Two flawed candidates are vying to be Minnesota’s next attorney general. The Star Tribune Editorial Board cannot recommend either Republican Doug Wardlow or DFLer Keith Ellison, both of whom are too partisan to hold a statewide office wielding immense power and in which the public’s trust is so vital to its mission.
It’s deeply frustrating to withhold endorsement in a statewide race that’s this critical. For almost 20 years, the office has been led by DFLer Mike Hatch or his former deputy Lori Swanson, who became the first woman to hold the post in 2006. She was re-elected in 2010 and 2014.
Swanson’s sudden decision to run for governor created a once-in-a-—generation opportunity for fresh leadership and a chance to rebuild an office tarnished by allegations that employees were pressured to do campaign work. For guidance on the qualities a new state attorney general needs, the Editorial Board talked at length with the two candidates as well as with a sampling of Minnesotans served by the office, several with experience working in it and experts who have served as AGs in other states.
The consensus: Minnesota is not well-served by electing a candidate who sees the office as a path to pursue a partisan political agenda. Instead, what’s needed are:
• Good judgment and management experience to lead what essentially is a large public law firm.
• A focus on making the Minnesota AG’s office once again a magnet for the nation’s best young legal talent.
• Professionalism handling core responsibilities such as advising state agencies on the hundreds of legal decisions faced daily.
• A commitment to justice for all Minnesotans.
Each candidate’s partisan past raises serious doubts about his ability to meet these thoughtful criteria. Assurances from both that they will keep ideology out of the office simply aren’t convincing. Wardlow has served as counsel for a controversial conservative religious group. Ellison, a six-term U.S. House representative, remains in a national Democratic Party leadership role and scores poorly on a congressional bipartisanship index.
Minnesota voters face a difficult choice. A closer look at the Editorial Board’s evaluations can help inform that decision.
Wardlow, 40, is an Eagan native and a graduate of Georgetown University Law School. He served one term in the Minnesota House before being defeated in 2012. He worked for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a group dubbed a “hate group” for its work to thwart gay civil rights, before leaving to launch his campaign.
Wardlow has vowed to be apolitical if elected AG, but his ADF work sows doubts about his commitment to justice for all, which should be a bedrock principle. Recent allegations that Wardlow bullied a high school classmate for being gay and mocked his suicide attempt — both of which Wardlow has denied — nevertheless add to concerns about this.
Wardlow’s recent promise at a fundraiser to fire 42 Democratic attorneys currently working in the office — also did not inspire confidence about being apolitical. Experts say a purge like that would not be normal and would drive away talent the office needs. Wardlow has made criminal justice a priority. He has little experience in the area, and it shows in his narrow, lock-them-up approach. Ensuring enough halfway houses, for example, or working with employers to encourage them to hire ex-cons are tasks that fall under “criminal justice,” too. It’s unclear if Wardlow understands this or wants to engage in that broader work.
Ellison, 54, is an experienced lawyer and legislator, having served in the Minnesota House before his 2006 election to Congress. He championed commendable consumer protections in the U.S. House, but his intent to pursue a broader economic-justice agenda as attorney general is at odds with the focus needed on the office’s core responsibilities.
Ellison’s commitment to justice for all is not in doubt, but his personal judgment is. His history with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam remains controversial even though Ellison has long since renounced the group’s anti-Semitic views. His previous support for gang members and fugitive Kathleen Soliah create further doubts and would make it challenging to build a strong relationship with law enforcement.
The fallout from two of Ellison’s personal relationships is also concerning. In 2006, a woman accused Ellison of verbal abuse, but he previously had obtained a restraining order against her. More recently, former girlfriend Karen Monahan says Ellison emotionally abused her and pulled her off a bed. Those allegations were unsubstantiated by a detailed outside review, but further investigation by law enforcement is necessary.
The Editorial Board contacted Monahan, but she would only refer back to statements she had already made. Ellison, to his credit, has not responded angrily to Monahan, but the instability in his personal life is a liability, and questions raised by Monahan’s allegations continue to hang over his candidacy.
The “least-bad” choice facing voters, along with the Editorial Board’s lack of endorsement, should spur introspection by both political parties as a major transition looms in the Attorney General’s Office.
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The Editorial Board makes endorsements when it feels candidates have earned its stamp of approval, regardless of political affiliation. News reporters and editors are not involved in the endorsement process. As always, we urge Minnesotans to do their own research before casting their votes.