Republican challenger Jim Schultz said his top priority as attorney general will be “crime, crime, and crime” during the first attorney general’s debate, saying his opponent will be remembered for backing one of the most “reckless” policies in Minnesota history.
MPR’s Mike Mulcahy moderated the first debate between Schultz and Democrat incumbent Keith Ellison, which was held Friday afternoon. The debate, which lasted an hour, highlighted the stark contrast between the candidates and how they view the role of attorney general.
Schultz said Minnesotans should elect him over the incumbent because Ellison backed abolishing the Minneapolis Police Department, demonstrated remarkable incompetence in preventing the Feeding Our Future fraud, and was dishonest about both topics.
“I stepped into this race because I feel, as I feel many Minnesotans feel, that we are losing the state we have known and loved,” Schultz said.
Ellison’s opening statement focused on celebrating his accomplishments over the last four years and highlighted the challenges he faced during that time, including the pandemic and the George Floyd riots.
“We’ve come through it. People have stepped up. They’ve looked out for each other. They’ve helped each other, and, yeah, we’ve had some tough times. But we got through it together as Minnesotans,” Ellison said.
Both candidates agreed crime is a serious matter. However, the contrast came in their approaches to dealing with the issue. Ellison said he will “bring civil tools to bring forth law and order in our community, including dealing with nuisance properties and dealing with gun trafficking.”
Crime has been a key issue to Schultz’s campaign as violence has exploded in the state.
“In the midst of that [crime], we have an attorney general who backed defunding the police. There are few acts in Minnesota’s history as reckless and wrong as that,” Schultz said.
Schultz explained that under Ellison, the Attorney General’s Office has three prosecutors in its criminal division. Schultz said he will rebuild the criminal division and ensure nonprofits and businesses that commit fraud are held accountable.
“Right now, we don’t have an Attorney General’s Office doing that,” Schultz said.
Ellison said under Minnesota law, the main job of his office is to be the chief legal officer for the state, not the chief law enforcement officer.
“County attorneys are responsible for prosecuting local crime. They have the responsibility and obligation to call on us, and they do. We have not lost a single case,” he said, referring to the 50 criminal cases he’s prosecuted.
“Amidst the greatest increase in violent crime in Minnesota history?” Schultz rebutted. “Your solution to violent crime in Minnesota is suing Fleet Farm.”
Schultz frequently called out Ellison for his defund-the-police stance. Ellison backed a controversial Minneapolis charter amendment last year that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a loosely-defined “department of public safety.”
“Minneapolis has had its unique challenges and most people will agree it is a good idea to expand how we do policing to include mental health responders, people who can help with the homeless folks, people who can get involved with gang violence prevention, and that is what Minneapolis has in fact done. I’ve been in touch with leaders and law enforcement in Minneapolis and they’re telling me things are not where they want them to be, but they’re getting better every day,” Ellison responded.
“Everyone knows that the Minneapolis charter amendment was focused on defunding and deconstructing the Minneapolis police force,” Schultz fired back.
He also highlighted how Ellison has expressed support for abolishing cash bail.
Schultz disagreed that the AG’s role isn’t prosecuting local crime. He cited how he would use RICO statutes to go after the most violent offenders. He said the AG has those tools at his disposal, but Ellison just hasn’t used them.
Mulcahy asked Ellison why his office did not appeal a case that removed almost all restrictions on abortion in Minnesota.
Ellison said he was briefed on the issue thoroughly and the “chances of success were minimal,” while the cost of an appeal would not have been in the best interest of Minnesotans.
“The fact is the attorney general has very little influence on the abortion policy in Minnesota,” Schultz added.
Feeding Our Future
Mulcahy closed the debate with questions about the Feeding Our Future scandal. Schultz argued that Ellison did not use the tools available to him to stop the fraud, whereas Ellison championed the case as a success.
“This is a successful investigation and prosecution that was a collaboration between federal authorities and the state of Minnesota,” Ellison said.
Schultz noted the Attorney General’s Office represented the Department of Education when they first suspected the fraud, before alerting federal agencies.
“It would not have taken Sherlock Holmes to crack this case,” Schultz said. “This was not a significant case to handle and unfortunately the Attorney General’s Office, for some reason — maybe it was the campaign contributions, Keith, that you received from Feeding Our Future, maybe it was something else — but you didn’t pursue it.”
The candidates will face off in three more debates between now and Election Day.