Attorney general hopefuls debate who is extreme

It was a brawl from start to finish in the only head-to-head debate between the two contenders for Minnesota attorney general.

During their KSTP TV debate Sunday night, Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and former GOP state Rep. Doug Wardlow repeatedly labeled the other as too extreme to be the top lawyer.

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Here were some key moments:

Role of the attorney general

Ellison and Wardlow had several intense exchanges over how active the attorney general should be in promoting or opposing changes to law.

Ellison said Minnesota’s attorney general should sound off on pressing matters before lawmakers, from health care to gun legislation.

Wardlow insisted that the job is limited to enforcing and defending enacted laws. He fell back on that position as an argument for withholding his personal view on broad marijuana legalization, labor laws and other topics.

“The job of the attorney general is not to weigh in and make laws. But Keith Ellison apparently thinks it is. If you wanted to make laws you should have stayed in Congress,” Wardlow told Ellison.

Ellison said it is “absurd” to argue the office remains on the sidelines at the Capitol during policy deliberations.

“This idea Mr. Wardlow doesn't have any views on anything is simply not the case,” Ellison said. “It is very clear he has a policy agenda. He just does not want to say what it is. And I think it’s fair for the people to know.”

Abuse allegations

Since August, Ellison has faced relentless questions over allegations he abused an ex-girlfriend a couple of years ago.

While Ellison has denied harming her, Wardlow has seized on it to raise doubts about Ellison’s character.

“This is absolutely a legitimate issue for the voters to consider,” Wardlow said.

Ellison said he has cooperated with an inquiry into the allegations. A law firm with connections to the DFL Party said the allegation couldn’t be substantiated.

“It is wrong to politicize a tragic situation like this and I think it is absolutely improper for this to become a political football and a weapon in this election,” Ellison said.

He said Republicans are holding him to a different standard than they did President Trump, who faced sexual harassment allegations during his presidential run.

“President Trump is not on the ballot here. Keith Ellison is and he wants to be our state’s top cop,” Wardlow said.

Who is more political

Wardlow sought to clarify comments he made at a private fundraiser about replacing 42 Democratic lawyers in the office with Republicans as soon as he takes over.

The office, which has been held by DFLers for nearly a half century, is made up of civil servants and political appointees.

“We can’t take the politics out of the office unless we make some changes,” Wardlow said, arguing his remarks were taken out of context. “I will make some changes, but I am not going to use party as a litmus test.”

Ellison didn’t buy the explanation. 

“Time after time after time he has been accusing me of what he’s doing, which is politicizing the office,” he said. “I would be glad to hire any Republican or Independent who are going to throw down and fight hard every single day for Minnesotans.”

Ellison raised Wardlow's work for a conservative legal group that has defended business clients fighting government policies requiring that they serve same-sex couples. Wardlow stood by his work with Alliance Defending Freedom as standing for First Amendment rights not discrimination. 

Wardlow said Ellison’s standing as deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee makes him the more political of the two.

“He wants to use this office to wage a political war,” Wardlow said.