drag her off of their bed while shouting profanity at her in August 2016. Monahan’s son Austin first revealed the charge in a Facebook post three days before the Aug. 14 primary and tagged several of Ellison’s primary opponents. Ellison nonetheless handily won the attorney general nomination of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL, as the state Democratic Party is known.
Both Monahan and her son referenced a video of the event that Monahan captured on her phone. But Monahan, who has shared numerous text messages and some of her medical records with the public, declined to release the video to either media outlets or privately to Susan Ellingstad, the attorney whom the DFL hired to investigate the allegation.
Ellingstad cited Monahan’s unwillingness to share the video, as well as her shifting justifications for not wanting to share it, in a 15-page report released Monday that concluded the allegation of a physical altercation was “unsubstantiated.”
‘An Opportunity To Once And For All Retire Keith Ellison From Politics In Minnesota’
A group of aging Republican activists in the upscale suburb of Plymouth listened with rapt attention last Thursday evening as Doug Wardlow, 40, the GOP candidate running for Minnesota attorney general, delivered his standard pitch about prosecuting welfare fraud, the alleged problem of “illegal” voting and enforcing immigration laws.
But nothing fired up the crowd as much as when he went after Ellison, saying there should be a criminal investigation of the congressman’s behavior.
“We have an opportunity to once and for all retire Keith Ellison from politics in Minnesota,” he declared, eliciting loud applause as he pivoted to the attack about two-thirds of the way through his speech.
“Let me just talk to you a little bit about my opponent,” he continued.
“His girlfriends are doing that for you!” a woman in the crowd deadpanned.
After Wardlow spoke, the evening’s host, Linda Stageberg, who chairs the local chapter of the National Federation of Republican Women, warned the crowd that if Ellison prevailed she and her husband were planning on “moving to Wisconsin.”
Although Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, is being accused of attempted rape, Stageberg saw no contradiction in rooting for Kavanaugh’s confirmation ― even as she inveighed against Ellison.
“A lot of us have been praying that Judge Kavanaugh be appointed. And I’d like to add Doug to our prayer list,” she told the attendees.
“Absent the scandal, it would not be competitive.”
An undercurrent of the Ellison attacks remains Islamophobic suggestions about his Muslim faith. Wardlow delved into detail about how a Somali-American-run day care center had defrauded the state’s welfare agency and implied that the money might have gone to help finance the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabab.
In an interview, Wardlow denied that he was trying to insinuate anything about Ellison’s Islamic faith. “I do think he’s going to be distracted by his political agenda,” he said.
Stageberg told HuffPost about fears around the lack of integration of some of the metropolitan area’s Somali immigrants. She believes Ellison would not fight for that integration.
“He was born Catholic,” said Stageberg, obliquely referencing his conversion to Islam as a young adult. “He doesn’t seem to want to fight for America and the state of Minnesota.”
Wardlow has also nimbly stoked old fears of Ellison as a black radical. His campaign’s first digital video, “The Choice,” claims Ellison has “supported cop killers” and features a closeup photo of Ellison looking angry as well as seemingly unrelated footage of teenage protesters burning an American flag.
Ellison would be one of Minnesota’s first black statewide elected officials. (There have been at least three black jurists elected to the state’s Supreme Court.)
A progressive Minnesota woman who knew both Ellison and Monahan, but declined to be named because Ellison doesn’t want people criticizing Monahan on his behalf, believes Monahan is falsely accusing Ellison. She worries that Monahan knew that the charges against Ellison would stick more because he’s black.
“This is an all-white state,” the Minnesota progressive woman said. “He’s a black man. They’re not going to believe him.”
But it’s not just the rock-ribbed Republicans assembled in Plymouth ― voters Ellison could never hope to win over ― who appear to be swayed by the allegations against him. Some reliably Democratic voters, who spoke to HuffPost prior to the release of Ellingstad’s report, were unwilling to cast a ballot for him.
“I don’t have a comfort level, and if it gets to be Nov. 6, and I still don’t have comfort with him, I won’t cast a vote for him,” said a woman in a Twin Cities suburb who asked to withhold her name for fear of jeopardizing her future in Democratic activism.
