Keith Ellison, Once An Activist, Meets His Moment As Minnesota’s Top Prosecutor

Ellison has been fighting racism for decades. But getting justice for George Floyd looms as his biggest challenge.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photo: Getty.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s commitment to civil rights activism took root in January 1989 when he was a law student at the University of Minnesota.

The Minneapolis police threw a stun grenade in an apartment window during a drug raid, starting a fire that killed two elderly Black residents. Days later, police raided a quiet birthday party among Black students at a hotel after someone called 911 on a noisy kegger thrown by white students in another room.

Ellison led an angry march down to city hall demanding the governor call on the state attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the deaths resulting from the of the drug raid. Nothing ever came of it; an internal police inquiry cleared the officers involved.

“When I was a 24-year-old law student working on police accountability, if the attorney general had said, ‘I’m going to take this seriously,’ I would be thrilled beyond belief,” he recalled in an interview with HuffPost.

After decades as a public interest attorney, state lawmaker and member of Congress, Ellison, 56, has the chance to be the attorney general that his younger self yearned for.

Following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, state officials turned to this Black Muslim ― whose radical roots and outspoken progressive record have made him a target of right-wing rancor ― to begin restoring public trust.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz who, like many Democrats before him, kept Ellison at arm’s length during the 2018 election when both won their statewide offices, tapped him to take over the prosecution of Derek Chauvin, the police officer accused of murdering Floyd. With Ellison at the helm, Floyd’s family members could rest assured that “the facts would be heard and justice would be served,” Walz said.

Ellison quickly upgraded the murder charges against Chauvin and filed charges against the three officers who were with Chauvin as he pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes; each was charged with aiding and abetting the killing.

“This is a test of him.”

- Michelle Gross, Communities United Against Police Brutality

But while Ellison’s stewardship of the case is a source of relief for many people around the country, it also looms as the biggest challenge of his career. And he is acutely aware that he carries on his shoulders the weight of generations of Black Minnesotans’ cries for justice.

“Minneapolis is a tale of two cities,” he said, referring to the Black-white gap on key quality-of-life and economic metrics. “If we can make this place so great for the majority, for the white community, why can’t we share the bounty of this wonderful city and state that we have?”

“We can,” he said, answering his own question, “but we’ve got to have the political will.”

Conversations with Ellison and more than 20 elected officials, attorneys and activists with whom he has worked paint the picture of an unabashed fighter for ordinary people who is nonetheless wary of conduct and rhetoric that he considers impractical; an attentive listener adept at building relationships with ideological adversaries; and a reformer who has spent his 18 months as attorney general restoring the reputation of an office that had fallen into disarray under his predecessors.

The stakes are high. If he succeeds where others have failed in convicting cops, he is likely to be hailed as a hero.

But if his efforts fall short, no amount of progressive credibility will spare him the rage of grieving families and anti-racist activists, particularly those who already feel that he has strayed from the social movements from which he sprang.

“This is a test of him,” said Michelle Gross, founder of the Minneapolis-St. Paul-based Communities United Against Police Brutality and a frequent Ellison critic. “He had better do right by this prosecution.”

Keith Ellison's loss to former Labor Secretary Tom Perez (left) in the 2017 race to chair the Democratic National Committee disappointed the party's progressive wing. But it paved the way for him to become Minnesota's leading law enforcement official.
Keith Ellison's loss to former Labor Secretary Tom Perez (left) in the 2017 race to chair the Democratic National Committee disappointed the party's progressive wing. But it paved the way for him to become Minnesota's leading law enforcement official.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

‘Thank God He Won’

Ellison did not expect to be here. He almost certainly would not have run for attorney general if he had won his race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee in early 2017. Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, with the help of former President Barack Obama and his aides ― as well as a whisper campaign equating Ellison’s criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism ― narrowly claimed the post on the second ballot. At the time, the loss seemed like a major blow to an activist left eager to flex its muscles after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ― an Ellison ally ― fell short in his bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination and Republican Donald Trump won the White House that November.

