Jim Schultz, left, and Keith Ellison, right, at an October debate in the attorney general race. Credit: Kerem Yücel | MPR News

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A group of Minnesota faith leaders described a campaign ad attacking Attorney General Keith Ellison as racist, and asked in a letter that his opponent demand that it be taken down.

An October 28 letter signed by 67 faith leaders from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim denominations says that the TV ad supporting Republican attorney general candidate Jim Schultz features “race baiting tropes historically used and intended to scare voters.” The letter, organized by the interfaith political action group Faith In Minnesota, also expresses concerns about the funding behind the ad and similar ads from large corporations and an independent political fund. 

“This is a dangerous and immoral tactic that has long standing implications that will impact our state well after the election ends,” the letter says.

Ellison, the incumbent DFL candidate, and Schultz are running against each other for attorney general in the November 8 general election.

The ads were placed by the independent political fund Minnesota for Freedom, which is funded by the Republican Attorneys General Association. But a campaign finance complaint filed by the DFL last week alleges that Schultz’s campaign illegally coordinated with the political fund. The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board issued a statement on October 26 announcing that it had found merit to further investigate the allegations of illegal coordination.

Schultz and the Republican Attorneys General Association did not respond to interview requests Friday.

“Every Minnesotan deserves to be safe and have their wallets and freedoms protected—no exceptions,” Ellison’s campaign manager, Jeanne Stuart, said in an email. “But Jim Schultz and his wealthy backers are blatantly using fear to try to divide us from each other based on what we look like or where we come from.”

James Albert, a Black pastor at the Higher Ground Church of God in Christ in St. Cloud, signed onto the letter and expressed concern about how the ad characterizes incarcerated people and Ellison’s policies. The letter called on Schultz to “rebuke and demand recent ads steeped in race- and fear-based dog whistles be taken down.”

“Racism is not dead,” Albert said. “It is looming large in everything we do. Not only is it not going anywhere, but when we allow these political ads from candidates that are looking for votes—it plants seeds that continue to foster resentment.”

Ken Martin, the chair of the DFL, said he supported the clergy’s letter. 

“I’ve been in politics for 30 years, and I’ve never seen an ad, at least in Minnesota, that’s been more racist,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of norms thrown out the windows in recent years in politics, for sure, but this really hits a new low in Minnesota.”

Martha Bardwell, a pastor at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, also signed on to the letter and said she’s worried about the messaging and the funding behind the ads. 

“The goal is to bring together faith leaders from all different faiths to stand together and unite our voices to call out the racist and fear-based tactics that we see in these ads,” Bardwell said. “The kind of politics that the GOP is putting forward in these ads are dangerous and corrosive and we need to tell the truth about how those ads are funded.”

Ad features fake prison call

The ad in question begins with an automated voice over the phone: “This is a call from an inmate in the Minnesota correctional facility.” A man purporting to be incarcerated in a Minnesota prison then begins speaking.

“Hey, I want you to know why the inmates are supporting Attorney General Keith Ellison,” the man says. “Keith Ellison supports us. He praised a cop killer and even asked a crowd to help free this woman who put bombs on cop cars.”

Nick Kimball, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, told FOX9 that the caller is not a real person in a Minnesota prison.

As the script continues, the ad shows a montage of what appears to be a car and other property set on fire, security camera footage of a carjacking at a gas station, and a protest. Many of the people engaging in alleged criminal activity in the videos are Black. It is not clear when and where the videos were taken. WCCO found that the scene of the carjacking came from Miami, Florida.

“He’s been anti-cop forever,” the caller says in the ad. “Ellison even blamed them for the damage rioters caused.” The ad concludes: “Keith Ellison: the criminal’s choice for attorney general.”

Albert said he feels Ellison was targeted in the ad because in addition to addressing ways to combat crime, he also advocates for addressing the issues that cause a person to commit a crime.

“It’s tough being a Black person listening to somebody talk about people that we know,” Albert said. “You might hear a criminal, but for Black and brown people they might hear a family member that is trying to improve their life. What you are glorifying as evil, that’s our pathway to improvement.”

Martin criticized the ad for using out-of-state footage, focusing on Black people, and superimposing Ellison’s head over the criminal activity. The ad’s tone isn’t unique to Minnesota.

The New York Times conducted a survey of current campaign advertisements and found a pattern of terms and imagery referring to Black candidates as “different,” “dangerous,” and soft on crime. The Times found examples in five states and called the strategy an important weapon for Republicans running this year. The racist appeals are not, however, new.

Martin said the Ellison attack ad reminded him of a 1988 ad from George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign. The Bush ad, which was widely condemned as racist, featured photos of Willie Horton, a Black man in prison on a murder conviction. The ad blamed Bush’s opponent, Michael Dukakis, for Horton’s crimes. 

“It’s certainly something that Minnesotans are not accustomed to,” Martin said.

Did the Schultz campaign illegally coordinate the ads?

The Minnesota DFL filed a campaign finance complaint against the Schultz campaign on October 18, alleging that the campaign illegally coordinated ads with Minnesota for Freedom. According to ad filings the DFL shared with Sahan Journal, one individual, Steve Syckes, placed ad buys for the Schultz campaign and Minnesota for Freedom. 

“This dual role undermines the supposed independence of the expenditures by MN for

Freedom,” Charles Nauen, an attorney for the DFL, wrote in a complaint to the campaign finance board.

On the form submitted for the Schultz campaign, Syckes identifies himself as “agent for Jim Schultz for Minnesota Attorney General.” The form Syckes submitted for Minnesota for Freedom describes the ad: “Anti-Keith Ellison, says he’s anti-cop. Goes on to say he is ‘the criminals [sic] choice for AG.’”

Syckes did not respond to a voicemail left Friday on his D.C.-area office line.

On October 27, the DFL released preliminary “prima facie” findings from the campaign finance board finding merit in its complaint.  

Megan Engelhardt, assistant executive director of the Minnesota State Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, said the board cannot confirm or deny the existence of any complaint. She explained that a “prima facie” determination means that a member of the board has found there are allegations that should be examined at a probable cause hearing. If the campaign finance board finds probable cause, they would then begin an investigative process, all of which would be unlikely to be resolved before the election.

Because the $847,0000 ad buy was coordinated, the DFL said, it should have counted as a contribution to Schultz—greatly in excess of the campaign finance limit of $2,500. 

If an investigation finds that Schultz and Minnesota for Freedom worked together, the DFL said, they could be liable for millions of dollars in fines, which would be the largest campaign finance fine in state history.

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal and corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of...

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...