5 takeaways from the MPR News attorney general debate

Two seated people look at each other during a debate
Minnesota attorney general candidates Jim Schultz (left) and incumbent Keith Ellison speak during a debate at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Friday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Republican nominee Jim Schultz went head-to-head Friday in their first debate, disagreeing on crime, abortion, fraud and more.

Their race is one of the closest, if not the closest, in the state, according to recent polls. 

And Minnesota voters will decide whether to send Ellison, a first-term Democrat, back to St. Paul for a second term, or snap the DFL’s five-decade hold on the seat by electing Schultz.

Here are five takeaways from the MPR News debate:

Schultz goes big on crime

From his opening statement through the end of the 55-minute debate, Schultz hammered home his message on crime, saying that his top priority would be prosecuting more violent criminal cases.

Schultz said Ellison hadn’t done enough to bring down surging rates of violent crime while in office and he said he would add dozens of additional criminal prosecutors to help county attorneys with those cases.

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“We’re living through the worst uptick in crime in many decades and it is not enough for the attorney general of Minnesota to throw up his hands and say, ‘I can’t really do much here, the only thing I can do is sue Fleet Farm,’” Schultz said. “That is not enough, that is not enough and what we need to do is have a roster of world-class criminal prosecutors that can support county attorneys around the state and ensure that we end this revolving door where criminals are not held accountable for their actions.”

Ellison defended his record and said that he’d taken all the violent criminal cases assigned to him by county attorneys. The attorney general also said his office has other constitutional responsibilities, including representing state agencies and protecting consumers.

And he said that Schultz wasn’t considering those priorities in making his all-in-on-crime pitch.

“You don't get to just say, ‘I'm only here to work on one issue, which I don't have any legal authority for.’ You've got to deal with what comes to the door,” Ellison said. “You’ve got to deal with everything. 

A person speaks
Republican challenger Jim Schultz speaks during a debate with Minnesota attorney general incumbent Keith Ellison at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Friday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Differences on abortion

Asked about his view on abortion, Schultz said he continues to support additional restrictions as a personal matter, but he wouldn’t advocate for policy changes or use the office as a platform on the issue.

“I've been very clear, I'm pro-life, I'm not ashamed of that. I will tell you, though, I didn't step in this race to get caught up in abortion policy,” Schultz said. “I will not leverage my office for abortion policy, we need an office that is apolitical, that simply does justice every single day, whether you're black or white, rich or poor, man or women, you get justice every day.”

He said that he would enforce Minnesota’s existing abortion law, which bans abortion after viability, except in cases where the life or health of the pregnant person is at risk. The standard of viability is currently believed to be around 24 weeks.

Ellison said he’d protected those who sought an abortion in Minnesota, including those who travel to do so. And he said he would continue working to uphold the right to safe, legal abortion services in Minnesota.

“Women, and everyone in our state, can count on me to stand up for their rights to have a safe and legal abortion, full stop,” he said.

Schultz says he would commute sentence of Kim Potter

Schultz said that Ellison “upcharged” former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter after she fatally shot Daunte Wright last year during a traffic stop. And he committed to commute her sentence, if elected. 

Potter is serving a two-year sentence after a first-degree manslaughter conviction.

“It was fundamentally politically motivated. This is so representative of Attorney General Ellison’s office,” Schultz said. “It’s all about the politics around it. He upcharged her for political reasons. That was deeply, deeply wrong.”

Ellison defended the prosecution and said the facts of the case merited the heightened charge over a lower charge recommended by county attorneys who initially took the case. 

“After she was convicted by a jury of her peers, the judge gave her a more lenient sentence. We did not appeal it,” Ellison said. “She said she was sorry, that meant something to me. I thought that was important.”

Both Ellison and Schultz said they would work to uphold the murder conviction of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin in George Floyd’s death. Chauvin is appealing. 

Ellison addresses support for Minneapolis charter amendment

At various points in the debate, Schultz criticized Ellison for “defunding the police,” referring to a 2021 Minneapolis charter amendment that would have replaced the Minneapolis police department with a public safety agency.

When asked about his support for the measure, Ellison said it was more complicated than his competitor let on.

“Even though I supported it, I always believed we had to have a well-resourced, well-funded police department. It's a complicated matter, which goes back years and years and requires solutions, not just slogans,” he said. 

He said Minneapolis was still in the midst of a conversation on transforming policing and he said he’d asked the Legislature for additional funding to prosecute violent crime.

“As somebody who runs around saying how apolitical they are, it is disturbing to me to see you try to politicize a crime in this matter,” Ellison told Schultz.

A person speaks
Minnesota attorney general incumbent Keith Ellison speaks during a debate with Republican Jim Schultz at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Friday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Feeding Our Future fraud fight simmers

Schultz took aim at Ellison’s office, and other state agencies, over their handling of the roughly $250 million fraud ring discovered at the nonprofit Feeding Our Future. And he said Ellison should’ve done more to end payments to the group before the total ballooned.

“It would not have taken Sherlock Holmes to crack this case,” Schultz said. “The FBI does not tell victims of theft to send out $200 million to people you know to be thieves. So that's a lie.” 

Ellison defended the state’s response and said he complied with requests from federal agencies to keep the fraud quiet and to not alert those involved in the alleged embezzlement ring during the federal investigation.

“There were 49 people who have been indicted, three of them have pled guilty today and are cooperating. And because of the collaboration, we believe that this whole thing has been pulled out root and branch,” Ellison said.

Ellison and Schultz are set to face off in three additional debates before Election Day.