In retrospect, it all looks like a godsend for Ellison. As he steers the highest-profile prosecution in the country, Perez is stuck with the thankless task of managing a party fundraising apparatus and bureaucracy that has spurred criticisms of him from both his right and his left.

As an initial consolation prize, Ellison served as Perez’s deputy chairman while he continued to serve in the House. In his final two years there, Ellison stepped aside as co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus but maintained his status as one of the chamber’s left-wing leaders, a role buttressed by being the chief sponsor of the Medicare for All, single-payer health care bill.

But Ellison had grown tired of working in a chamber where Republican obstruction and excessive caution among Democratic leaders often stifled progressive policy in the cradle. And his tenure at the DNC was marked by private tensions with Perez, who consolidated power by excluding Ellison’s allies.

A last-minute decision by then-Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson to mount a gubernatorial bid gave Ellison his shot at that post. Billing himself as a candidate for “people’s lawyer,” Ellison promised to leverage the AG’s office to do what he viewed as not possible in Congress ― help people “afford their lives and live with dignity.”

“Unions are a critical voice, but most unions are concerned about the product that they’re selling, the service they’re offering.”

- Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison

With name recognition and experience in the courtroom from his days as executive director of the nonprofit Legal Rights Center, Ellison seemed like a shoo-in for the Democratic nod. Then, days before the August primary, an ex-girlfriend accused him of “narcissist abuse,” claiming a video existed that showed him trying to pull her off a bed.

Ellison denied the charge and still won the primary handily. But despite an investigation commissioned by the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party that cleared him and the failure of the promised video to materialize, Ellison spent the general election campaign fighting for his political life with limited help from other Democrats on the ticket. His GOP opponent, social conservative Doug Wardlow, used the abuse charge to depict Ellison as “extreme,” alongside dog-whistles about Ellison’s history as an activist and defense attorney.

Ellison ended up prevailing in the election, but by a considerably smaller margin than the party’s other statewide candidates.

The idea that Wardlow, a right-wing crusader, could be in office at this pivotal moment, still makes some Democrats in the state shudder.

“Thank God [Ellison] won,” said Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, who has known Ellison for two decades. “We’d be in a lot different situation if he had not won.”

Then-Rep. Ellison visits a Black Lives Matter encampment in Minneapolis in November 2015. His turn against the encampment remains controversial.
Then-Rep. Ellison visits a Black Lives Matter encampment in Minneapolis in November 2015. His turn against the encampment remains controversial.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Bridge Builder Or Political Climber?

Thanks to decades of fear-mongering from Republicans and even some Democrats, Ellison has developed a reputation as a radical bomb-thrower that is largely unearned. In the course of activism against police violence and racism in the 1980s and ’90s, he kept company with some members of the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist sect that is virulently anti-Semitic and bigoted.

But Ellison’s demands ― for health care, housing and equal treatment before the law ― never veered into extreme territory. He parted ways with Nation of Islam after his disappointment with the group’s failure to translate 1995′s Million Man March in Washington into a pragmatic political program. (He has also renounced the group’s prejudiced views.)

Elected to his House seat in 2006, Ellison used his position as the first Muslim member of Congress ― and the first Black member of Congress from Minnesota ― to dispel stereotypes and speak up against racism.

As attorney general, one key goal for Ellison ― generally a staunch supporter of unions ― is preventing police unions from using collective bargaining agreements to shield themselves from public accountability. He is urging Minneapolis officials to play hardball in talks for the next contract (the city’s police chief earlier this week announced a halt in the negotiations), and is open to the state government passing legislation limiting cops’ bargaining rights for pay, benefits and working conditions.

“Unions are a critical voice, but most unions are concerned about the product that they’re selling, the service they’re offering,” he said. “The people who are supposed to be served by the police federation in Minneapolis are not the citizens of Minneapolis. That’s the problem.”

