This Minnesota race will show the power of abortion crime

WAYZATA, Minn. – Here in light blue Minnesota, where I am traveling this week, there is a race that offers a pure test of which issue is likely to be more politically decisive: abortion rights or crime.

Keith Ellison, the incumbent attorney general and Democrat, insists his re-election bid will hinge on abortion, which remains legal in Minnesota.

But his Republican challenger, Jim Schultz, says the contest is about public safety and what he claims are “extreme” policies Ellison endorsed after the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — the consequences with which Minnesota still struggling.

Schultz, a lawyer and first-time candidate, said in an interview that watching Floyd’s death below the knee of Derek Chauvin, a police officer who was later convicted of murder, made him “physically ill.” He added that Ellison’s lawsuit against Chauvin was “appropriate” and that he supported a ban on the use of chokeholds and what he called “warrior-style police training.”

But Schultz, a 36-year-old Harvard Law School graduate who most recently worked as in-house counsel for an investment firm, was scathing in his assessment of Ellison, portraying himself as the opponent of common sense to what he called a “crazy anti-police ideology”.

He decided to run against Ellison, he said, because he thought it was “immoral to enact policies that led to increased crime in at-risk communities.”

Ellison fired back, accusing Schultz of misrepresenting the attorney general’s job, which has traditionally focused on consumer protection. County prosecutors, he said in an interview, were primarily responsible for crimes under Minnesota law – but he noted that his office had prosecuted nearly 50 people for violent crimes and had always helped the counties when asked.

“He’s trying to demagogue crime, like Willie Horton,” Ellison said, referring to a black man who was used in a notorious attack ad in the 1988 presidential election, widely seen as a racist fear campaign. Schultz’s plans, he warned, would “tear down” the attorney general’s office and undermine his work on “corporate accountability.”

“He never tried a case or walked into a courtroom in his life,” Ellison added.

An upset victory for Schultz would reverberate: He would be the first Republican to win a statewide office since Tim Pawlenty was re-elected governor in 2006.

Ellison, 59, served six terms in Congress and became vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Before leaving Washington and winning his current job in 2018 — by just four percentage points — he was a rising star on the party’s progressive wing.

As one of the most prominent Democratic attorneys general of the Trump era, he sued oil companies for what he called a “campaign of deception” on climate change and sued pharmaceutical companies for promoting opioids.

But the politics of crime and criminal justice have changed since Floyd’s murder, and not necessarily to Ellison’s advantage. In a recent poll of Minnesota voters, 20% said crime was the most important problem facing the state, above even inflation.

Democrats would rather talk about Schultz’s views on abortion. They point to her former position on the board of the Human Life Alliance, a conservative group that opposes abortion rights and falsely suggests that abortion can increase the risk of breast cancer, as evidence that its real program is “an attempt to annihilate abortion”. access until it can be banned outright,” as Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic Party, put it. Democratic agents told me that during their forays into the door-to-door, abortion was the topic of most voter concern, even among independent and moderate voters.

So Ellison spoke about his plans to advocate for abortion rights and warned that Schultz would do the opposite.

“We will fight extradition if they’re from another state, and we’ll go to court to defend people’s right to travel and do what’s legal to do in the state of Minnesota,” Ellison said. during a recent campaign stop. Schultz, he argued, “will use the office to interfere with and undermine people’s right to make their own reproductive health choices.”

Schultz denies having an aggressive anti-abortion agenda. Although he called himself “pro-life” and described himself as a “person of faith” – he is a practicing Catholic – he told me that he “didn’t start there- in to carry out an abortion policy”. Abortion, he said, was a “peripheral issue” for the attorney general’s office he hopes to lead, and he pointed out that the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the practice legal in 1995.

Historically, the Minnesota Attorney General’s office has focused on consumer protection, leaving most criminal cases to local or federal prosecutors.

But none of that, Schultz insisted, is “written in stone.” Rising crime in Minneapolis, he said, was a “man-made disaster” that could be reversed with the right policies.

Ellison countered that Schultz “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” and cited four laws that should be changed to shift the focus of the attorney general’s office from consumer protection to crime.

Schultz acknowledged his lack of courtroom experience, but said he would hire aggressive criminal prosecutors if he won. He promises to bolster the Attorney General’s Criminal Division from its current staff of three lawyers to up to three dozen and to use organized crime laws to prosecute “carjacking gangs.”

It has been endorsed by sheriffs and police unions across the state, many of whom are critical of Ellison’s adoption of a plan to overhaul the Minneapolis Police Department, which has collapsed in acrimony. Had it passed, the city would have renamed the police the Department of Public Safety and reallocated some of its budget to other uses.

Ellison, who lives in Minneapolis and whose son is a progressive city council member, seems to recognize his political danger. But what he called Schultz’s “obsessive” focus on crime clearly frustrates him.

“He doesn’t really care about crime,” Ellison said at one point.

He also defended his support for police overhaul in Minneapolis as necessary to create space for meaningful change and challenged me to find an example of his call to “defund the police” — “he doesn’t there are none,” he said. And he noted that he supported the governor’s budget, which included additional funds for policing.

Minnesota Democrats insist the crime problem is overblown — and murders, robberies, sex crimes and gun violence are down since last year. But according to official figures from the city of Minneapolis, other crimes are on the rise: assaults, burglaries, vandalism, auto thefts and carjacking.

And it’s hard, traveling to the area where Floyd’s killing took place, to avoid feeling like Minneapolis is still reeling from the unrest of 2020. But there’s little agreement on who’s to blame. .

Boarded up storefronts dot Uptown, a shopping area where merchants told me the combination of the pandemic and the 2020 riots, which reached the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, Hennepin Avenue, drove customers away.

A few miles away, on a freezing Tuesday morning, I visited George Floyd Square, as the corner where he was killed is known. Iron sculptures in the shape of fists mark the four entrances to the intersection, which is covered in street art and shows lingering signs of the eruption of anger following Floyd’s killing.

A burned down and tagged former Speedway gas station is now hosting a long list of demands from the community, including an end to qualified immunity for police officers, which Schultz opposes. At a nearby independent cafe, the owner showed me a photo he had taken with Ellison – the only Democratic politician, he said, to visit in recent months.

I was intercepted in the square by Marquise Bowie, a former criminal and community activist who became her self-proclaimed tour guide. Bowie leads a group called the George Floyd Global Memorial, and he invited me on a solemn ‘pilgrimage’ to the site – stopping in front of murals depicting civil rights heroes of the past, the hallowed spot of asphalt where Floyd took his last breath and a neighbor field fake headstones bearing the names of victims of police brutality.

Bowie, who said he did not support defunding the police, complained that law enforcement had failed the community. Little had changed since Floyd’s death, he said. And he admitted to wondering, as he intercepted two women who were visiting from Chicago, why so many people wanted to see the site but offered little in return.

“What’s the point of taking a selfie at a place where a man has died?” he asked me. “This community struggles with drug addiction, homelessness, poverty. They need help.”

Thank you for reading On Politics and for subscribing to The New York Times. — Blake

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