The two candidates for Minnesota's top legal office met in their first debate Friday, energetically and repeatedly attacking each other over the focus of the attorney general's office for the next four years and who has the best experience and skills to lead it.
Schultz took a tough tone in his opening statement. "We are losing the state we know and love," he said. Schultz described Ellison's office as at the "center" of the decline, accusing him of being extreme, a failure and dishonest.
Ellison opened by saying, "I will protect your right to a safe, legal abortion. Jim will attack that." The incumbent, a former congressman and legislator, repeatedly emphasized Schultz's lack of courtroom, executive and political experience.
Ellison took credit for protecting Minnesotans in various ways, including millions received through a multi-state opioid lawsuit. "I'm the people's lawyer, I guess he's the ExxonMobil lawyer," Ellison said.
The reference to Exxon countered Schultz's claim that Ellison's fraud lawsuit against the oil company is frivolous. Ellison filed the lawsuit more than a year ago saying large fossil fuel firms lied about the effects of climate change.
Schultz said that he'd put his background up against anyone's, noting that he was near the top of his class at Harvard Law School before working at the Pentagon and two major law firms. "My experience is I can step into the office and provide real leadership," Schultz said, adding that he'd be the first Republican to hold the office in 50 years and that it's time for a change.
The debate, the first of four between the two men, was broadcast live from the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul. The candidates sat at tables a few feet from each other in a theater empty but for a few campaign staffers and media.
Asked by MPR News host Mike Mulcahy about his priorities for the office, Schultz said, "crime, crime and crime." He said crime and violence are "bleeding out" from Minneapolis into the suburbs.
He said there are few acts as "reckless" and "wrong" as Ellison's call to "defund the police."
Ellison said the purpose of the office is to be the "chief legal officer of the state. It's not to be the chief law enforcement officer of the state."
Ellison tried to blunt the criticism of his support for the failed Minneapolis policing ballot amendment, which would have replaced the city's police department with a new public safety agency. He said his support for the measure was about the need to address problems with the Minneapolis Police Department, not a full-on effort to strip funding.
At one point, Schultz called Ellison's positioning on the issue "deeply disturbing."
Ellison responded that Schultz had a "a poorly informed point of view." He accused Schultz of politicizing the issue while he "runs around" describing himself as "apolitical."
Mulcahy pressed Schultz on whether the attorney general can prosecute crime only when invited by county attorneys.
Schultz said it's "completely false," noting that attorneys general can prosecute racketeering cases, which would cover an array of crimes. Schultz cited statute 609.902, subdivision 9 that refers to an attorney general as a prosecuting authority.
"The fact is he has failed the people of Minnesota," Schultz said of Ellison.
Ellison countered, "Read the statute, folks, and see who's right."
Schultz said he'd add "dramatically more criminal prosecutors" to the office. When Mulcahy asked how he would fund those hires if the Legislature didn't approve more money, Schultz said, "We can move resources around."
Ellison responded, "We have a statutory obligation to represent state agencies, Mr. Schultz. … You can't just reallocate the way you're saying, you can't do it,"
When Mulcahy asked Schultz whether he would prosecute police officers for killings, Schultz said he would "absolutely" have prosecuted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, but that "the bad police officers out there are few and far between."
Schultz said he would seek to get former Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kimberly Potter out of prison as soon as possible. Ellison's office prosecuted her for fatally shooting 20-year-old Daunte Wright at a traffic stop in April 2021, when she mistakenly grabbed her gun instead of her Taser.
"We have to have an office that fundamentally supports law enforcement," Schultz said.
He repeatedly faulted Ellison for increasing the charge against Potter from second-degree to first-degree manslaughter, calling it "politically motivated."
Alluding to Schultz's lack of criminal law experience, Ellison noted that the trial judge could have thrown out the first-degree charge for lack of evidence if she thought it wasn't appropriate. "You might not realize this, Jim: Every defendant has a right to make a motion for dismissal for lack of probable cause," Ellison said.
When Ellison talked about sitting with crime victims, Schultz recalled being with his sister after her north Minneapolis home was hit by gunfire. Those sorts of gun crimes are "exactly" why his office is suing Fleet Farm for negligently selling guns, Ellison said.
Schultz had repeatedly referred to the Fleet Farm lawsuit as an election-year stunt.
Ellison responded, "It's not politics, man, it's real and going upstream with guns is the right thing to do."
Asked about his position on abortion, Schultz said he's "pro-life and unashamed," but added, "I will not leverage my office for abortion politics."
Ellison didn't buy it. "Jim's not telling you that he would go on the offense, offense, offense," Ellison said, referring to previous comments by Schultz and the "fake abortion clinic" he started.
Schultz was dismissive. "Keith Ellison is using this as a distraction to get away from his failed record on crime" and the $250 million lost in a federal food aid pandemic fraud scheme.
Ellison said the job is bigger than crime. "I think Minnesotans want an attorney general who will protect their wallets and pocketbooks, their rights and their safety. … You don't get to sit here and say I'll just focus on one issue that I don't have authority for."