“I don’t think the binary is pro-police/anti-police. The question is public safety.”

- Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison

Ellison’s analysis ― that his city, state and even country are not beyond repair ― is fundamentally hopeful. It springs from a belief that human beings are susceptible to scapegoating and ignorance, but are not intrinsically prone to racism. He eschews discussions of “white fragility” and “privilege” more popular with contemporary Black civil rights activists in favor of more universal language.

“All human beings have flaws and I may not be a racist but maybe I got some things about myself that I need to work on,” he told The Washington Post earlier this month.

Ellison also has politely broken with some of the left’s more radical pronouncements. He told HuffPost in April 2017 that he supported the right of right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter to speak at the University of California-Berkeley, arguing that restricting speech at public institutions would eventually infringe on progressives’ freedom as well.

During his state’s recent crisis over racism and police violence, Ellison has stuck to his pragmatic views, condemning the looting during some demonstrations that destroyed corporate chain stores and minority-owned small businesses alike even as he’s said he understands the anger lurking behind the property destruction.

“I’ve organized anti-police brutality rallies. I have participated in them. I expect to more in my life,” he said. “If I saw somebody smashing windows when I was trying to take my moral stand on a critical issue, I would stand in front of the window and say, ‘Don’t you dare do that. You’re ruining all that we’re trying to get done.’”

He is also declining to get behind calls to “defund the police.”

“I don’t think the binary is pro-police/anti-police,” he said. “The question is public safety.”

Campaigning in his first House race in 2006, his win that year made him the first Muslim to serve in Congress.
Campaigning in his first House race in 2006, his win that year made him the first Muslim to serve in Congress.
Joey McLeister/Star Tribune/Getty Images

Ellison complements this philosophy with a warm, informal demeanor that disarms people meeting him for the first time.

“He has a demeanor that is not confrontational and is endearing and leads people to want to like him, hear him out and give him due respect for ideas that I would argue are ahead of our times,” said Rick Nolan, a former Democratic House member from Minnesota’s rural Iron Range.

Nolan is a progressive, but Ellison’s personality has won him friends from Democrats of various stripes in his state. He goes turkey hunting with Rep. Collin Peterson, one of the House’s most conservative Democrats. And he is a longstanding ally of Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Ellison surprised some Minnesota politics watchers with his willingness to stand by her viability for the vice-presidential slot on presumed nominee’s Joe Biden ticket, despite her controversial prosecutorial record. He told HuffPost in May that she’d “make a great vice president.”

The feeling is mutual. Klobuchar defended his patriotism during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2016 chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), where an Islamophobic pseudo-expert attacked Ellison.

Ellison passed Klobuchar a written note afterward that said, “I wasn’t there, but I know you stood up for me.”

“That kind of reflected how he thinks and how he is,” Klobuchar said. “It’s not just what you say on TV, it’s what you do for people when no one’s watching.”

But if Ellison’s relationships with other Minnesota Democrats have helped him advance his policy agenda and career, it has also created a perception among some Twin Cities activists that he cares more about his colleagues’ opinions than the causes he claims to support.

A key flashpoint is Ellison’s role in the protest encampment that emerged in response to the killing by Minneapolis police of Jamar Clark, an unarmed Black man, in November 2015.

“He really seems to say, ‘This is a problem. How do we figure out the problem itself?’”

- Luke Grundman, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid

Then-Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) summoned Ellison to serve as a liaison to the demonstrators who would end up occupying a street outside a Minneapolis police precinct for 18 days. In that capacity, Ellison facilitated conversations for activists with government officials.

But after the shooting of demonstrators by a racist interloper, Ellison turned against the occupation, as it was known, joining city officials and Black leaders from Minneapolis’ northside at a press conference calling for the encampment to disband. “My plea is to minimize the impact, the negative impact, on the neighbors,” Ellison, who lives nearby and represented the neighborhood in Congress, said at the time.

