With one hand on a Qur’an, Keith Ellison ushered in a new era Monday for the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, promising to use his new role as “the People’s Lawyer” as a vehicle that will take the office’s reach to every corner of the state.
“Minnesotans deserve an Attorney General’s Office where they can count on fair treatment and equal justice,” Ellison said during his inaugural address inside the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. “And they won’t just come to us — we will go to them. There is no town, no county too small or too far from the metro that my office will not do everything it can to help.”
For the first time in more than a decade, Minnesota has a new chief legal officer as Ellison follows Lori Swanson, who departed following an unsuccessful bid for governor last year. Ellison, the state’s 30th Attorney General is also its first African-American and first Muslim to hold the office. Ellison was also the first Muslim elected to Congress, where he served six terms before capturing his first statewide office in November.
Ellison made an early vow to target prescription drug prices among his chief priorities and is also expected to play a prominent role alongside other Democratic state attorneys general who have used their offices to wage legal challenges to federal policies emanating from President Donald Trump’s administration.
Ellison led off his inaugural address with the story of a 26-year-old named Alex Smith, who died after he had to ration insulin that he could no longer afford. His job now, Ellison said, is “to help Minnesotans like Alex afford their lives and live with dignity and respect,” Ellison said.
Since emerging from a bitterly contested race for the office last year, Ellison has engaged in three “listening sessions” in Duluth, Albert Lea and north Minneapolis, where he outlined plans to assist smaller county attorneys’ offices with complex criminal prosecutions and appeals while remaining a leading presence in criminal justice reform efforts. Ellison said recently that he wants to stage a future listening session inside the walls of a Minnesota prison.
Ahead of Monday’s ceremony, Ellison picked U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, Minnesota’s first black federal judge, to administer the oath of office.
“It’s a first and I’m sure it won’t be the last and that’s what’s important,” Davis said Monday of Ellison again making history. “I was the first African-American federal judge and we haven’t stopped there. It’s great to see that constitutional officers can be elected statewide from all races and religions.”
Ellison is also walking away from a national leadership role as as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. DNC Party Chair Tom Perez attended Monday’s inauguration upon Ellison’s invitation.
“I think one thing that the American people have learned in the era of Trump is how vitally important state attorneys general are to protecting everyday Americans,” Perez said after Monday’s ceremony. Of Ellison, Perez added: “I think his values are the precise values for the moment.”
Ellison has said he pursued the office because he viewed it as a place where he could enact change more effectively, and more quickly, than in Congress. In his address Monday, Ellison added that “our bulwark for protecting democracy is in our law and is in our Attorney General’s office.”
Simon, Blaha also take oaths
Also Monday, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon was sworn into a second term behind a pledge to further protect election security and to make it easier for eligible Minnesotans to vote. Simon drew a boisterous standing ovation when he repeated his call for restoring voting rights to felons.
“When it comes to our democracy, we cannot sit still. We should be restless about our democracy — especially today,” Simon said.
New State Auditor Julie Blaha, a former math teacher and union leader, followed Simon and elicited some laughs when she described her joy at already plowing through volumes of financial documents in preparation for taking office. Blaha replaces former Auditor Rebecca Otto, who also served more than a decade in office before coming up short in pursuit of the DFL Party’s gubernatorial nomination last year.
Blaha punctuated her opening address with a pledge to public officials across the state that her office would “be there for the public as an unbiased and thorough auditor of $20 billion in taxpayer money spent at the local level every year.”
“Our office may give its seal of approval, it may find a problem,” Blaha said. “But I’ll tell you this: you will be able to trust our work. You will know where you stand.”