Keith Ellison, liberal stalwart in House, will run for attorney general of Minnesota

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Rep. Keith Ellison, a leading figure among progressive Democrats in the House, filed Tuesday to run for attorney general of Minnesota and won’t stand for reelection to Congress.

Politico reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere tweeted out the news, adding that Ellison will keep his role as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, where he has been a significant voice for liberals in the Democratic establishment.

Rep. Keith Ellison at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in Atlanta in 2017. (Photo: Chris Berry/Reuters)
Rep. Keith Ellison at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in Atlanta in 2017. (Photo: Chris Berry/Reuters)

An article in Politico earlier this year described Ellison, in his sixth term, as having “grown listless and bored in the House.” Ellison’s relationship with DNC head Thomas E. Perez has also been described as uneasy. An economic populist who speaks with candor on political and cultural issues, he sometimes deviated from the party’s carefully crafted line.

News of an attorney general run comes after a wild weekend for the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as the state’s Democratic organ is known. During a weekend convention, the DFL endorsed state representative Erin Murphy as its gubernatorial candidate, but only on the seventh vote. Sitting state Attorney General Lori Swanson encountered tepid support from DFL delegates and chose not to seek reelection but to enter the primary for the governorship instead.

The DFL-endorsed candidate for attorney general is Matt Pelikan, 36, who is openly gay. Ellison, 54, is a Muslim African-American.

He is wildly popular in his Twin Cities district, where he last won reelection by 47 points. If he becomes attorney general, he would be the first Muslim in such a post, at a time when President Trump’s ban on travelers from majority-Muslim countries is one of the most divisive political issues in the country.

A sojourn in Minnesota could potentially strengthen Ellison for an eventual return to Washington. State attorneys general have risen to national prominence by challenging the Trump administration on immigration, environmental regulation and marijuana decriminalization. Virtually unknown until Trump’s election, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is now discussed as a potential presidential candidate. Until he was felled by sexual assault allegations, so was New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

Ellison would likely use the office’s broad prosecutorial powers to advance a populist agenda aimed at curbing the excesses of the banking industry, continuing his work on the House Financial Services Committee. He has also been a vociferous advocate for a lenient immigration policy, earning some criticism last year for comparing immigrants crossing into the United States illegally from Mexico to Jews fleeing Europe during the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany.

Ellison has also been a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a position he would cede if he returned to Minnesota. Told of Ellison’s decision on Monday afternoon, a senior aide on the Progressive Caucus was dismayed. “Kind of sucks for us at a federal level,” he said of Ellison’s likely departure. “He’s a real visionary and moral leader for progressive Democrats.”

Minnesota’s primary election is on Aug. 14.

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