Nekima Levy Armstrong, then-president of the Minneapolis NAACP and an active figure in the occupation, said she felt betrayed by Ellison’s move.

“I thought it was a slap in the face to the community,” she said. “I thought Keith would support the community taking a stand, even though it was an extreme stance. We had to do something to get their attention.”

Ellison consults with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in Congress in 2016. Despite their ideological differences, they have a longstanding friendship.
Ellison consults with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in Congress in 2016. Despite their ideological differences, they have a longstanding friendship.
Tom Williams/Getty Images

Minnesota state Rep. Jamie Long, who was Ellison’s district director at the time, said the then-congressman was concerned about the difficulty of ensuring the safety of the protesters, particularly after the shooting that wounded five of them. Ellison’s office was also being inundated with complaints from senior citizens and other neighborhood residents complaining about smoke from the fires that the protesters lit at night for warmth and the lack of access to the street, according to Long.

Leslie Redmond, an activist at the 2015 occupation who now runs the Minneapolis NAACP, wanted the encampment to go on for longer, but she does not begrudge Ellison the decision he made. “There are valid points to be made on all fronts,” said Redmond, who briefly worked in the attorney general’s office under Ellison.

“It was an ill-advised protest in the first place,” said Rev. Jerry McAfee, a prominent Black pastor on the northside, noting that the demonstration should have been at the seat of power downtown. “They made it harder for poor folk than the people in power.”

“Keith is just as Black today as the day I met him,” added McAfee, who has known Ellison since the 1980s.

Armstrong, Gross and other critics also contend that Ellison has not done enough to combat police violence as attorney general. In the Floyd case, they have called for the governor to name a special prosecutor from outside the state’s law enforcement apparatus.

“We do not trust [Ellison] to do right in this matter at all,” Gross said.

“The credit I’ll give to Keith Ellison is that he even generated the use-of-force working group because he didn’t have to.”

- Ashley Quiñones

Since taking on the prosecution in the Floyd case, Ellison has touted the working group he has already convened to study the use of deadly force by police in Minnesota. The special commission issued a report in February that offered 28 recommendations addressing the issue, including the creation of an independent agency within the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate police uses of deadly force.

Gross and Levy Armstrong were part of a small group of activists angered by the working group’s inclusion of so many law enforcement officials, including several police chiefs and prosecutors. (The working group also contained Black elected officials, public interest attorneys, civil liberties activists and Clarence Castile, uncle of Philando Castile, the Black motorist killed in a highly controversial 2016 shooting in a St. Paul suburb.) And the working group critics also want the creation of an entirely new government body to investigate cases of deadly force by police, rather than one still housed within the BCA, an agency that is involved in police work.

Ellison declined to comment on criticisms of either his handling of the precinct occupation or the working group for this story.

But other activists say that for all of its imperfections, the working group was unique in that it at least gave them a chance to share their stories.

Toshira Garraway, whose husband died following a police car chase in St. Paul in 2009, wished that the state began re-investigating old police killings, but she acknowledged the limits of Ellison’s power. (With a few exceptions, he can only take on criminal cases that the governor or a county attorney have asked him to help proscutee.)

“He did call and check on me and see how I was doing,” Garraway said. “He is responding ― unlike Tim Walz.”

Ashley Quiñones, whose husband Brian was killed by police in Richfield, Minnesota, in September, had a similar sense that Ellison was at least an improvement on the status quo.

“The credit I’ll give to Keith Ellison is that he even generated the use-of-force working group because he didn’t have to,” Quiñones said. “He’s the only politician creating listening sessions… That is commendable.”

Ellison pumped his fist to cheers from onlookers after he and members of the Congressional Black Caucus visited the site of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis on Thursday.
Ellison pumped his fist to cheers from onlookers after he and members of the Congressional Black Caucus visited the site of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis on Thursday.
Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune/Getty Images

‘A Sea Change’

If Ellison left office tomorrow, he will have already secured a legacy in some circles as a turnaround artist. He has restored morale in an attorney general’s office that had been undermined by a culture of fear that had made it an unattractive place to work under Ellison’s two immediate predecessors, Swanson and Mike Hatch, according to lawyers familiar with office dynamics.

