The ads start with the standard scary background music, followed by a shot of a grim-faced U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. Then the classic Scary Ad Lady Voice announces “Disturbing allegations of domestic violence … .”
There is a flash of an interview with Ellison’s ex-girlfriend: She says he swore at her and tried to pull her off a bed. Then the voice of the Scary Ad Lady attacks various DFL candidates for not denouncing Ellison and says they should “stand up for Minnesota women.”
Thirty years ago this week, Republicans launched the infamous Willie Horton ads during the 1988 Bush-Dukakis presidential campaign. The ads were designed to appeal to white voters by playing on their stereotypical fears of black men as predators. And they worked depressingly well.
So, will a similar ad campaign with Ellison cast as the GOP’s new black predator work in Minnesota in 2018? Because that seems to be the Republican strategy as they make Ellison — who is leaving the U.S. House and running as the DFL candidate for Minnesota attorney general — an issue in at least four congressional campaigns as well as Tina Smith’s Senate seat.
But how is this effort any different from Democrats trying to use an attempted rape accusation from 36 years ago to derail Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court? Both cases involve candidates being accused of abusing women. Yet I think there are four crucial differences:
First, Kavanaugh is running for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the nation. Ellison is running for a four-year term to a state office.
Second, Kavanaugh’s fate is in the hands of the U.S. Senate, a small, exclusive and mostly white-male club. In contrast, every voter in Minnesota can weigh in on whether Ellison should be elected.
Third, Kavanaugh is being accused of attempting to rape a woman. Ellison is being accused of … well, if you pay attention to the details … pulling on his ex-girlfriend’s feet and demanding that she move out of his house because their relationship had ended.
A quick review: Ellison, who is divorced, had a five-year relationship with a local lobbyist named Karen Monahan. After they broke up, he started dating other people and she began accusing him of “narcissistic abuse” on Twitter and Facebook.
Her most serious charge — which he denies — is that he once tried to pull her off a bed after he asked her to take out the trash as he was leaving to catch an early flight back to Washington, D.C. This was in 2016. By this point, the two were sleeping in separate bedrooms but she was still staying at his house until she could find another place to live.
According to Monahan, she didn’t answer his request because she was busy listening to a podcast. She says he then pulled on her ankles, cursed her and said she was a bad guest who needed to move out of his house before he returned from D.C.
So that’s her big “domestic violence” allegation. It’s not pretty. But to me, it sounds like a painful, messy break-up of a relationship between two consenting middle-aged adults as opposed to abuse. Which is why I’ve long felt uneasy linking it with the #MeToo movement, much less seeing it weaponized in a political campaign. I hope I’d feel the same way if a Republican were being accused of the same thing.
Monahan first claimed she videoed the incident with her cellphone. Then she said she lost the video. Then she said she found it but wouldn’t release it because victims shouldn’t have to prove their claims.
Ellison says there is no video because the incident never happened. Monahan also sent to reporters at Minnesota Public Radio more than 100 text and Twitter messages from Ellison, claiming they showed emotional abuse. MPR News said the messages simply seemed to show a couple breaking up. Last week, she released a copy of her medical records, which shows she told her doctor the same things she has said on Twitter and Facebook and in interviews but adds no new information or evidence.
In the month since the story first broke, we’ve learned Monahan was born in Iran, adopted by an American couple in Texas and identifies as a survivor of child sexual abuse. During and after her relationship with Ellison, she accused Ellison’s adult children of stealing or destroying her things, other women of stealing Ellison’s affections and unknown hackers of breaking into her computer and stealing her e-mails.
Here’s the fourth, final difference between the two cases: If, instead of being accused of attempted rape, Brett Kavanaugh were being accused of the same things Monahan is accusing Ellison of, I suspect any news coverage would have quickly died and there would be no big hearing in the U.S. Senate this week — because bad breakup behavior is not the same as rape or sexual harassment, and because, as a powerful white man, Kavanaugh would receive a presumption of innocence that neither Ellison — nor any other black man in America — will ever get.
But Keith Ellison is being accused in a country that has spent hundreds of years relentlessly portraying black men as violent, predatory and dangerous to women, especially nonblack women. This depiction is one of the central myths that supported American slavery and Jim Crow laws.
Fear of black men remains the silent, poisonous river that runs underneath nearly all of our political discussions — far more powerful than anything the young #MeToo movement can yet generate. It’s a current so primordial and pervasive that most white people — liberal or conservative — aren’t even conscious we’re swimming in it. Which is why we can be so easily triggered.
Heck, back in 2006, when Ellison first ran for Congress, his big scandal was … wait for it … a pile of unpaid parking tickets, which he had racked up as a defense attorney who had to frequently rush to courthouse hearings.
Ellison quickly paid off his tickets, but while volunteering on that campaign, I encountered countless white people, including professed liberals, who said they couldn’t vote for him because they were so deeply troubled by the dark stain of his … parking tickets.
I’m telling you: After a couple of hundred years of this racial conditioning, it takes almost nothing to make us uneasy. Which is why the GOP will keep running the ads with the Scary Ad Lady Voice.
What will happen to Brett Kavanaugh? I don’t know, but given his privilege and the GOP control of the Senate, I suspect he’ll be quickly confirmed.
What will happen to Keith Ellison? I don’t know. The polls are so close. But I do know that what happens in November will reveal far more about the current psyche of voters in Minnesota — and the GOP calculus in appealing to them — than it ever will about Keith Ellison and his sad, bad break-up.
Lynnell Mickelsen lives in Minneapolis and writes about politics.