Five seek DFL nomination for Minnesota attorney general
ST. PAUL—With less than a week to go, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor primary race for Minnesota's attorney general remains crowded. And the question remains: Can any of the candidates beat the instantly recognizable Keith Ellison's name recognition?
While some argue that that name recognition could actually hurt Ellison, the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee who's been evoked by President Donald Trump at rallies and remains a favored punching bag on conservative blogs, no Democratic candidate has gone full negative.
"It all depends who turns out," said candidate Debra Hilstrom.
Ellison maintains that he's a getting strong reception whether campaigning in the metro area or in rural areas that traditionally vote more conservative, and at a higher rate.
"I've been well-received in greater Minnesota. I've spent most of my time (campaigning) there," Ellison said.
Still, some see recent national stories about Ellison damaging him in the general election.
"He does have good name ID, but I think it cuts both ways," said candidate Tom Foley. "If he wins the primary, that is the big question, and whether he is a drag on the whole DFL ticket. ... And the Louis Farrakhan stuff has never been fully answered."
The "Farrakhan stuff" refers to any relationship between Ellison and Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. As a law student, Ellison publicly defended Farrakhan, but he publicly renounced the National of Islam in 2006 when he first ran for Congress.
Farrakhan recently said Ellison met privately with him in a Washington, D.C., hotel suite in 2016; Ellison denied this happened in a recent interview on CNN, saying, "I was in no such meeting."
More recently in Minnesota, Ellison was seen wearing a T-shirt during Minneapolis' May Day parade saying "Yo no creo en fronteras," which translates to "I don't believe in borders."
Several news outlets picked up the story.
When asked what he meant by wearing the T-shirt, Ellison said, "I went to a concert for a group called Las Cafeteras. I think they're a good band, they got a great beat and they're good. And I got a T-shirt. It was not a political statement, it was clothing."
But he added, "We have to remember that we signed a 1951 treaty for asylees and refugees that we have to abide by. ... I think the Trump administration is abrogating that treaty. And I am concerned about that."
For the most part, the Democratic candidates touted their own positions rather than go after Ellison. Each spoke in similar ways about the need to protect health care and the environment from any erosion at the federal level; to get serious about prosecuting senior abuse; to address the opioid crisis; to fight for consumer protections.
As the state's Commerce commissioner since 2011, Mike Rothman, 56, of Minnetonka, does talk quite a bit about consumer protection — his job until he stepped down in November to run.
But he unsurprisingly makes great effort to point out the gamut that "consumer protection" entailed.
"Everything from protecting senior citizens from financial abuse and exploitation to stopping predatory lending ... to making sure there wasn't fraud in the real estate market," Rothman said. "In the energy sector I ... advocated for the public to keep utility rates low, but also to build out the clean energy economy."
The current law, for example, places the "renewable energy standard" — the portion of total generation capacity from wind, solar or energy efficiency — at 25 percent by 2025. Rothman proposed doubling it to 50 percent by 2030.
He hopes to not only launch additional action against drug manufacturers for alleged deceptive marketing of opiates, but working closely with the health-care industry on addiction-recovery issues.
"The next big issue" for Rothman, he said, is tackling the high cost of prescription medicines, noting, "As commerce commissioner I oversaw the health insurance industry, understand it extremely well, very well."
Before becoming Commerce commissioner, Rothman was a long-time litigator at Winthrop & Weinstine in Minneapolis, focusing on financial service law.
After Attorney General Lori Swanson failed to get the necessary votes for a DFL endorsement to continue her job, and dropped out, her opponent, Minneapolis attorney Matt Pelikan, picked up the endorsement.
"They saw I was a fighter. ... People are tired with an establishment that has not been getting the results that they need in the economy and in their community," said Pelikan, 37, of Minneapolis.
When asked about top issues, Pelikan decried what he called the deterioration of the office — down to roughly 130 attorneys. Funding for the office has been cut by the Legislature since at least 2002.
And the big issue for him, he said, was "we have to invigorate the anti-trust division. ... Minnesota used to lead the nation. Anti-trust is a tool we can use to shift the balance of power to the working class," Pelikan said.
Pelikan also said he would "redouble our commitment to reproductive rights, protecting refugees, LGBTQ rights," and added that when it came to law enforcement, "Black Lives Matter and we have to combat bias in policing and prosecution."
He also said he will also oppose pipeline and mining proposals, like the PolyMet project in northeast Minnesota.
A longtime member and former chair of the Minnesota House's public safety committee, Debra Hilstrom, 50, of Brooklyn Center, spent a long time talking about the exploitation of the elderly and vulnerable adults.
