DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison and his GOP challenger Jim Schultz both said Friday that adding criminal prosecutors to the office would be a priority if they win in November.
Ellison, 59, who is seeking a second four-year term, said he would seek to add prosecutorial power on crime and add antitrust enforcement to his consumer protection work. Schultz, 36, a political newcomer who has worked at investment firms, wants to depoliticize the office and focus more on crime.
The opponents took questions in separate 30-minute sessions Friday from Star Tribune editorial writer Patricia Lopez and politics editor Laura McCallum at the newspaper's booth at the Minnesota State Fair.
When Ellison took office nearly four years ago, he had one fulltime criminal prosecutor. He now has three, but he'd like 12 — the number under former DFL Attorney General Skip Humphrey, who held office through most of the 1980s and 1990s.
Humphrey had 300 attorneys in the office, while Ellison said he has 150. He said his office has handled 40 criminal prosecutions in 20 counties. He also argued that his work recouping $300 million from nine opioid manufacturers qualifies as crime-fighting.
Schultz, who grew up in South Haven, graduated from the University of St. Thomas and Harvard Law School and has been in politics for nine months. He said he feels like "our state needs a dramatically different path, particularly when it comes to the Attorney General's office."
"We need dramatically more criminal prosecutors to really be a support for the county attorneys," Schultz said, though he didn't identify a number. He faulted Ellison for failing to set the "right tone," and called him "reckless" to support the failed Minneapolis ballot initiative to replace the police department with a public safety department.
When McCallum pressed Schultz on which part of the Attorney General's office he'd shrink to direct more resources into criminal prosecutions, he replied that some of Ellison's consumer lawsuits amount to "business harassment." The prime example he used was Ellison's lawsuit against "Big Oil."
"What we shouldn't be doing is bringing frivolous cases like that," Schultz said, adding that he's "confident" it will be thrown out. The suit argues that the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil and Koch Industries misled Minnesota consumers for years about the consequences of burning oil and gas, that the state has experienced billions of dollars in harm due to climate change and will continue to suffer damage.
Ellison said he will continue to work on behalf of consumers, including housing and wage theft.
"That's our mission, to help people afford their lives and what does that mean? Enforce the law to make sure that people have a shot at prosperity," he said.
Right now, Schultz said, the most important issue is violent crime. He said his sister was rescued from her own house when it was in the line of gunfire in north Minneapolis. "That's representative of the levels of violent crime we're seeing in our communities," he said.
He faulted Ellison's posture during the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May 2020. Schultz said he would have acknowledged the public pain but would hold people accountable for illegal behavior.
"We have free speech in America, but what people do not have the right to do is commit violent crime and burn down people's homes and businesses," Schultz said.
Ellison said public safety requires more resources, and that police need more support with mental health and wellness programs.
The candidates were on opposite sides of whether to appeal last month's abortion decision by Ramsey County District Judge Thomas Gilligan. In a case brought by abortion rights groups, Gilligan found multiple abortion restrictions to be unconstitutional, including the 24-hour waiting period and parental consent requirements for those under 18.
Ellison is not appealing the case, saying his office defended the restrictions for three years and that Gilligan's order was thorough. "We think people need clear rules to live by, we need finality," he said.
Schultz said he would appeal Gilligan's ruling. He described himself as "pro-life" but said his position on an appeal isn't personal, noting that other states' courts have held up similar abortion restrictions.
Asked his favorite State Fair food, Ellison said it was the chokecherry pie at the Farmers Union Building. Schultz said he likes funnel cakes, deep-fried Oreos and cheese curds.