The contentious campaign to be Minnesota’s next attorney general erupted into another scorching round of recriminations Monday, with the two candidates and others challenging their fitness to serve as the state’s top legal official.
Democrat Keith Ellison said at a Capitol news conference with law enforcement officials that his “first legislative priority” would be to safeguard attorneys in the office from being fired based on their politics. That was in response to a recent recording in which Republican Doug Wardlow pledged to a group of Republican donors that he would fire 42 DFL attorneys upon taking office.
“You cannot hope to serve all Minnesotans equally if you do not represent all Minnesotans fully,” Ellison said.
Earlier Monday, four Republican state lawmakers aired fears about an Ellison victory. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, pointed to a 34-second video posted by Wardlow’s campaign in which Ellison suggested as attorney general he would not defend laws “that don’t make sense.”
“We’re a little concerned when an attorney general candidate states that he’s going to be the sole decider, the arbiter of what’s constitutional and what’s not,” Limmer said.
The news conference came two days after a report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press in which a high school classmate, Ryan Durant, alleged that Wardlow bullied him at the time for being gay. Wardlow has denied the allegation.
Wardlow also denied Durant’s allegation that he mocked him after a suicide attempt in his sophomore year of high school. Wardlow and Durant are both 1997 graduates of Eagan High School.
Durant said in an interview with the Star Tribune that he decided to speak out late in the election cycle because he’s concerned about Wardlow’s more recent work as legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a national legal group that has challenged the expansion of LGBT rights in courts around the country.
“If he wasn’t doing the same kind of thing, I wouldn’t feel the need to do this. The ADF stuff is terrible,” Durant, who works in computer network security and lives in Brooklyn Center, said in the interview Monday. “He’s still fighting high school battles at 40 years old, and it’s all aimed at” LGBT people.
Wardlow’s campaign e-mailed a statement from him in response: “I categorically deny these allegations about me when I was 14 years old. I never did or said anything remotely like the things alleged — not 26 years ago when I was 14, not ever.”
In separate interviews over the last few days, four of Wardlow’s high school classmates told the Star Tribune they were bullied by Wardlow or remember him bullying fellow students. Jason Kopp, now a nurse who lives in Minneapolis, said he and Wardlow were close friends at the beginning of high school, and Kopp said he joined in the bullying of Durant. He said he personally witnessed Wardlow say to Durant after the suicide attempt, “You couldn’t even get that right?”
Kopp came out as gay after high school and said he has apologized to Durant. Kamran Swanson, now a community college philosophy professor in Chicago, said he was also a friend of Wardlow’s. He said he remembers Wardlow teasing Durant. Sarah Beaulieu, of Apple Valley, said Wardlow and his friends called her a “freak” and a “dyke.”
Wardlow said he does not remember Beaulieu and denied making such comments, his campaign manager Billy Grant said.
Heidi Bassett, who was on the school’s debate team with Wardlow, said in a statement shared by the Wardlow campaign that he was humble, hardworking and not a bully. Gene and Joann VanOverbeke, who lived down the street from Wardlow for most of his childhood, echoed that sentiment in another statement shared by the campaign.
“I never heard him utter an unkind word toward anyone else, on or off the team,” said Bassett, now an attorney.
Durant said he didn’t come forward earlier because there is a personal cost that comes with going public. But he said he got more concerned when he saw Wardlow had a chance at winning. He said he can’t envision Wardlow standing up to businesses that discriminate against LGBT Minnesotans as attorney general.
Durant first made his accusations public on Oct. 12 on “The Matt McNeil Show,” a progressive AM radio program. He heard a caller talking about Wardlow as a “fine, upstanding young man” and felt compelled to act. He did not use his full name then.
Lindsay Carlson, an attorney in Los Angeles, went to high school with Wardlow. She said she did not witness him bullying people but was one of two classmates who independently said Wardlow called them a “feminazi.” Carlson and Wardlow were both law clerks at the Minnesota Supreme Court starting in summer 2004. Her father was running against Wardlow’s father, also a Republican, for an Eagan state House seat at that time. Jim Carlson is now a DFL state senator.
Lindsay Carlson said she learned at that time about the Rostra, a political blog Wardlow appears to have written under two pseudonyms. An e-mail address, various references in the blog and a bio point to Wardlow. In a previous Star Tribune interview, Wardlow said he did some writing for a blog but couldn’t remember when or which one.
The state Supreme Court’s personnel policy prohibited participation in partisan politics, with one exception for participation in precinct caucus meetings. Carlson said she alerted Justice Paul Anderson, whom she was clerking for, and her father, who also brought up the blog with Anderson, who he said is an old friend. Anderson, who is now retired, said Jim Carlson did bring an issue to his attention but declined to comment further.
Wardlow’s campaign did not answer specific questions about the blog.
Some of the comments in that blog have recently prompted outrage among Democrats. Ellison’s campaign held a news conference last week where abortion rights advocates condemned a post that said “activist courts” are foisting liberal values on society in decisions like Roe v. Wade.
“Another day, another baseless and desperate attack from a failing campaign,” said Grant. “Doug Wardlow is committed to defending and protecting all Minnesotans.”
Ellison for much of the campaign has had to contend with an allegation by an ex-girlfriend that he tried to pull her off a bed by her feet during a fight in 2016. Ellison has denied that, and his recently unsealed divorce record included no allegations of abuse against him. His accuser says she has a video of the incident, but she has refused to release it.
At the Capitol Monday, the Republican lawmakers criticized Ellison for what Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, called a long record of “anti-law enforcement rhetoric.” Zerwas and the other Republicans also questioned the timing of Durant’s allegation against Wardlow.
“We’re eight days before an election, and we need to get focused on the important choice Minnesotans have,” Zerwas said.
Ellison said at his own news conference that he was “concerned” about Durant’s allegation against Wardlow, but he said he’s much more concerned with Wardlow’s legal work as an adult.
“I think that he thinks that his religion means that others have to accommodate his religious views,” Ellison said of Wardlow.
A Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll, taken Oct. 15-17, found that Wardlow had moved into a lead over Ellison.
Star Tribune staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.