"We're seeing more and more senior abuse. We're seeing more and more scams. Right now there's no regulation or licensing scheme for in-home health care at all," said Hilstrom, who — up until she decided to run for attorney general — was also an Anoka County prosecutor.
She touts the 17 felony elder-abuse cases still pending in her Anoka County office in January, the month she left to run for attorney general.
When it comes to health care, she said she would direct the attorney general's office to continue to fight against "price gouging" by pharmaceutical companies.
Hilstrom has garnered key endorsements, particularly in the law enforcement arena. The Police and Peace Officers Association and the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters both back her, along with some labor groups.
"I'm the only one in this race who's both passed the laws and defended them in the courtroom," she added.
"I've managed a large public law office in two large metropolitan jurisdictions. And that's essentially what the AG's office is," said Foley, 70, of St. Paul, who ran the Ramsey County attorney's office from 1979 to 1994, and took over the Washington County office for just a year in 1998 after the former county attorney died.
He's also had a slew of other public service jobs, from several years as deputy commissioner of Corrections to commissioner of the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
When talking priorities, Foley starts his conversation by saying the attorney general should get more engaged in school safety efforts.
"Whether I'm talking about firearms (to) bullying and suicides," he said, the attorney general's office should work more closely with the Legislature on those issues. When it comes to firearms, he said he was opposed to "assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and bump-stocks."
While at Ramsey County, he initiated one of the first family violence and child abuse units in the country. Currently, in his private practice, he's suing pharmaceutical companies on behalf of 30 Native American tribes and 20 rural hospitals and health care providers over allegedly deceptive marketing practices and unfair trade practices.
"Others are talking about it, I'm already doing that," Foley said.
Keith Ellison spends much of his time talking about better working conditions for Minnesotans.
He said the reason he decided to abandon a safe congressional seat is he felt he could achieve more as an attorney general than as a congressman, particularly one in the minority.
"Working conditions, pay. This economy is not working for a lot of working people," said Ellison, 55, of Minneapolis. "And by the way, small business owners are working people too; farmers are working people too. And we want to make sure that this economy is one in which everybody can thrive and grow."
Asked for specifics, Ellison noted that while in Congress, he offered amendments to appropriation bills saying no one would be eligible for federal contracts if they violated fair labor standards. At the state level, Ellison said he could work with the Department of Labor and Industry to achieve the same end.
For what he called "high-road" businesses, he said he was considering an annual recognition that such businesses could use to promote themselves to customers.
Ellison also said he would join other states in defending protections in the Affordable Care Act for pre-existing conditions. Just this week, Ellison put out a "family farm protection plan," which led with that position, on behalf of "Minnesota farmers who often face limited options on the individual market."
The plan also included using anti-trust law to fight too much corporate consolidation in farming.
Ellison, who has been a U.S. congressman since first elected in 2006, has garnered a number of endorsements, particularly from labor groups, including those representing communications workers, food and commercial workers, and the state chapter of the Laborers' International Union. Gov. Mark Dayton has also endorsed him.
The Trump effect
Finally, let's talk about President Trump. All the DFL Party candidates do.
Most started with the caveat that opposing Trump for opposition's sake wasn't the job of the attorney general — and attorneys general should focus on issues important to Minnesotans.
But each also quickly mentioned national policies that they would oppose, either by joining other states in lawsuits or working within the state system. All candidates said they would oppose the family separation of refugees, for instance.
"It would be nonfeasance not to stand up to Trump. Also have to keep the eye on the ball here in Minnesota," Pelikan said.
"I don't believe it should be a political post just for opposing the other political party. I frankly wish the post was more non-partisan," Foley said, but added he would challenge the feds "when appropriate."
When asked for specifics, Foley said, "Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, the little bit of the Affordable Care Act that's left."
Said Ellison, "I expect I probably will find myself in conflict with the Trump administration, but my goal is not to do that. My goal is to make sure people keep the money that they earn, and they're treated fairly in this society. And because Trump has been clearly on the side of the most powerful economic interests in our country, against working people, I'm probably going to get into it with the Trump administration."
When asked about national immigration policies, he added, "Everybody has to obey the law, even the federal government. ... I can tell you though is that a lot of people are concerned about them (ICE) operating within their legal framework.
Rothman touted the Commerce Department's recent opposition to several Trump administration orders, including the first immigration ban; cutting off state funding related to the Affordable Care Act; and halting of the implementation of energy-efficiency standards for appliance manufacturers.
Looking forward, he called the weakening of auto fuel economy standards at the national level "just unbelievable and outrageous," and said he planned to collaborate with other states to sue over the issue.
Hilstrom said, "Whether it's the Secretary of Education changing the rules on student loans or whether it's the changes that the President is making in all sorts of areas, you need to be prepared to stand up — whether that's a corporation or insurance company, or the President."