Tara Engebretson, a real estate agent in Wayzata, was an Ellison fan prior to the allegation but now needs more information to be willing to vote for him.
“Especially with the way the Kavanaugh thing is landing, we can’t keep letting it slide under the carpet,” said Engebretson, who plans to vote for the other Democratic candidates on the ticket.
A third woman active in Minnesota Democratic politics, who also withheld her name due to professional concerns, plans to vote for Ellison ― but then she wants him to resign so there can be a special election to fill his seat.
“Minnesota needs the Democrat to win. I wish the Democrat wasn’t Keith Ellison,” she said.
The domestic violence allegations threaten to have a sizable impact on the race. In a mid-September poll, Ellison led Wardlow by just 5 percentage points ― almost within the margin of error; nearly 1 in 5 voters said they were undecided. Noah Johnson, the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidate, had 5 percent support ― enough to win him a spot at the Sept. 21 televised debate.
By contrast, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz (D) led Republican Jeff Johnson in the governor’s race by 9 percentage points with a smaller pool of undecideds.
The allegation against Ellison “has made this race very competitive, like a toss-up,” Pearson said. “Absent the scandal, it would not be competitive.”
Hoping It Will All Go Away
Shortly after the allegations against Ellison emerged, the DFL commissioned an investigation from Ellingstad, an attorney at the Minneapolis firm of Lockridge Grindal Nauen.
For his part, Ellison has flatly denied the allegations from the very beginning. He has also refused to try to discredit Monahan, saying in mid-August, “I still care deeply for her well-being.”
But as the DFL’s inquiry carried on for over a month, it became clear that the issue is not disappearing.
“Extreme Keith Ellison has been accused of domestic violence by multiple women. Even the National Organization for Women has called for Ellison to end his campaign,” the ad’s narrator says as an image of Ellison in handcuffs during a civil disobedience arrest at a progressive rally appears on screen.
NOW and UltraViolet, an online women’s group, both called on Ellison to withdraw from the race before the primary. No other women’s organizations or progressive groups has called on him to withdraw, however; none of Ellison’s congressional colleagues has either.
Wardlow’s video references an earlier allegation against Ellison that transpired while he was running for Congress for the first time in 2005 and 2006. Amy Alexander, a woman angry about not getting a job at a group Ellison was tied to claimed to have had an extramarital affair with him and said that he subsequently grabbed her and threatened her. Ellison denied it, accused her of attempted extortion and secured a two-year restraining order against her. She tried to get a restraining order against him, but a judge declined to grant it.
Conservatives managed to keep the story of Monahan’s more recent allegations alive in the local press. In mid-September, the right-wing site Alpha News sued to unseal Ellison’s divorce documents with his ex-wife Kim; last Tuesday, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune followed suit.
Sensing that the story was getting out of control, Ellison called on the House Ethics Committee to launch its own investigation of the allegation on Wednesday.
When Ellingstad finally released her findings on Monday, Ellison expressed his readiness to once again move forward. “At this time, I will be focusing on the issues in this election,” he said in a statement.
But conservatives had already worked hard to plant seeds of doubt about the report’s independence. The DFL did not do Ellison any favors in this regard, since it tapped a firm whose senior partners had represented the party in partisan matters.
Wardlow called the inquiry a “sham” as a result. Alpha News is continuing to report the proverbial controversy with a report Tuesday on the contributions of the firm’s employees to the DFL; Fox News has a similar story.
Even some Democrats consider the investigation inadequate. Walz, the DFL nominee for governor, told HuffPost that the critics noting this conflict of interest present a “fair critique” of the investigation.
Mark Stone, a Democrat and engineer from Becker, said he would have preferred a third-party inquiry and still needs more information before he can feel comfortable casting a ballot for Ellison.
“I expect that Democrats hold themselves to the same standards that they hold the Republicans [to] and that it’s not just rationalization to suit their needs,” he said.
Monahan has her own potential conflict of interest. She has hired Andrew Parker, a right-wing pundit and partner at the Minneapolis firm Parker Rosen, as her attorney and spokesman in matters related to the allegation against Ellison.
