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Crime key in Minnesota attorney general race, but candidates see different approaches

Keith Ellison has argued GOP opponent Jim Schultz misunderstands the role the AG should play in local criminal prosecutions.

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Jim Schultz, left, and Keith Ellison
Schultz photo by Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service; Ellison photo by Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press
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ST. PAUL — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has been flexing his public safety credentials as Republican challenger Jim Schultz campaigns on the issue of rising crime.

As Schultz has pledged to tackle crime by drastically expanding the size of the attorney general office’s criminal division, Ellison, a Democrat, has announced lawsuits and investigations aimed at promoting public safety.

Ellison, whose office’s criminal division grew from one to three prosecutors since he took office in 2019, earlier this year asked for $1.8 million in funding from the Legislature to expand the criminal prosecution division , which ultimately did not pass. But he has argued his GOP opponent misunderstands the type of role the attorney general should play in local criminal prosecutions.

Schultz has proposed moving attorneys from the office’s consumer protection division, which has around two dozen attorneys, into the criminal division. Ellison has emphasized his office’s consumer protection role, and says shifting resources to crime could weaken that part of the attorney general’s mission.

As crime surged nationally and in Minnesota since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic , Republicans have tried to cast Democrats as weak on crime and have attempted to attach their opponents to the movement to defund the police.

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Whether it’s the race for Minnesota governor, the Legislature, or attorney general, Republicans have seized on a jump in crime since 2019. The state saw a 21.6% increase in violent crime last year, following a jump of 17% between 2019 and 2020.

The crime issue may prove the most important in the contest for Minnesota attorney general. Recent polling in the race has placed Ellison and Schultz extremely close, and national political observers have described Ellison as “Minnesota’s most vulnerable progressive.” Ellison beat competitor Doug Wardlow by 4%, and polling this year shows the race could be close again.

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Republican attorney general candidate Jim Schultz on July 11 speaks with reporters at the Capitol about his public safety plan.
Dana Ferguson / 2022 file / Forum News Service

Potentially driving the close contest is Ellison’s party’s connection to the push for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and Ellison’s backing of last year’s failed Minneapolis ballot referendum to replace the city’s police department with a new department of public safety.

Meanwhile, Ellison and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party have painted Schultz as a threat to abortion rights in the state . Schultz has served on the board of an anti-abortion nonprofit, though has shied away from the issue in the campaign, saying abortion rights are constitutionally protected in Minnesota and that the attorney general can not push for greater restrictions on the procedure. 

While the anti-abortion Minnesota Family Council in early October published online a candidate guide saying Schultz supported a six-week abortion ban, Schultz denied this was his stance and the council later told the Star Tribune it had inferred Schultz’s stance before removing the entry from its website. Schultz has previously said he supports a 20-week ban on abortion.

Despite abortion’s prominence in the race, public safety continues to take a central role. Schultz, a political newcomer, enjoys support from law enforcement agencies across the state. He received the endorsement of 22 county sheriffs in September and got the endorsement of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association earlier this year. 

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Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison speaks at the Capitol on Sept. 9, pressing Republican opponent Jim Schultz on abortion as an issue in the 2022 campaign.
Alex Derosier / File / Forum News Service

Ellison has also made efforts to make his public safety credentials known. On Tuesday, he announced his endorsement from 11 current and former Democratic-Farmer-Labor county attorneys, including now-U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, as well as former Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey. County attorneys said their partnership with Ellison was invaluable in past and ongoing criminal cases.

Ellison has argued his GOP opponent fundamentally misunderstands the role the attorney general plays in prosecuting criminal cases, saying the office can not merely wade into any criminal matter without an invitation from the local prosecutor. He’s correct; under Minnesota statute, the attorney general must be asked by a local authority to help. Minnesota attorneys have said they’d like to see more help from the state, though Ellison and Schultz disagree on the best path to do that. 

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Still, Ellison touts his successful prosecution of 40 criminal cases in local jurisdictions across the state since he took office in 2019, including the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.

He’s also spent the last month of the campaign focusing on what his office has done to promote public safety, after spending much of the summer messaging on his commitment to protect abortion rights in Minnesota following the overturning of Roe. v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.

Schultz has proposed having the attorney general’s office take an expanded role in criminal prosecutions as the best way to tackle crime. To that end, Schultz has pledged to grow the criminal division of the attorney general’s office by moving staff from other divisions currently tasked with “regulatory action.” Presently, the criminal division has three full-time prosecutors and an overall attorney staff of more than 300.

In contrast, Ellison has highlighted the consumer protection and civil powers of his office as tools to address public safety. Over the past month, he has announced investigations and civil action against businesses Ellison says are tied to recent violent crimes.

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Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman, left, and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison address reporters remotely following the announcement of their decision to not pursue criminal charges against officers involved in the raid that killed Amir Locke, 22, at a Minneapolis apartment Feb. 2.
Screengrab

On Wednesday, Ellison announced a lawsuit against retailer Fleet Farm alleging the retailer allowed purchasers to buy firearms for others illegally. One of the guns ended up being used in a St. Paul bar shootout that killed one bystander and injured 14. Fleet Farm denies wrongdoing.

In mid-September, the attorney general’s office announced it had launched a civil investigation of a liquor store and gas station in North Minneapolis for “dangerous public nuisances.” The businesses had been the location of shootings and the intersection between the two businesses had seen routine drug dealing.

“We are applying the law in ways it’s not commonly been applied before to solve persistent problems and keep people safe,” Ellison said in a statement about the investigation.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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