MINNEAPOLIS — Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison defended his record on crime Friday against aggressive attacks from his Republican challenger, Jim Schultz, who charged that the state’s top prosecutor has failed in his duty to keep Minnesotans safe.
Ellison — a former congressman, state legislator and criminal defense attorney — countered that the 36-year-old Schultz, a hedge fund lawyer who has no courtroom experience, lacks the background needed to be Minnesota’s chief legal officer.
Crime, abortion rights and the Feeding Our Future scandal — a $250 million food program theft that has raised questions about whether state officials responded properly to it — dominated their spirited debate on Minnesota Public Radio, their first of four before the Nov. 8 election in what’s seen as a tight race. Here are some key takeaways:
Crime has been Schultz’s signature issue, and he renewed his claims that Ellison supports defunding the police, something Ellison has long denied.
“That is extraordinarily wrong, and it is reckless, and it has helped deliver extraordinary crime to our communities,” Schultz said.
While Ellison supported a Minneapolis charter amendment last year to replace the police department with a loosely defined department of public safety, which voters rejected, he insisted he never supported cutting funding for police. He said he even asked the Legislature for “millions of dollars” to fight crime but was thwarted by key Republicans.
“If I’m supposed to be this ‘defunder,’ I must be the worst one ever because I am seeking more resources for law enforcement,” Ellison said.
Schultz called Ellison’s response “complete lies” and added, “Everyone knows that the Minneapolis charter amendment was focused on defunding and deconstructing the Minneapolis police force.”
“Women and everyone in the state can count on me to stand up for their rights to have a safe, legal abortion. Full stop,” Ellison said. “They can count on me, if they come to our state and they have an abortion here, I will defend their right to travel here and to do what is legal here. If some other state tries to extradite someone, I will oppose that.”
Abortion remains legal in Minnesota. But Ellison reminded listeners that Schultz vowed to go on “offense, offense, offense” against abortion back when he was trying to win the GOP nomination. Schultz also served on the board of a “crisis pregnancy center” that Ellison alleged spreads misinformation as it counsels women against getting abortions.
Like many other Republicans, Schultz tried to avoid the issue. “I’m pro-life and I’m not ashamed of that,” he said before trying to pivot back to crime.
“Keith Ellison is using this as a distraction, a distraction to get away from his failed record,” Schultz said.
FEEDING OUR FUTURE
Schultz also accused Ellison of using abortion to distract from an alleged scheme that federal prosecutors say stole at least $250 million from a program to feed children during the pandemic. The nonprofit at the center was called Feeding Our Future. Nearly 50 people have been charged with federal crimes. But questions remain about what state officials including Ellison knew about the magnitude of the fraud, when they learned of it, and whether they could have stopped it earlier.
Schultz said Ellison should have used the power of his office before $250 million in taxpayer money went out the door. Federal authorities have recovered about $50 million so far.
Ellison hailed the investigation as a successful collaboration between state and federal authorities. He noted that three of the defendants have already pleaded guilty. He repeated assertions by him and Gov. Tim Walz’s administration that the FBI asked them not to stop the flow of money in order to protect the secrecy of the pending investigation.
“Because of the collaboration, we believe that this whole thing has been pulled out root and branch,” Ellison said.
Schultz accused Ellison of lying about his role. “The FBI does not tell victims of theft to send out $200 million to people we know to be thieves,” he said.
MISTAKE OF THE DAY
Schultz asked Ellison whether he knew the name of the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI office, which is overseeing the investigation. He didn’t give Ellison a chance to answer before naming the agent as Joseph Thompson. Schultz suggested that Ellison had failed the test and was “missing in action.” But Schultz failed his own test. Thompson is not the head of the FBI office; he’s a federal prosecutor on the case. The local special agent in charge is Michael Paul.