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Flanked by supporters, DFL attorney general candidate Keith Ellison (center) fields a question from a reporter Monday. Also pictured are Ramsey County Attorney John Choi (left), former St. Paul City Attorney Sam Clark (behind Ellison) and Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, a Ramsey County prosecutor. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Flanked by supporters, DFL attorney general candidate Keith Ellison (center) fields a question from a reporter Monday. Also pictured are Ramsey County Attorney John Choi (left), former St. Paul City Attorney Sam Clark (behind Ellison) and Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, a Ramsey County prosecutor. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Ellison pledges civil service protections; Wardlow backers blast DFLer

A group of GOP lawmakers, including Senate Judiciary Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, spoke with the press Monday to warn voters about what they see as the risks of electing Keith Ellison attorney general. Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, looks on at left. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

A group of GOP lawmakers, including Senate Judiciary Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, spoke with the press Monday to warn voters about what they see as the risks of electing Keith Ellison attorney general. Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, looks on at left. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Keith Ellison said Monday that his first legislative priority if elected attorney general would be to push for civil service protections inside the office.

His pledge was prompted by GOP candidate Doug Wardlow’s promise at a campaign fundraiser to fire 42 DFL attorneys and replace them with Republicans. Ellison said the move would protect assistant attorneys general from politically motivated firings.

“I’m saying I don’t care what people’s party affiliation is,” Ellison said. “I care whether they have passion for serving Minnesotans.”

Meanwhile, in a competing press conference that wrapped barely half an hour earlier, four GOP lawmakers urged voters to pick their guy. Their critiques of Ellison included everything from his relative lack of toughness on crime to what one lawmaker termed Ellison’s vocal support for cop killers.

Ellison spoke Monday in St. Paul’s State Office Building, flanked by three supporters — Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, former St. Paul City Attorney Sam Clark and Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, a Ramsey County prosecutor. Pinto said he would carry a civil service protections bill next year.

Civil service protections do not prevent firings, but can make them harder and take much longer — sometimes up to two years — to accomplish.

Clark, who worked as city attorney under former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, said the city has strong civil service protections. He said that while he had to fire a few employees during his tenure, it was never done on the basis of political partisanship.

“My jaw hit the floor when I saw Doug Wardlow’s quote pledging a partisan purge in the office,” Clark said. “It suggested to me that he may not even understand the main purpose of being an assistant attorney general.”

Pinto said that the Ramsey County attorney’s office has the same civil service protections that would be introduce in his bill. He said both Democrats and Republicans work alongside him in that office, but “we don’t talk about it.”

“It certainly doesn’t get up brought up by the office by management; it’s not relevant to our jobs,” Pinto said.

Asked if introducing civil service protections would inexorably lead to unionization and collective bargaining, Ellison said they are separate questions. But he said he would support unionization efforts, should they arise.

“I support the right of union workers to organize if they want to,” Ellison said. “I certainly won’t stand in the way to stand in the way of that.”

Not long into her first term, incumbent Attorney General Lori Swanson staunchly opposed efforts to unionize her office, saying that state law prohibited formation of a union of assistant attorneys general. A year and a half into her term, more than 25 percent of the attorneys present when she arrived were gone. At the time, she attributed those losses to her tough-boss approach.

Ellison said his proposal also would narrow the number of political appointees in his office “to a handful of people.”

“Most all of the attorneys there who are actually working on behalf of the people of the state, representing agencies and doing that kind of work, would gain the protection,” he said.

Employment attorney Marshall Tanick, speaking by phone Monday, said it’s far from inevitable that civil service protections would lead to unionization. Sometimes introducing civil service protections moots the drive for unionization, he said.

”But I don’t think one precludes the other,” Tanick said. “It could be that civil service protection and unionization both proceed on parallel paths.”

Republican critique

Across the street in the Capitol’s press conference room, GOP lawmakers gathered to spell out their problems with Ellison.

Sen. Andrew Matthews, R-Milaca, said that as a Minnesota House member in 2004, Ellison expressed a preference for being “smart on crime, not necessarily tough on crime.” That led Ellison to oppose a bill imposing life sentences on violent sex offenders, according to Matthews.

In Congress, Ellison opposed another bill to bar sex offenders from working as teachers, arguing it was an unwarranted bar to employment, according to Matthews. “Those are very troubling issues and concerns,” Matthews said.

Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. He said he worries that Ellison would determine whether state laws are constitutional and enforceable before deciding whether to defend them.

“His job as an attorney general is to enforce the law that is being created by the Minnesota Legislature and signed into law by a governor,” Limmer said. “The attorney general’s office is an administrative job, not a representative one.”

Asked about that after his own press conference, Ellison said he would apply the rational basis test to legislation signed into law. That test is the lowest bar for constitutional scrutiny. “It’s the baseline over which all laws must pass,” Ellison said.

However, he said, if the Legislature should overturn Minnesotans’ abortion rights or limit any other existing and constitutionally guaranteed rights, he would regard those laws as unconstitutional.

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, the chair of the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee, revived old allegations that Ellison failed between 1992 and 2000 to pay federal and state taxes, leading to liens and fines. His former wife, Kim, took the blame for the bookkeeping errors, attributing them to memory loss associated with her multiple sclerosis.

Scott clearly is not sold on that. “His history of mismanaging his tax obligations raises serious questions about ability to manage a large and complex office like that of the AG, which has $37 million annual budget,” she said.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, hit hardest. He repeated Wardlow’s campaign theme that Ellison defends cop killers. Zerwas batted down Ellison’s explanation that he has spoken out only in favor of defendants not yet been convicted.

When Ellison offered a public prayer in 2000 that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro not extradite Assata Shakur to the United States, Zerwas said, she had already been convicted of murdering a New Jersey police officer. She fled to Cuba after escaping prison.

Zerwas noted that Ellison also publicly praised and helped raise money for St. Paul’s Sara Jane Olson. That was before she was convicted, in 2002, for a failed 1970s attempt to kill a California police officer with explosives.

Zerwas, a member of the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee and son of a former police chief, said Ellison has promised supporters to take police-involved shooting investigations out of local authorities’ and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s hands.

Zerwas said he has spoken with many law enforcement officers about Ellison’s prospects. Many find the Democrat frightening, Zerwas said.

“I think someone who has that mindset really does scare law enforcement officers across the state,” Zerwas said. “Especially if that individual was going to pick up the mantel and say that they are the sole arbiter of officer-involved shootings.”

Ellison denied Monday that he would usurp local authority in police shooting cases.

“I think it is something that the attorney should be a partner in,” Ellison said. “But I believe this is a highly complicated issue and I trust the leadership of our county attorneys.”

Wardlow, facing new scrutiny after a recent St. Paul Pioneer Press report suggesting that Wardlow bullied and harassed a gay classmate in high school, was campaigning in northern Minnesota Monday. He did not appear at the GOP press conference.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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