The last-minute decision by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison to run for state attorney general instead of re-election to Congress shook up Minnesota politics for the second day in a row on Tuesday, leaving a number of prominent DFLers suddenly squaring off for multiple political offices in a high-stakes election year.
“I decided this morning the right thing to do is not seek comfort in security and to do what I think the dictates of my conscience are telling me,” Ellison said, minutes after filing for the attorney general primary. He now faces a crowded DFL primary that includes former Attorney General Mike Hatch and others.
Ellison’s shift away from defending his Minneapolis-area congressional seat triggered another rush into that race, a reliably Democratic seat that he’s held since 2007. State Sens. Patricia Torres Ray and Bobby Joe Champion, state Rep. Ilhan Omar and former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher were the most well-known among eight who filed for the DFL primary.
It all made for a chaotic final campaign filing day at the State Office Building in St. Paul. At one point, Secretary of State Steve Simon — whose office oversees state elections — passed out cups of popcorn to the politicians, operatives, journalists and assorted onlookers on hand for the final burst of office seekers.
Tuesday’s late flurry flowed from Monday’s decision by current Attorney General Lori Swanson to jump into the DFL primary for governor rather than running for re-election. She’ll now face state Rep. Erin Murphy, the DFL-endorsed candidate, and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. Republicans also have a primary for governor, with GOP-endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, running against former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
The DFL primary for attorney general is more crowded. In addition to Ellison and Hatch, the field includes state Rep. Debra Hilstrom, former Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman, former Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley and Minneapolis lawyer Matt Pelikan, the DFL-endorsed candidate.
And even more crowded yet is the race for Ellison’s Fifth Congressional District seat. The district reliably votes Democratic, meaning whoever wins the August primary heads to the November election as a heavy favorite.
Omar, who in 2016 became the first Somali-American in the country elected to a state legislature, now seeks to succeed Ellison — who in 2006 became the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. She said she wants to carry on that legacy and be a “voice for the voiceless.”
“We have a lot at stake this year, and we’re going to need an organizer and someone ready on Day One to mobilize,” Omar said.
Kelliher, who is president and CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association, was state House speaker from 2007 to 2011. She said her priorities at the U.S. Capitol would include health care and addressing the opioid crisis. Torres Ray said she would focus on immigration, which she called “the moral fight of our time.”
Champion, of Minneapolis, said he is committed to the citizens of the Fifth District, which includes the entire city of Minneapolis and several nearby suburbs. He arrived to file for Ellison’s seat wearing a T-shirt and shorts, his clothes exemplifying the last-minute decisionmaking of many candidates Tuesday.
“I’m ready to work, that’s why I’m dressed this way,” Champion said. “Some people are coming in with suits on, and I’m going to come in the attire it’s going to take to knock on doors.”
Also joining the DFL primary were Kim Ellison, a Minneapolis School Board member and Keith Ellison’s ex-wife; Julie Sabo, a former state senator and the daughter of the late Martin Olav Sabo, who represented the Fifth District from 1979 to 2007; and two lesser-known candidates, Jamal Abdi Abdulahi and Frank Nelson Drake.
The DFL primary for attorney general could get contentious. Hatch, who held the office from 1999 to 2007, was among the first to show up at Simon’s office Tuesday morning — but he said he might still withdraw if the right candidate enters, citing Rothman and Hilstrom among the potential candidates he would support. It appeared to be a veiled shot at Ellison.
It was not immediately clear if Hatch would indeed drop out with Hilstrom and Rothman now in the race. Candidates can withdraw from races until Thursday at 5 p.m.
Hilstrom, of Brooklyn Center, said she would bring experience as a prosecutor and 18 years in the state House to the job. She said Ellison’s presence would not chase her out. “I will stay in the race, no matter who files,” she said.
The GOP-endorsed candidate for attorney general is Doug Wardlow, a former state representative from Eagan (he faces two primary opponents, former state Sen. Bob Lessard and perennial candidate Sharon Anderson). Wardlow lambasted Ellison on Tuesday, taking him to task for past comments in favor of open borders and alleging that he avoids talking about past connections to the Nation of Islam.
“The DFL is lining up the Extreme Team to run in the Attorney General race, and extremist Ellison is leading the way. I’ve never felt more confident that we will in November,” Wardlow said in a statement.
Ellison said while Republicans are attacking other candidates, he wants to focus on the issues he would address as attorney general.
“This stuff is not what people are worried about,” he said. “They’re worried about the critical issues — safety, they are worried about the prosperity of their family, they are worried about their pensions. These are the things people are focused on, and that’s what I am going to focus on.”
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton endorsed Ellison for attorney general Tuesday, calling him a “courageous champion for working people” in a statement.
Ellison said he would remain in his current position as deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He landed in that slot in early 2017 after finishing second in the race for Democratic National Committee chairman; he had publicly announced plans to leave his congressional seat if he had won that race.
All the attempts by various DFL politicians to move upward set off a cascade of activity in races down the ballot. Three Democrats and a Republican filed Tuesday to compete for Hilstrom’s seat representing Brooklyn Center and part of Brooklyn Park, and many more entered the race for Omar’s Minneapolis House seat, which is centered in neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota and Cedar-Riverside.
Peter Wagenius, who has been policy director for two Minneapolis mayors, joined that race, along with Minnesota Environmental Fund Executive Director Cordelia Pierson and Mohamud Noor, who attempted to unseat Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame in last year’s election.
As the DFL upheaval played out, many Republican lawmakers — also on the scene Tuesday to file for office — were happy to make sport of the disarray. House Speaker Kurt Daudt likened it to a “dumpster fire.”
That description was shared by at least one DFLer — former state Rep. Ryan Winkler, who ended his own attorney general bid earlier this year when Swanson announced her now-abandoned re-election bid. Winkler is now running for his old House seat, opting not to jump back into the attorney general race.
“Today is a good day to not dive head first into a dumpster fire,” Winkler wrote on Twitter.
Star Tribune staff writers Erin Golden and J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this story.