A scandal over Swanson’s use of official, taxpayer-funded staff to perform campaign duties helped derail her gubernatorial bid.

But her tenure was also marked by mismanagement. Based in the capitol building in St. Paul, she rarely, if ever, visited the downtown Minneapolis building where nearly all of her staff attorneys worked. Employees were forbidden from communicating with her by email; she required them instead to use a private fax machine to reach her.

“A lot of these attorneys practiced in very complicated areas of state and federal law: environmental regulation, public utilities and Medicaid. It takes time to do an excellent job. And that was not valued,” said Bev Heydinger, a former administrative law judge and deputy attorney general under then-Attorney General Skip Humphrey who helped Ellison set up his office in a volunteer capacity.

After winning the election, Ellison immediately worked to mend fences between the attorney general’s office and a Minnesota legal community. He embarked on a listening tour across the state to hear from community members, local prosecutors and state agency officials. He held the office’s first all-staff meeting in years, allowing even the most junior staff members to pepper him with questions, and he established the office’s first annual summer picnic.

The trust he built is evident in the Minnesota County Attorneys Association’s vote of confidence in him. Last week, the historically conservative group of local prosecutors called for the state attorney general to be responsible for prosecuting all police officers charged with a crime stemming from their use of deadly force.

“This ain’t about me. This is about Mr. Floyd, George Floyd.”

- Ellison

“There’s been just a sea change, in my view, as Keith has listened hard to the state agencies and what they needed, to the county attorneys and what they needed,” said Heydinger, who left the AG’s office in 1999 but had frequent dealings with it as a judge and then chair of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

Once Ellison was settled in, he initiated a flurry of activity designed to deliver on his populist campaign platform with a particular focus on combating pharmaceutical industry abuses.

But his work on behalf of low-income tenants is what has really distinguished his tenure to date. Ellison filed a lawsuit against Steven Meldahl, a Minneapolis slumlord accused of cycling poor renters in and out of his houses by charging them rents he knows they cannot afford, assessing exorbitant fees for late payments, and threatening tenants with eviction if they reported his failures to conduct basic maintenance to city authorities. Ellison successfully obtained an injunction forcing Meldahl to, among other things, seek inspections of all his properties.

Luke Grundman, managing attorney of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s housing program ― which is representing tenants in a separate class-action lawsuit against Meldahl ― credited Ellison for dramatically changing the attorney general office’s approach to the concerns of people living in poverty, particularly Minnesotans from minority communities suffering from the legacy of housing discrimination.

Under Swanson, “There was never a sense that this is a systemic problem, it’s a problem that has racist roots and we need to fix this,” Grundman said. “Ellison is the opposite. He really seems to say, ‘This is a problem. How do we figure out the problem itself?’”

But for all of his accomplishments, Ellison’s prosecution of four Minneapolis cops is the type of career-defining moment that few public officials ever confront. He faces the difficult task of convicting police officers of murder charges in a state where that has only happened once before (the cop, Mohamed Noor, was Black and his victim was white).

He has sought to downplay expectations. “One thing I’m not going to do is start guaranteeing people things before I’m ready to do so,” he said.

Asked whether he is personally invested in the case, as a Black man who has fought for racial equity for decades, Ellison briefly affirmed that he was ― while then launching into a promise that he would not let that affect his judgment in the case.

“I’m professional enough to understand that I’m holding a public trust,” he said. “This ain’t about me. This is about Mr. Floyd, George Floyd. And this is about trying to make sure we have a standard of conduct in our community.”

As for Minnesotans and concerned citizens across the country who are skeptical about the prospects of getting justice for Floyd from the existing legal system, Ellison expressed empathy.

“They have every right to be anxious about it,” he said. “But what can we do other than march forward and do our best?”

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