U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison drew on the star power of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to pack First Avenue Friday morning, where the politicians urged voters to make Ellison the state’s next attorney general and revved the crowd by blasting President Donald Trump.
“The American people are in strong disagreement with the Trump administration. Our job, in a way that we have never done it before, is to get out into the streets and make it clear what Trump stands for and make it clear what our alternative progressive vision is,” said Sanders, an independent progressive from Vermont and the runner-up in the 2016 Democratic contest for president.
The event was aimed at rallying supporters around Ellison’s attorney general bid. But the politicians who spoke, including Sen. Tina Smith, primarily focused on the Trump administration, and Sanders’ sustained attack on the president’s policies was reminiscent of a campaign speech.
Sanders called Ellison’s departure from the U.S. House “bittersweet.” He said Ellison has concluded he could play a bigger role in fighting for workers, small businesses, women’s rights, health care and other causes by becoming attorney general.
Ellison is one of five candidates running in the Aug. 14 DFL primary for attorney general. By enlisting Sanders, Ellison showed he can harness his own national political profile as he pivots to running statewide in Minnesota. More than 1,200 supporters packed the downtown Minneapolis rock club for the event.
Ellison said he wants to join fellow Democratic AGs around the country who have sued to protect an open internet and fought in court against the travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries and the Trump administration’s policy of separating parents and children at the border.
He told the crowd that political cynicism is their enemy. Democrats have prevented the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, he said, and will oppose Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
“Don’t you think for a minute we cannot beat this right-wing, reactionary so-called justice Kavanaugh. We can beat him too,” Ellison said.
The other DFL candidates racing to win over voters are state Rep. Debra Hilstrom, former Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman, former Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley and DFL-endorsed Matt Pelikan, a private attorney. Several Republicans will also face off in a primary: former state Rep. Doug Wardlow, who won the GOP endorsement, is competing with former state Sen. Robert Lessard and perennial candidate Sharon Anderson.
“Bernie Sanders is an elitist East-coast socialist,” Wardlow said in a statement after the event. “Sanders wants to help Ellison take the office of Attorney General to conduct political warfare. His support for Ellison demonstrates that Ellison is just too extreme for Minnesota.” Sanders has in the past described himself as a socialist, according to PolitiFact.
Sanders called Ellison, a supporter of his presidential bid, “a personal friend” in an interview before the rally. He endorsed Ellison when he ran unsuccessfully to be Democratic National Committee chairman in 2017.
Ellison and Sanders started the day in Minneapolis and were headed to Duluth for an afternoon event at Denfield High School.
The event in the main room at First Avenue kicked off with performances by Dwynell Roland and DJ Shannon Blowtorch. There were speeches from activist Ady Barkan, who has ALS and is traveling the country encouraging people to vote for candidates who will protect health care, as well as from Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender, and Smith, who talked about the importance of the upcoming elections.
“We are at a pivot point in our country,” Smith said. “And you know pivot means you can pivot forward or you can pivot backwards.”
While most applauded her message, some attendees shouted over Smith, who faces a contested primary against Richard Painter, a lawyer who served as President George W. Bush’s ethics counsel. People yelled at Smith to support the Boundary Waters and Medicare for all. One person called out “sell out” and another man yelled, “Just give us Keith.”
Sanders urged support for Smith as well as Ellison. Sanders will continue on the campaign trail over the weekend, holding events with candidates in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Foley, one of Ellison’s DFL rivals, said it won’t just be Ellison who will benefit from the high-profile visitor.
“Bernie Sanders is going all over the country, obviously he’s kind of a firebrand, trying to turn out the Democratic vote, and he’s doing that for Minnesota and Keith Ellison,” Foley said. “But I think he’ll be turning out everyone’s voters. ... The more people that are aware that the election’s coming up, I think it works well for all of us.”
Leslie Firkins and her 15-year-old son Logan Paczkowski came from Oakdale to see Sanders and Ellison. Paczkowski, who has a political Instagram account called “politicalsocdem,” was there to see Sanders, whose stance on single-payer health care he supports. Firkins said she hopes Ellison wins and picks up some good experience fighting for all Americans as attorney general, then uses that to further his political career.
“I was at first disappointed he wouldn’t be in Congress for us, because I think we need his voice there,” she said, but she was happy to hear state Rep. Ilhan Omar was among those running for his open congressional seat.
Cass Markovich, a northeast Minneapolis resident and retiree, said it was her first time at a political rally. She said she has friends who are Sanders supporters who did not vote in the 2016 general election after he lost the primary to Hillary Clinton.
She hopes his visit to Minnesota will encourage people not to sit out the midterm elections.
“Our grandkids are at stake,” she said. “ ... We can’t afford to keep doing that.”