In their final scheduled debate, Minnesota’s attorney general candidates hurled charges of extremism at each other—apparently trying to sell voters on whom should be trusted least.
In a tightly focused debate performance Sunday night, the relatively unknown Republican hammered repeatedly on Ellison, a U.S. congressman and deputy Democratic National Committee chair.
He repeatedly called Ellison a “cheerleader for cop killers” and an acolyte of anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan who would push “a radical agenda” through the courts.
The Republican repeatedly assured viewers that, in contrast to Ellison, he would push no legislative or policy agenda and would concentrate on upholding the law and constitution as the “the state’s top law enforcement officer.”
Yet he also promised to use the office to roll back state agency “over-regulation” in areas like mining and child care, policies he said create problems for “job creators.” Pro-business de-regulation is a perennial conservative policy agenda item.
Ellison, meanwhile, painted himself as a staunch human rights advocate who wants to help Minnesotans “afford their lives,” for example by pressuring pharmaceutical companies to lower prices of life-preserving insulin, heart medication and cancer drugs.
Ellison blasted Wardlow for telling supporters in statements captured on tape that he would support President Donald Trump’s agenda, politically purge 42 DFL attorneys from the AG’s office and use the office to “change the complexion of the state” in ways that could help elect Republicans.
“This has been the cornerstone of Mr. Wardlow’s campaign—that he is apolitical,” Ellison said. “And yet he says he is going to do a political purge. Listen to it for yourself.”
“I never said anything about doing a political purge,” Wardlow said. “The fact of the matter is, in those same comments, I said I am fighting for this office—not for the Republican Party.”
Ellison also criticized Wardlow’s work as an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has litigated cases—sometimes with Wardlow in the lead chair—that critics see as legal attempts to curtail LGBTQ rights.
The DFLer noted that the Alliance successfully defended the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices there ruled 7-2 that state officials’ decision forcing a business to serve a gay couple showed “hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint.”
“If I am attorney general, you will be able to walk into any establishment in the state of Minnesota and get the human rights that everybody should enjoy,” Ellison said.
Ellison acknowledged he would work with lawmakers to craft bills that strengthen Minnesota law. That is a normal role for the office, he said.
He also insisted that Wardlow has his own policy agenda, but is trying to keep it hidden. “He just doesn’t want to say what it is,” Ellison said. “And I think it’s fair for the people to know.”
In an interview Monday, the state’s former chief Deputy Attorney General Richard Allyn—who worked under both Skip Humphrey and Warren Spannaus—said he finds Wardlow’s stance toward legislation odd.
“Every attorney general—Republican or otherwise—that I know about had ideas that they went to the Legislature with, to try and improve areas of life in Minnesota,” said Allyn.
‘“I’m puzzled about why Mr. Wardlow might think that isn’t appropriate,” he said.
The Ellison-Wardlow debate was one of three held at St. Paul’s Metropolitan State University on Sunday. U.S. Senate candidate Karin Housley, R- St. Marys Point, was interviewed alone because incumbent DFL U.S. Sen. Tina Smith turned down an invitation to appear, citing scheduling conflicts.
The debates, aired live on KSTP-TV, also included DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar sparring with her opponent, state Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker. Gubernatorial hopefuls Tim Walz, a Democrat, and Jeff Johnson, a Republican, also squared off.
But like a heavyweight boxing match saved for the end of a title card, the attorney general’s debate came last—at 9 p.m.—and featured the heaviest fireworks. The duo debated immigration, the Second Amendment, pre-existing medical conditions, abortion rights and numerous other issues.
Wardlow said that if the Legislature ever passes more restrictive abortion laws, Ellison would refuse as AG to defend them—or any other laws that he disagrees with.
“You said that you wouldn’t defend, necessarily, laws you don’t agree or that you regard as not workable,” Wardlow said. “That’s unconscionable. The attorney general is supposed to protect the law.”
With respect to abortion rights changes, Ellison did not disagree. “I think if they don’t comport with Roe [vs. Wade] and they are unconstitutional, you’d better believe I am not going to defend them,” Ellison said.
“Let’s just be honest, Mr. Wardlow, you don’t agree with that,” he added. “And you plan on attacking that particular constitutional guarantee.”
“No, I don’t,” Wardlow responded. “I am going to uphold the law and I am going to stand by the constitution.”
“We’ll see,” Ellison replied. “Based on your history, I doubt that.”
Wardlow repeatedly slammed Ellison for publicly defending Sharif Willis, whom Ellison formerly represented as an attorney, as well as Assata Shakur and Sara Jane Olson, all in public statements. Each was either accused of planning or participating in actual or attempted police killings.
Ellison said it is not wrong to speak out for someone who has not been convicted. “If there is somebody accused of something, before they are convicted, they have the presumption of innocence,” he said. “I will not apologize for believing that.”
Over the course of the hour-long debate, Wardlow repeatedly returned to jabbing at Ellison over Farrakhan. Ellison has struggled for decades to shrug off the association, which Ellison says was limited to his participation in 1995 Million Man March on Washington, D.C., which featured a Farrakhan keynote speech.
“There was a time, you know, when I thought he had some things to say,” Ellison said. “That was over 23 years ago, that it became clear to me that his value system and mine were not compatible. “
But Wardlow intimated that their relationship continues. “He has been associated with Louis Farrakhan for quite a long time,” Wardlow said in his closing statement.
Steve Schier, a Carleton College professor, said there was no clear winner in Sunday’s AG debate. But Wardlow’s strong performance as a relative unknown might shade the public’s reaction in his favor, Schier said.
“Usually, it’s the least-known candidate who gets the biggest advantage from a debate and in this case it would be Wardlow,” Schier said. On the other hand, Schier said, “I don’t think that either candidate blew it in any major way.”
Wardlow, a one-term former GOP state legislator, succeeded in presenting himself as a viable alternative to Ellison, the professor said.
Their debate took place just days before an Oct. 23 Star Tribune/Minnesota Public Radio poll showed Wardlow with a 7-point advantage over Ellison, a dramatic turnaround from September when Ellison had a slim advantage.
The latest poll surveyed 800 likely voters between Oct. 15 and Oct. 17 and shows Wardlow ahead 43-36 percent.
The survey stopped the same day that Ellison’s divorce records were released and before the debate was aired. The survey time frame coincides with the Oct. 15 move by Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidate Noah M. Johnson to leave the race and throw his support behind Ellison.
The poll showed 16 percent of voters undecided and 5 percent backing Johnson. It is not known how many of Johnson’s supporters have voted early, preventing them from switching support to Ellison.
With two weeks left to go, Schier said, there is time for Ellison to recover his footing. But signs at the moment aren’t favorable to the Democrat, he said.
“I think there is time,” Schier said. “But he is better known than his opponent and he is sitting at 36 percent. I mean, who wants be there?”