The whole world is watching Keith Ellison.
When Ellison made the eleventh hour announcement that he would leave Congress in 2018, and enter the attorney general’s race in Minnesota, many viewed it as his exit from the national stage.
But Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s decision this week to hand over the investigation and cases arising from the killing of George Floyd to Ellison has thrust the trailblazing former congressman into the crucible of a legal and political fight poised to grip the country for months.
Walz brought Ellison in to lead the prosecution, he said, after speaking to Floyd’s family, who had lobbied for the attorney general’s involvement amid growing anger with an already controversial county prosecutor’s office.
“I just want to let everyone know that we’re going to bring to bear all the resources necessary to achieve justice in this case,” Ellison said at the Sunday press conference announcing the decision.
Two days earlier, state lawmakers released a letter urging Walz to transfer the case to the attorney general’s office, writing that Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman had lost the “faith” of their constituents to “fairly and impartially investigate and prosecute these cases.”
On Wednesday, more than a week of Floyd’s killing while in police custody, Ellison announced new and more severe charges – Derek Chauvin, the former officer who pinned Floyd, by his neck, to the ground with his knee, had his count upped to second-degree murder and the other three officers at the scene were charged with aiding and abetting it.
Scores of protesers, activists and leading progressive organizers cheered the news – “Great, great, great,” said Kenza Hadj-Moussa, of TakeAction Minnesota, as word of the stepped-up charges broke during an interview. She said Ellison is “deeply trusted and respected” in the community.
“The people of Minneapolis, particularly black communities, have not had any trust or faith that Mike Freeman would bring these officers to justice,” Hadj-Moussa said. “For years, the Minneapolis police department has operated with impunity and we couldn’t go down the same road again.”
No stranger to the spotlight
Ellison, who in 2006 became the first Muslim American elected to Congress, has long been the target of Islamophobic smears. But he emerged as a leading progressive voice on Capitol Hill and, in 2016, a leading surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ first presidential campaign.
He ran to be the chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017 with progressive support, but after initially broadening his backing with endorsements from figures like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, lost out to Tom Perez, an Obama administration labor secretary and party establishment pick for the position.
After a contentious campaign and tense vote at the DNC that year, which went to a second ballot, Ellison accepted defeat and a largely symbolic deputy chair title. His supporters were incensed by a late round of attacks, including an email from the American Jewish Congress saying Ellison’s election could “threaten the relationship between America and our ally Israel.”
“He’s withstood a lot of pressure as the first high profile Muslim American in American politics, which was pressure every single day,” said Kari Moe, Ellison’s first chief of staff in the House and a former top aide to the venerated late liberal Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. “It never let up.”
Moe and other former aides to Ellison, who have worked with him in Congress and on past campaigns, expressed confidence that he was prepared to shoulder the case, with its far-reaching implications, and keep the faith of a community riven by Floyd’s death.
“He knows all the stakeholders,” Moe said, “he knows Minnesota law backwards and forwards, and he’s extremely careful and precise.
An ‘unprecedented’ challenge – and opportunity
But what comes next will, as Ellison said repeatedly after announcing the new charges, will be more difficult. Police officers are difficult for prosecutors to convict even in what the public might view as the most clear-cut cases.
“Trying this case will not be an easy thing,” Ellison said, urging patience and asking for “time and space” to handle the case. “Winning a conviction will be hard.”
Ellison stressed that his team was working closely with Freeman’s office, noting that the son of a former Minnesota governor is the only prosecutor in the state to win a murder conviction against a police officer.
Hamline University political science professor David Schultz, who also teaches election law, said it was “relatively unprecedented” in Minnesota for the governor to hand the case over to the attorney general’s office, which doesn’t have much experience handling criminal prosecutions.
“Ellison’s office is either going to have to find some outside person who is a special prosecutor, to assist him,” Schultz said, “or is going to have to rely still very heavily upon Mike Freeman’s office to be able to carry a lot of the weight here.”
The prosecution got a preview of the potential hurdles ahead earlier this week, when Lt. Bob Kroll, head of Minneapolis’s police union, wrote to officers in a letter critical of civilian leaders that Floyd had a “violent criminal history” being ignored by the media.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Friday, Ellison pushed back against the characterization, which has led to calls for Kroll to step down.
“I think it is not good when the image of the victim gets tarnished in situations like this,” Ellison said. “Mr. Floyd’s not on trial. Those four people who were charged in the complaint are.”
The stakes – for Ellison, Minneapolis and the country – are remarkably steep. Though Ellison, who took the unusual path of leaving federal office to run for state attorney general, hasn’t followed the traditional political trajectory, the personal implications are clear, too.
“If he wins this and the conviction is upheld, it cements his political career, not just statewide, but nationally,” Schultz said, suggesting that a backlash in Minnesota to former Sen. Al Franken’s resignation amid charges of sexual misconduct meant Ellison, who in 2018 denied accusations of abusing an ex-girlfriend years earlier, remained in a strong position to seek higher office. “If he loses it on the other hand, I think it is obviously a major blow.”
Hamid Bendaas, a top communications aide to Ellison in Congress who also spent time on his campaign for attorney general in Minnesota, said his former boss – who enters his new role with deep roots in Minneapolis – wouldn’t be sidetracked by any potential political aspirations.
“When we ran for AG, his campaign slogan was that he was going to be the ‘people’s lawyer,’” Bendaas said. “That was the mainframe of everything we tried to do.”
Working for Ellison, Bendaas said, offered a departure from the drudgeries typically associated with the job – with less talk about what was happening on the house floor and more discussion about world news and workers’ rights.
“His passion is American history and sociology. So on a personal level, that’s why I felt so much relief that he would be taking (on the case), more so than if it were another AG in there,” Bendaas said. “Because he doesn’t see his role there as just, I’m the attorney general of Minnesota. He sees it as, ‘I get to be someone who can represent the people in the court of law.’”
This story has been updated to include Kroll’s letter and Ellison’s Friday comments.