Key facts about state Rep. John Thompson’s residency issues

Ruszczyk shooting anniversary
John Thompson, a friend of Philando Castile and now state representative, speaks to the crowd during a press conference in July 2018. The DFL lawmaker is under fire this week for using a Wisconsin driver’s license despite holding office and voting in Minnesota.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News 2018

Updated: July 20, 9:53 a.m. | Posted: July 13, 5:20 p.m.

DFL state Rep. John Thompson is under fire for using a Wisconsin driver’s license despite holding office and voting in Minnesota, a fact revealed after he was involved in a St. Paul traffic stop

Here are some key details about why that might matter. 

Who is John Thompson? 

John Thompson
Rep. John Thompson
Courtesy of the Minnesota Legislature

Thompson was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2020, representing District 67A, on the east side of St. Paul. Before getting elected he was a community activist and worked as a machinist.

His election followed his public activism in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooting death during a police traffic stop. Thompson and Castile were friends, and he vowed to seek change in law enforcement policies as a result. 

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During the 2020 campaign, Thompson participated in a protest outside the Hugo home of Bob Kroll, then president of the Minneapolis police union. Thompson was recorded striking effigies of Kroll and his wife and talking about “burning Hugo down.” He later apologized for “inflammatory rhetoric,” stayed in the race and was elected in his heavily DFL district. But Republicans used the incident against other Democrats on the ballot given their association with and endorsement of him. 

In office, Thompson has been an outspoken advocate for changing policing rules, and recently lambasted Gov. Tim Walz, a fellow Democrat, for not showing “some testicular fortitude” in negotiations with Republicans on the issue.  

Why is Thompson in the news now? 

On July 4, St. Paul police pulled Thompson over for not having a front license plate on his car. He presented a Wisconsin driver’s license. He was cited for driving on a suspended license due to unpaid child support. A few days later, Thompson discussed the stop publicly in a speech, in which he claimed to have been racially profiled. 

The incident provoked widespread discussion and criticism after the St. Paul Pioneer Press published details of Thompson’s ticket, including the fact that he had Wisconsin identification despite serving as a state representative in Minnesota. The Minnesota Constitution requires lawmakers to live within their districts.  

During the stop, Thompson told the police officer that he is a legislator and he later accused the officer of stopping him because he is Black, according to body camera footage released Tuesday by the St. Paul Police Department. The officer questioned why he had a Wisconsin ID card and denied making the stop for anything other than a moving violation. 

More recently, the spotlight on Thompson spurred reporters to look more deeply into Thompson’s past, and Fox 9’s Tom Lyden reported that Thompson had been accused of domestic violence in the past. Thompson denied “that any of the inflammatory allegations ... ever occurred.”

Where does Thompson live? 

Thompson is a registered Minnesota voter, with a listed residence on York Avenue in his St. Paul district. However, he has maintained a Wisconsin license for years, renewing it in 2005, 2012 and 2020. Wisconsin licenses are only issued to Wisconsin residents. Thompson listed a Wisconsin address as his place of residence when renewing it. Thompson has never had a Minnesota license. 

He has voted in Minnesota in multiple elections dating back to 2004. A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission said no one with Thompson’s name and birthdate has been a registered Wisconsin voter since at least 2006, when the state’s current database launched. 

In statements before and after the recent incident, Thompson has repeatedly identified himself as a longtime resident of St. Paul.   

There are no known active criminal investigations or civil litigation underway into Thompson’s residency, though his critics have called for investigations. 

It’s possible that Thompson violated either Minnesota state law by falsely claiming to be a Minnesota resident in his candidate declaration or violated Wisconsin law by falsely claiming to be a Wisconsin resident in his license application. Both forms require people to certify that the information is accurate on penalty of perjury. 

Minnesota law requires new residents to get a Minnesota license within 60 days.  

Does Thompson face political consequences? 

Thompson represents a safely held Democratic district.  

His biggest risk is that members of his party abandon him or join in calls for him to be ushered out. On July 17, that happened, with Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler and DFL Party Chair Ken Martin issuing coordinated statements calling on Thompson to resign in the wake of the reported domestic violence allegations.

