Skip to main content

Given the Keith Ellison Allegations, What's a Democrat in Minnesota to Do?

Our choice for attorney general is between a bigot and a possible domestic abuser.
Representative Keith Ellison outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 21st, 2017.

Representative Keith Ellison outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 21st, 2017.

How do you vote when the race for your state's attorney general is between an alleged abuser and a notorious bigot? That's the question facing Minnesota voters as we head into the final weeks of the election. For the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (or DFL, as the Democrats are known in Minnesota), the nominee is Congressman Keith Ellison, whose ex-girlfriend Karen Monahan has accused him of one instance of physical abuse and consistent "narcissistic abuse" throughout their relationship. Republicans have nominated Douglas Wardlow, an attorney with a history of leading the charge against trans rights and same-sex marriage. Wardlow's campaign, moreover, has heavily relied on racist and Islamophobic tropes (Ellison is black and a Muslim). Now Minnesotans have to decide which of these men best deserves to enforce the laws of the state.

Ellison was elected to Congress in 2006, representing a deeply liberal Minneapolis congressional district. He was the first Muslim to serve in Congress and quickly became a target of Islamophobic attacks from right-wing media. In 2016, he competed against former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to chair the Democratic National Committee and accepted a position as vice chair when he lost.

A few days before the primary this August, which Ellison wound up winning, his ex-girlfriend, Monahan, accused Ellison of "narcissist abuse," a term used loosely to characterize the consequences of enduring abusive relationships with extremely self-centered people (it is not currently recognized by psychiatrists). As Monahan told the New York Times: "Narcissistic abuse is very difficult to understand. It's the gaslighting, it's the habitual lying, it's the making it seem like it was my fault for even asking why something happened."

Monahan has tweeted images of her doctor's records from 2017 as corroboration. The more explosive allegations emerged just a few days before the primary: Monahan's son claimed on Facebook that a video exists of Ellison dragging Monahan from her bed while the congressman screams obscenities. Monahan has subsequently said that the video exists, but no one else has seen it. She hasn't even shared it with her new lawyer, Andrew Parker (who is Wardlow's former boss). Journalists who have reviewed text messages found evidence of a complicated relationship, but not of abuse. The attorney hired by the DFL to review the allegations found no evidence of abuse or evidence that the video is real. The DFL has now forwarded the issue to law enforcement, and Ellison has asked for a House Ethics review.

It's important to note that, even if the video claim was fabricated, that fact alone doesn't diminish the potential veracity of the other allegations. Still, this is a murky case, in which the core allegation—"narcissist abuse"—is poorly defined. (Monahan did not respond to attempts to contact her via direct message for clarification.)

Meanwhile, Wardlow is running a campaign based on racist and anti-Islamic stereotypes. As reported by HuffPost's Daniel Marans in a long piece about the race, Wardlow's first advertisement, titled "The Choice," depicts Ellison as an angry black man, a criminal in handcuffs (Wardlow uses an image of Ellison when he was arrested for civil disobedience at an immigration rights rally in 2013), and a supporter of antifa and "cop killers." The ad also shows some random people burning an American flag. On the trail, Wardlow illustrates his concerns around welfare fraud by describing a Somali day-care center where pilfered funds, he alleges, might be going to the terrorist group al-Shabab. Wardlow has denied that this allegation constitutes an Islamophobic attack. Wardlow also wants to crack down on "criminal illegal aliens," according to his campaign material. On the campaign trail, he's said that English should be required for citizenship and that he'll use the attorney general's office to prosecute the University of Minnesota for trafficking in fetal body parts (referring to a 2015 controversy over research with fetal tissue).

What's been largely absent from Wardlow's campaign materials and speeches, though, is the anti-LGBTQ work that made him a prominent Minnesota Republican in the first place.

As detailed by St. Paul writer Naomi Kritzer in one of a series of essays about local elections, Wardlow has provided key legal argumentation against same-sex marriage and transgender rights for years. He's worked for the extremist Alliance Defending Freedom for years. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ADF advocates for "state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad"; links homosexuality to pedophilia; represented Colorado baker Jim Phillips in his (successful) campaign to legally discriminate against gay couples; and continues to advise Attorney General Jeff Sessions on how to limit LGBTQ rights. Wardlow is one of the ADF's key lawyers. He was an author of the ADF's amicus brief in Obergefell v. Hodges against the right of same-sex couples to marry. After the court legalized same-sex marriage in the 2015 case, Wardlow took to Fox News to claim that gay marriage violated his religious rights.

Wardlow represented the ADF in a losing effort to keep a transgender 11-year-old in Ohio from using the bathroom of her choice. He represented a Michigan funeral home in a successful effort to defend the company's right to fire a transgender employee solely because of her gender identity. On a local level, he's lobbied school districts against allowing transgender children the right to use the bathroom of their preference.

Wardlow claims that he'll set aside his partisan past if elected.

Now what? I am a Minnesota voter. I did not vote for Ellison in the primary. I've been consistent in demanding accountability from politicians credibly accused of sexual abuse and misconduct, including early calls for Al Franken's resignation. In my writing on #MeToo, I have emphasized the importance of listening to people who come forward with stories of abuse, and starting from a position of belief. What's more, as New York contributor Rebecca Traister has recently written, one of the indelibly positive outcomes of the #MeToo movement is that women are coming forward even when their stories are complicated, their recollections imperfect. Monahan isn't a perfect victim. The absence of the video is very strange. But we have to engage her claims from the position that such claims are credible.

This election pits documented hateful conduct from one candidate against possible domestic abuse from the other. I feel stuck. If the video turns out to be real, I couldn't vote for Ellison (as I wouldn't have voted for Franken). If Wardlow were a reasonable center-right candidate, I could vote for him. As it is, I can't condemn transgender Minnesotans to four years of persecution from Wardlow. So if nothing changes, I'll vote for Ellison because the other option is dangerous to my neighbors. But if it turns out that he's guilty, I'll work like hell to throw him out.