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Ellison campaign ad focuses on criminal prosecution

Incumbent Attorney General Keith Ellison's first major campaign ad focuses on his office's work prosecuting criminal cases.

MINNEAPOLIS — Attorney General Keith Ellison devoted his first major ad push in the 2022 election cycle to his office's work prosecuting crimes. 

The new ad is an effort to remind voters that the Attorney General's Office assists local prosecutors across Minnesota on complicated criminal cases.

Longtime Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman is the first face you see in the 30-second spot, telling viewers, "Prosecutors like me count on Keith Ellison."

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi can also be seen in the ad walking with Ellison. Both Freeman and Choi appeared with Ellison at the State Capitol at a press conference urging state lawmakers to boost the AG's criminal division budget, which would allow Ellison to hire more criminal lawyers.

Minnesota Attorneys General have typically made headlines with consumer protection actions and battles in civil court. Ellison has followed that tradition, going after drug makers for the opioid crisis, tobacco companies for marketing candy-flavored vaping pens, and a variety of deceptive sales scams.

But the AG's criminal unit has prosecuted 38 criminal cases in 22 different counties since 2019, despite having only three full-time prosecutors on staff.

The ad hit the airwaves a week after a group of county sheriffs endorsed Jim Schultz, Ellison's Republican challenger.  Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie appeared at a State Capitol press conference to throw their support to Schultz.

"This is truly historic, when you have such a broad swath of sheriffs from around the state endorse a candidate, endorse an attorney general candidate," Schultz told reporters.

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Fletcher, the most well-known of the 22 sheriffs who endorsed Schultz, faulted Ellison for supporting the unsuccessful Minneapolis ballot question that would've replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a Dept. of Public Safety. It would've removed the minimum police staffing level from the city charter.

"Keith supported a Charter Amendment to eliminate the Minneapolis Police Department," Fletcher told reporters, noting it was the first time he's ever endorsed a candidate in a statewide race.

"You can’t imagine the impact that would’ve had on the city of Minneapolis and all of us that go there."

Prosecution efforts

Ellison's office took the lead in the successful prosecutions of former officers Derek Chauvin and Kimberly Potter in 2021. While those were high-profile Twin Cities cases, most of the AG's criminal caseload is in smaller communities.

For example, the AG's criminal division handled the prosecution of Lois Riess, the Blooming Prairie woman who killed her husband and then fled to Florida, where she killed a woman and stole her identity.

On Sept. 19, the AG's criminal division won three attempted murder convictions in Freeborn County against Devin Weiland, who was charged with shooting Albert Lea police officer Kody Needham and two others in 2020.

"We've got to try to prevent crime, but we've got to hold people accountable after it happens and that does require some resources," Ellison told reporters while making a pitch in May to boost his budget.

His request for funding was lost in the shuffle because House Democrats and Senate Republicans deadlocked on most major spending measures, including the public safety bill. Schultz has pledged that, if elected, he will shift resources from the civil side to the criminal side rather than pressing lawmakers for more money.

Tight contest

In the most recent KARE/MPR/Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, taken Sept. 12 to 14, Ellison led Schultz by just one and a half points, which is less than the margin of error.

Schultz is a corporate lawyer who most recently served as counsel for Varde Partners, Inc., a global financial investment firm. He won the Republican endorsement in May and then defeated Doug Wardlow, the party’s 2018 candidate, in the August GOP primary.  

Ellison was a criminal defense lawyer prior to being elected to the Minnesota Legislature in 2002. In 2006 he was elected to the U.S. House where he served 12 years before being elected as attorney general in 2018.

The battle for the attorney general's office is playing out at a time when Republicans are blaming incumbent Democrats for the crime wave that has struck the Twin Cities and cities across the nation, beginning in the fall of 2019.

Ellison also alienated some Republicans for enforcing Gov. Tim Walz's emergency orders during the worst of the COVID pandemic, including orders for public-facing businesses to stop serving customers indoors.

In the wake of the Feeding Our Future child nutrition fraud scandal, Schultz and other Republicans are faulting Ellison for letting the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office steer the prosecution of that child nutrition charity.

Ellison says his office worked with the FBI to help build the case and deferred to the U.S. Attorney's Office to handle the prosecution because of that agency's expertise in financial crimes involving federal funds.

The $250 million allegedly diverted and stolen in that case was USDA grant money that was funneled through the Minnesota Dept. of Education. Ellison's staff represents state agencies in civil court, and as such represented MDE when that department was sued by Feeding Our Future for holding up applications for new sites.

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