Jim Schultz has never held political office or prosecuted a case, yet the 36-year-old former hedge fund lawyer was pitching his GOP candidacy for attorney general to some of Minnesota's top law enforcement leaders.
His core message — to stand behind law enforcement and punish violent criminals — gripped the crowd that included Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and presidents of the Minneapolis and St. Paul police unions.
"I know you've felt like you've had a target on your backs. … We're going to turn it around in the attorney general's office," Schultz said during a recent campaign fundraiser on a St. Paul bar's back patio. The speech inspired some to be envoys for his campaign.
"If every cop tells their family and their friends and all their neighbors who to vote for AG, we're going to win this race. So, tell everybody," David Titus, president of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association's board of directors, told the crowd.
Republicans have high hopes that Schultz will unseat first-term Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison in November and reverse a long, statewide losing streak for the Minnesota GOP. The South Haven, Minn., native and Harvard Law School graduate's crime focus appears to be resonating with voters as polls show him within striking distance of toppling the incumbent.
Ellison and his supporters have sought to cast Schultz as being inexperienced to the point of unqualified, noting the Attorney General's Office can only take on criminal cases at the request of county prosecutors. Critics also doubt Schultz's pledge to be an apolitical attorney general, citing his past statements on abortion and LGBTQ issues.
"The opponent has never seen the inside of a courtroom, has no knowledge of what we do or how we do it," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said, backing Ellison during a recent news conference. "I don't see any county attorneys that I'm aware of that are supporting [Schultz]."
The GOP nominee never expected to take the political stage so soon. The small-town son of a Hennepin County employee and St. Cloud Hospital nurse worked on a farm while attending Annandale High School. A devout Catholic, Schultz spent two years in seminary at the University of St. Thomas before pivoting to law at Harvard.
He said he did not envision himself entering public service until later in life, after he had established himself as a private lawyer. Schultz has worked at prominent law firms such as Kirkland & Ellis and Minneapolis-based Dorsey & Whitney, and he most recently served as counsel at Värde Partners, a Twin Cities investment firm.
During the past two years, Schultz said he became "deeply disturbed" by rising violent crime and the civil unrest that erupted in Minneapolis after the police killing of George Floyd. The issue became personal when Schultz's sister called him one morning in tears after bullets pierced her north Minneapolis home. He frequently recounts that phone call while campaigning.
"I felt like we were losing the state that we had known and loved," said Schultz, who lives in Minnetonka with his wife and three young daughters. "We felt like we had to step forward and do something in this current moment in history."
If elected, Schultz said he would urge county attorneys to seek harsher punishments for violent criminals, call out county attorneys he feels are weak on crime and support law enforcement. He said Democrats' rhetoric has demoralized police, and he repeatedly hammered Ellison for backing the failed ballot amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new public safety agency.
Nearly two dozen Minnesota county sheriffs and the state's largest professional police association have endorsed Schultz. Some law enforcement leaders said Schultz shows a willingness to work with them that Ellison has not.
Schultz said he would add at least 30 criminal prosecutors to the Attorney General's Office to better assist county attorneys with cases. If the Legislature didn't fund his request, he said he would reassign lawyers from other divisions such as consumer protection to bolster the criminal division's ranks.
The Democrat said Schultz has overstated the office's criminal prosecution authority.
"In Minnesota, for over 150 years, crime has been prosecuted locally. That's what the statute requires," Ellison said. "The attorney general cannot just wade into a criminal case. Anyone who reads the statute knows that."
Ellison also accused Schultz of being a "fox in the henhouse" as a former hedge fund lawyer willing to trim down the attorney general's consumer protection division, which deals with fraud, scams and discriminatory practices.
Michael Blackmon, who worked with Schultz at Dorsey & Whitney, said the Republican is not one to let people get taken advantage of.
"He doesn't like to see people get bullied, he doesn't like to see injustice," said Blackmon, who described Schultz as a good lawyer whom the law firm's partners entrusted with "senior-level" work.
Schultz said he would hold businesses that commit "serious wrongdoing" accountable. He would focus on protecting seniors in assisted living facilities from neglect and abuse, noting his late father who had dementia did not receive adequate care at one nursing home and had to be moved to another.
But Schultz said he would not take on cases he describes as "frivolous," such as Ellison's lawsuit against "Big Oil." The suit argues oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Koch Industries misled Minnesotans about the harms of burning oil and gas and that the state has suffered billions of dollars in damages due to climate change.
Schultz also pointed to cases where Ellison has joined other Democratic state attorneys general opposing laws in Florida.
"I wouldn't sue some random Democrat governor around the country," Schultz said. "I could see myself suing the federal administration, whether it be a Republican or Democrat, if I felt like the rights of Minnesotans were being meaningfully infringed upon."
Opponents of Schultz said the Republican has given them plenty of reasons to believe he would make politically motivated decisions.
Schultz previously served on the board of the nonprofit Human Life Alliance, which seeks to make abortion "not just illegal, but unthinkable." He indicated on a Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life candidate survey earlier this year that he would work with the group to advance its "incremental approach" toward "establishing respect for human life in our laws."
During a March forum, Schultz said he would "aggressively defend" First Amendment religious rights, including those of pharmacists who don't want to dispense abortion drugs. And he railed against transgender athletes participating in women's sports.
"Jim Schultz has made it abundantly clear what his position is. That he will use his power to strip Minnesotans of their rights," Sarah Stoesz, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said during a recent news conference with Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin.
Schultz countered that his political views would not influence his approach and that he would "enforce and defend Minnesota law, whatever it is." Asked his position on gay marriage, Schultz would not say.
"We're beyond that as a country," he said. "It is now the law of the land."
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.
A report on Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison will be published Oct. 12.