Thompson denied the charges and said he has no intention of resigning.

If Thompson doesn’t resign, he could face ethics charges.

All 201 seats in the Legislature will be on the ballot again in 2022. Thompson hasn’t said if he will seek another term, but he would be the odds-on favorite if he does. 

What does Thompson say about the situation? 

In a statement, Thompson said he had kept his Wisconsin license after moving to Minnesota.

“I live and work in St. Paul, and have for many years,” he said. “My Wisconsin license hadn’t previously been an issue for me, but I will now be changing it to a Minnesota license, as I should have before.”

He also criticized the officer’s decision to pull him over for missing a front license plate, only to then ticket him for an unrelated matter that came up during the stop — a so-called “pretextual stop” that Thompson and other legislative Democrats tried unsuccessfully to ban this year.  

“In the video, you won’t see the officer do anything that isn’t by the book, but the issue is we need to rewrite the book,” he said. “I do not know the officer who pulled me over, and I have no reason to believe they have any hate towards me specifically. Officers do, however, work in a system that has allowed these too often pretextual traffic stops to continue despite tragic consequences.”  

Are there similar residency disputes in the past? 

Thompson isn’t the first lawmaker or candidate for office to face scrutiny over his residency. 

In 2005, Republican legislative candidate Sue Ek was removed from the ballot after she couldn’t prove she lived in a St. Cloud, Minn., district long enough ahead of a special election. The state Supreme Court upheld a referee’s finding that Ek was more tied to a St. Paul district than one in St. Cloud within the six-month lead-up to the election. 

About a decade later, the high court struck incumbent Republican Rep. Bob Barrett from the reelection ballot after he was determined to live outside his district’s boundaries.  

The difference here is that Thompson is in office, not running for it, making the mechanism for removal less clear if he was determined to be out of compliance with residency requirements. 

How are members of Thompson’s party responding?

DFL party leaders responded cautiously to the initial questions of Thompson’s residency. But allegations of past domestic abuse spurred a host of top leaders to call for his resignation.

"The alleged acts of violence against multiple women outlined in these reports are serious and deeply disturbing," Walz wrote. "Minnesotans deserve representatives of the highest moral character, who uphold our shared values. Representative Thompson can no longer effectively be that leader and he should immediately resign."

Hortman and Winkler issued a joint statement that, "Representative Thompson ran for office to advance progressive policies, but his recent actions, and unacceptable reports of abuse and misconduct, have become an impediment to that work."

Before the abuse allegations came to light, Hortman said no ethics complaint connected with that incident has yet been filed, but she might have House attorneys do an investigation anyway. 

“As in other instances of alleged member misconduct, in the absence of a formal ethics complaint, in my role as Speaker I will work with counsel to thoroughly investigate the law and facts, compare the alleged misconduct to prior allegations of wrongdoing by members of the Minnesota House and the resultant consequences, and act accordingly.” 

How are Thompson’s critics reacting?  

Thompson has built up a long list of critics despite a short tenure in the Legislature.   

His demand for dramatic change to how police do their jobs, including the swift release of body camera footage to families of people killed in encounters with law enforcement, has been driven home by sharp rhetoric.

So, his foes are reveling in his troubles.

Republicans have demanded accountability, with some calling online for him to step down if he doesn’t actually live in the district he represents. The Minnesota Peace and Police Officers Association has put out multiple statements raising questions about Thompson and suggesting he face criminal sanctions.  

The group’s executive director, Brian Peters, wrote to the Wisconsin attorney general to push for a perjury investigation. Peters cited a signature line on Thompson’s application for a Wisconsin license that attested to his residency of that state. 

“It is clear Rep. John Thompson either defrauded Wisconsin and committed a crime in your state; or he violated Minnesota law and defrauded his ‘constituents’ here in Minnesota,” Peters wrote. 

The Minnesota House Republicans say they’ll file formal ethics charges against Thompson if DFL leaders don’t take the lead.