Parker previously employed Ellison’s opponent Doug Wardlow at his firm and defended Wardlow’s ability to separate his personal views from his legal practice in a Saturday article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Parker admitted to HuffPost that he supports Wardlow’s candidacy in a personal capacity but denied that Monahan had any contact with Wardlow’s campaign either directly or working through him.
“I never spoke to Doug Wardlow about my representation until he learned of it in the press,” Parker said.
In an interview with The Intercept in which he made similar denials, Parker declined to say whether he was charging Monahan for his services. Parker also provided two different reasons why he had not yet seen Monahan’s video in a radio interview Tuesday night. First he said he had not yet met her in person; then he said she did not bring it to their first meeting and has since been out of town.
HuffPost spoke with some two dozen Democrats and swing voters in the greater Twin Cities metropolitan area and the Northland region.
Even before the report’s release, the vast majority of voters either did not know who Ellison was and simply planned to vote for the entire DFL ticket, or considered the details of the alleged incident sufficiently murky that they would nonetheless vote for him unless more incriminating information emerged.
“I don’t love the allegations against him, but I do like that he called for an investigation,” said Anne Kohler, a Shorewood resident, referring to Ellison’s call for a House Ethics Committee inquiry.
Wardlow, famous for his work with the anti-LGBT group the Alliance for the Defense of Liberty, is a powerful motivator for many of these voters.
“I speak to the people that are going to be hurt the most with a Republican in that role,” said Tammy Clore, a small-business owner in Duluth who was door-knocking for Democratic congressional candidate Joe Radinovich. “My women friends of color are really upset that anyone would consider not voting for [Ellison].”
Part of the reason that voters are willing to hear Ellison out is because of what happened with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who quickly resigned under heavy pressure from his Democratic colleagues after he was accused of groping multiple women. Many Minnesota Democrats believe he was forced out and should have stayed around until there was an investigation.
That includes Clore, who calls herself a “Franken progressive” and keeps a copy of Franken’s Al Franken, Giant of the Senate on a shelf in her home next to Hillary Clinton’s post-election tome, What Happened.
Clore wishes there had been an independent investigation of Franken before Democrats pressured him to resign. “He got eviscerated by our own party,” she said.
Democrats Worry About Spillover Damage
National Republicans have tried a bit to make Ellison a weight around the necks of other Democratic candidates. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC tied to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), blasted Joe Radinovich, the Democratic contender in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, for “standing by” Ellison in an August ad, rather than calling for him to withdraw from the race. CLF soon stopped airing the ad, opting instead to focus on the Democrat’s past speeding violations and a marijuana citation.
Maddie Anderson, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, has called on Democratic House candidates in the state to denounce Ellison and clarify whether they plan to vote for him. But the NRCC’s independent expenditure arm, which is flooding the airwaves with ads against Minnesota Democrats, has not made Ellison a theme.
“It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if they did in the future,” Anderson said.
Over the course of four days and half a dozen campaign events across the state, however, there was no evidence that Ellison’s baggage is hurting other Democratic candidates.
“I can count on my fingers how many times voters have brought it up.”
“I’m out [on the trail] every day. And I can count on my fingers how many times voters have brought it up,” said Dean Phillips, the Democratic nominee in Minnesota’s 3rd, a suburban district Democrats hope to flip. “The only people that do are reporters and trolls on the internet.”
That hasn’t stopped Democrats from worrying about it.
Their worries have been manifest in what seems like a very Minnesotan form of crisis management: Avoid definitive statements or confrontation at all costs, and hope the problem goes away. Virtually no one would dismiss the allegations against Ellison outright, even as many did so privately. At the same time, virtually no one would renounce his candidacy or explicitly blast him either.
Instead, they tended to just defer to the investigation. And yet, since the investigation came out, none of the state’s prominent Democrats has publicly hailed the investigation as an exoneration of Ellison. DFL Chairman Ken Martin simply said the party would refer its report to law enforcement, which could decide whether to approve charges.
The DFL asked the Minneapolis police to investigate Ellison on Wednesday, but the police declined, citing a conflict of interest. Ellison’s son Jeremiah is a member of the Minneapolis city council.
