The setting may have been familiar, but the role was far different for state Attorney General-elect Keith Ellison.
Inside the north Minneapolis community center that has long been home to his congressional campaign office, Ellison was seated on a recent evening before a packed room of lawmakers, community activists and constituents he represented for 12 years. He still had a microphone nearby but mainly was there to listen.
One woman held up an EpiPen and said what once cost her $13 is now more than $700. Multiple speakers railed against conditions at the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program. Several more described trying to get by with a felony on their record.
“In the past, I used to just get up here and say, ‘I’m for this, I’m against that.’ You all used to see me do what I do,” Ellison told the audience at one point. “As attorney general, I can’t just get up and say, ‘Yeah I’m going to sue them tomorrow! I’m going to sue the pants off them before 9 o’clock!’ ”
Ellison was speaking within the walls of the Minneapolis Urban League, selected for his third “listening session” since he won a statewide office for the first time last November. Held days before he is to be sworn in as Minnesota’s chief legal officer, the scene captured a stark transition underway for the strident progressive figure who vaulted to a national stage before pursuing an office unlike any he has ever held. Though he may be figuring out how to navigate the new role, Ellison does not expect to wield any less influence in an office increasingly being used in other states to challenge President Donald Trump’s policies.
“I’m a public advocate,” Ellison said in a recent interview, “but most of my talking is going to be through the cases that we select and the work that we do.”
‘A peculiar situation’
As a congressman with deep roots in progressive activism, Ellison did not shy away from confrontation. In 2013, he was among a group of demonstrators arrested by U.S. Capitol Police during an immigration rally on the National Mall. In 2017, he waged a campaign to lead the Democratic National Committee before being tapped for a deputy leadership role he will now relinquish.
But Ellison said he views the Attorney General’s Office as a place where he can have a greater impact on issues like immigration and consumer rights — and to produce quicker results — through litigation. His jump from Congress, though rare for Minnesota, is not without precedent: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was a longtime Ellison ally in Congress’ progressive caucus before becoming his state’s attorney general in 2017.
“You find yourself in a peculiar situation in many ways,” said Becerra, who has led dozens of suits against the Trump administration and remains close with Ellison. “You’re accustomed to trying to constantly try to improve things by coming up with unique policy ideas as they become laws. … Now as attorney general you work with the laws that are in effect.”
The recent moves of Becerra and Ellison from Congress to lead attorneys general offices has signaled to some a recognition that they may stand a better chance of success in effecting policy changes or challenging the Trump administration in the courts alongside like-minded state attorneys general.
“Although post-midterms Congress looks different, there is undoubtedly still going to be gridlock in D.C.,” said Sean Rankin, executive director of the Democratic Attorneys General Association.
As Minnesota’s attorney general, Lori Swanson was an early litigant in the initial federal suit challenging Trump’s 2017 travel ban, and she joined 19 other states in suing to continue an Obama order protecting immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
Yet while state attorneys general have increasingly collaborated on court challenges to federal policies, Swanson in an interview said leaning too heavily on that strategy would be “a dangerous path.”
“Almost any issue now that doesn’t get resolved through the executive or legislative branches is going to end up in the judicial branch, period,” Swanson said. “Every single hot-button issue, it ends up going to court, and it puts judges sometimes in kind of awkward or uncomfortable positions to referee.”
Ellison’s most vocal critics are keeping close watch.
Lt. Bob Kroll, leader of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, led a news conference late during the campaign urging voters to reject Ellison. He highlighted Ellison’s work as a Minneapolis defense attorney in the 1990s, when he represented the leader of a gang implicated in the slaying of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf.
But in a recent interview, Kroll expressed a hint of optimism.
“All we want him to do is give us a voice, give us a seat at the table, consult with our local and state leadership in law enforcement when it comes to law enforcement-specific issues,” Kroll said. “It’s time to accept what you’ve got and move forward and work.”
Ellison opponents predicted during the campaign that he would transform the office to focus too much on challenging the Trump administration. Ellison has resisted the suggestion that his team of lawyers will be “going after anybody,” though he left open the possibility that he would join or file new suits challenging Trump when appropriate.
“He’s the one who is openly promoting discrimination, he’s the one who is openly relaxing protections for free and open internet, he’s the one who is making government less accessible to farmers and ranchers,” Ellison said. “He’s doing this stuff, we’re not doing it. So this thing about ‘are you going to go after Trump’ presumes that there is some vendetta being pursued when there’s not.”
Ellison recently named Minneapolis immigration attorney John Keller, a vocal critic of Trump’s immigration policies, to be his chief deputy. But it was Keller’s background representing people whom Ellison described as most vulnerable to fraud and discrimination that uniquely tailored Keller for a job that didn’t exist under Swanson, Ellison said.
“Personnel is policy,” Ellison said.
Back where it started
At the outset, Ellison said his early priorities include tackling drug prices, wage disparities, rural issues and making sure the Women’s Economic Security Act is enforced. He also said he planned to continue outreach across the state with more listening sessions. At the recent north Minneapolis event, Ellison told the crowd he wanted to stage a similar gathering inside a Minnesota prison.
Sarah Walker, a longtime criminal justice advocate and co-chair of Ellison’s transition team, said Ellison’s north Minneapolis session was a “reminder that he’s not someone who takes a statewide office and forgets where he came from.”
It was also, she said, the first time Walker recalled seeing an attorney general or attorney general-elect visit that community. Yet those attending saw flashes of the Ellison of old, his voice booming into a familiar cadence still capable of drawing an outburst from the crowd.
“So if you want America to be fairer, greener, safer, more equal, more inclusive ...” Ellison said at one point.
“Organize!” someone shouted.
“You’ve got to organize and fight,” he said, laughing. “There’s no other way around it. We get mad at politicians because they don’t deliver the world we want, but we sometimes don’t recognize our responsibility and role and power in getting it done.”
With that, an assistant interrupted, holding a stack of papers to note that there were still 31 more people ready to speak.
“Oh! Let me shut up,” Ellison said. “Too much talking from the politician.”