WASHINGTON – The roiling national debate over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh is leaving some Minnesota Democrats uncomfortably wrestling with how best to respond to the recent domestic abuse allegation against the Democratic candidate for attorney general, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.
“If you use one standard when it’s politically easy and you change the standard when it’s politically difficult, that means you’re putting party politics ahead of the principles you’re espousing,” said Ryan Winkler, a former DFL state representative from Golden Valley who’s running this year to return to the Legislature.
Ellison, a congressman from Minneapolis for the last dozen years, has repeatedly denied the allegation from ex-girlfriend Karen Monahan that he tried to drag her off a bed by her feet during an argument in 2016. Monahan has continued to press her case on social media; this week, the state DFL announced that an attorney it hired to look at the allegation could not substantiate it, and has been trying to find a law enforcement agency to review its report.
Last week, Ellison called for the U.S. House Committee on Ethics to investigate Monahan’s claim. Asked to comment for this story, his campaign referred back to that request, which a number of other prominent Minnesota Democrats supported. Republicans, meanwhile, have tried to tie other Democrats to Ellison.
“Recent calls for a congressional ethics investigation, made by Keith Ellison and echoed by my opponent, amount to nothing more than political cover,” Republican state Sen. Karin Housley, a U.S. Senate candidate, said in a news release this week. She’s running against U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.
Even White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders brought up Ellison when asked about Kavanaugh. On Thursday, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich praised Housley in a tweet and added that Smith “can’t defend Ellison’s record of abusing women.”
The House Ethics Committee has three months to investigate Ellison before it loses jurisdiction over the matter when he leaves Congress. Ethics probes greatly vary in length: just this year, the committee wrapped up an investigation that ran more than four years and another that took more than five. But last year, the committee acted on another case in just three months.
While the allegations against Ellison, Kavanaugh and former U.S. Sen. Al Franken have all played out against the #MeToo movement, they differ greatly in the details. Three women have accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault or misconduct when he was a high school and college student. Franken faced allegations from a group of women that he groped or inappropriately touched them, either a few years before or during his time as a U.S. senator.
Ellison won the DFL primary for attorney general in August a few days after Monahan’s allegation of a single instance of domestic abuse emerged. Following that, the DFL’s Central Committee overwhelmingly endorsed his bid. Numerous leading Democratic operatives and party leaders have said privately that what happened to Franken may have benefited Ellison because many party activists felt Franken was deprived of due process.
Ellison himself, in public statements about the allegation, has walked a careful line. “Addressing this allegation has been especially challenging given the important national moment we are in. I believe women who come forward must be heard, and to have their allegations fully investigated,” he said in a statement released Monday, in response to the DFL’s investigation.
Ellison is also deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He said in a WCCO radio interview on Wednesday that he is considering resigning that seat to focus on his current campaign.
Smith has been critical of Kavanaugh. Of Ellison, she said: “I believe that allegations of misconduct always need to be taken seriously — and I’m glad they finally are. I’ve also always believed that we need to take the time to look into accusations and that everyone deserves a process so that we can get to the truth.”
University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter said that both parties do what they have to do politically when faced with such allegations against one of their members. Painter, who lost the DFL Senate primary to Smith in August, worked as an ethics lawyer for the White House under George W. Bush when Kavanaugh was the president’s staff secretary.
Painter criticized the DFL for hiring a law firm to investigate the Ellison matter that already had a relationship to the party. Charles Nauen, a partner at the Lockridge Grindal Nauen law firm, is the DFL Party’s attorney. The firm has donated money to Democrats including Ellison, and to Republicans as well.
For Republicans poised to support Kavanaugh, meanwhile, “it was like pulling teeth to just get a one-week delay [for an FBI probe]. It’s a common theme that both parties don’t want to investigate their own — all of these things are about politics, not arriving at the truth,” Painter said.
Asked about Ellison and Kavanaugh on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told the Star Tribune that she’s had the same response in both cases: “They have to be investigated and looked at so the public knows what’s going on.”
Dan McGrath, who until recently led the DFL-allied TakeAction Minnesota, also worried about “a question of how do you hold friends and foes to the same standard, which is very important in these situations — to operate from a place of values,” he said. TakeAction decided to stand by Ellison, but McGrath said several weeks after Monahan’s allegation became public that the majority of people he’d talked to about it hadn’t made up their minds and didn’t know what to think about Ellison.
Winkler has insisted in recent weeks that the DFL take a genuinely tough look at Monahan’s accusation against Ellison. Initially a candidate for state attorney general this year, Winkler dropped out when the current attorney general, DFLer Lori Swanson, said she’d run for re-election. She later changed course, and Winkler endorsed Ellison before Monahan’s allegation.
“They can be charged with inconsistency for standing by him and not believing his accuser while demanding that others believe the accuser and asking people to step down based on those accusations,” Winkler said of those on the left calling for Kavanaugh’s withdrawal.
Ellison faces Republican Doug Wardlow in November, and Winkler said he’s worried the DFL could lose an attorney general seat it’s held since 1971. A recent Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll found Ellison holding just a small lead.
“He’s kind of in a half-campaign mode,” Winkler said of Ellison. “He’s just being very circumspect and almost hoping to win by default.”