The prolonged drama of the allegation and subsequent investigation appears to be affecting Ellison’s political strategy. The Minnesota congressman said in a Wednesday radio interview that he was considering stepping down as deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “I need to put 100 percent of my time, energy and resources into the race and my office, so it is something I am considering,” Ellison told Minneapolis’ WCCO radio. He had previously maintained that he would stay on in the post if elected attorney general.
During HuffPost’s visit, the DFL made clear it wanted to limit the scope of any story about the allegations. The DFL, which did not respond to HuffPost’s inquiries about the timing of the investigation in the days leading up to its release, sought assurances through a campaign staffer that HuffPost would not ask voters in the 8th Congressional District for their opinions on Ellison.
When HuffPost asked several women at a canvass kickoff for state House Democrats their thoughts on Ellison, Patty Acomb, a Democratic candidate for state House, took a giant step backward in a dramatic effort to avoid being asked about it.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who spoke at the canvass kickoff, also visibly blanched when asked about Ellison.
“I’m running state government. I’m not involved” in Ellison’s race, he said.
“Keith Ellison is a longtime friend and a fantastic Democrat, and he will be an outstanding attorney general.”
Minnesota House Democratic Leader Melissa Hortman, whose relationship with Ellison dates to his days as head of Minneapolis’ nonprofit Legal Rights Center for low-income residents, offered the most full-throated endorsement of his candidacy of any Minnesota Democrat.
“Keith Ellison is a longtime friend and a fantastic Democrat, and he will be an outstanding attorney general,” she said. But she too deferred to the DFL investigation when it came to questions about the allegations against him.
The party has not hidden Ellison entirely from view. He was the featured speaker at a DFL canvass kickoff event in northern Minneapolis on Saturday; later that day, he spoke behind closed doors at the party’s annual Jim Oberstar Memorial Dinner in Hinckley.
For the most part, though, Democratic candidates who eagerly welcome Walz or Sen. Amy Klobuchar to campaign with them are keen to ignore Ellison. Unlike the other statewide candidates, Ellison was not in the DFL campaign literature for Radinovich that Clore distributed at the doors. Ellison was also conspicuously missing from the front of the DFL’s Duluth field office where placards for Klobuchar, Smith and Walz hung prominently above a homemade sign that said, “We believe survivors #MeToo.”
Clore, who was wearing a Radinovich T-shirt, sported pins for all the statewide candidates except Ellison. And the DFL nominee for attorney general was notably absent from Democrats’ lawns in Duluth’s Congdon neighborhood, which overflowed with placards for other Democratic candidates.
One home featured a 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign sign along with signs for Klobuchar, Walz, Smith, Radinovich and state House candidate Jen Schultz. Ellison, the only House member to endorse Sanders’ presidential run, was nowhere to be found.
The biggest snub for Ellison came on Monday when former President Barack Obama announced endorsements of 17 Minnesota candidates from governor to Congress to state House. Ellison was not among them.
Phillips, a businessman challenging Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen, said he has not yet decided whether he will vote for Ellison, though he noted that he “wholeheartedly” disagrees with Wardlow’s values.
“If the allegations are true in the case of Mr. Ellison, they are disqualifying,” Phillips said.
Although attorney general candidates often run as a joint ticket with candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, Walz said he had no plans as of yet to campaign with Ellison.
“We’ll wait and see what comes out of this,” Walz said as he stood alongside running mate Peggy Flanagan. He clarified that the DFL inquiry would not be enough for him; he wants to see the results of the potential House Ethics Committee investigation.
At the same time, Walz praised Ellison as an “adept legislator” and emphasized that the Kavanaugh case was different.
Unlike the Supreme Court nominee, he concluded, “the people of Minnesota will get to have a say and they will get to vote.”
Some of Ellison’s allies privately worry that his relatively cautious approach to beating back Monahan’s claims is a mistake. Even as he denies the allegations, Ellison refuses to so much as call her a “liar.”
Ellison is standing by his approach.
“I am working as hard as I can to win this election,” Ellison told HuffPost with a sigh. “But if it doesn’t work out the right way, I at least want to be able to feel good about who I am.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Ellison would be the second statewide black elected official in Minnesota history. In fact, he would be at least the fourth.