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Democracy shows through in crowded attorney general race

ST. PAUL — Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon may have said it best: "What a day to be in the democracy business."

Simon, whose office runs state elections, was in the center of Minnesota's political world Tuesday, June 5, as the first Muslim in Congress decided to run for attorney general in what turned into a crowded Democratic primary election contest. Six Democrats are running in the Aug. 14 primary election.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis attracted nationwide attention with his decision.

"I am going to people all over the state," pledged Ellison, who never has run statewide. "This will not just be a metro campaign."

He said he will oppose President Donald Trump's immigrant restrictions and would "fight for fairness, liberty and make sure our economy and our society works for everybody."

Most who follow politics thought incumbent Lori Swanson, a Democrat, was on her way to re-election. However, she abruptly dropped out of the party's attorney general endorsement contest over the weekend and on Monday announced she was running for governor with U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan as her running mate.

The Ellison action was a highlight from the final day candidates could file for office.

Ellison is deputy Democratic National Committee chairman, and has been a national spokesman for the party. He said Tuesday that he will not give up that role if he is elected attorney general.

The fiery 54-year-old said he decided to run Tuesday morning.

Ellison serves Minneapolis. He said he thought about running for attorney general earlier, but Swanson assured him she would seek re-election, so he opted to run for Congress again.

The state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party convention last weekend endorsed Twin Cities attorney Matt Pelikan after Swanson dropped out.

Early Tuesday, former Attorney General Mike Hatch, an ex-DFL chairman, filed his paperwork to regain the office. However, Hatch told Forum News Service that he would drop out of the race if someone he felt was a suitable candidate runs. One of those candidates, he said, is state Rep. Debra Hilstrom of Brooklyn Center, who filed paperwork later Tuesday morning.

Hilstrom had been running for the office earlier, but dropped out when Swanson said she would seek re-election. She has been a state representative since 2001 and has been a prosecutor.

Former Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman also filed for the attorney general's office. Like Hilstrom and others, he had planned to run if Swanson did not.

Tom Foley, Ramsey County attorney for 16 years, was the final DFL attorney general candidate to file, moments before the 5 p.m. deadline.

Doug Wardlow is the endorsed Republican candidate and on Tuesday former state legislator Bob Lessard, 87, signed up as a GOP candidate.

While the attorney general drama was playing out, disagreements between Republican governor candidates emerged.

"With a united Republican Party in the best position to win the governor's office in many years, it's time for Tim Pawlenty to do what's best for Minnesota and the conservative cause and end his primary campaign for governor," GOP-endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson said.

Pawlenty had a simple response: "We don't live in Russia."

Pawlenty, a former governor, said primary contests will be good for both major parties. He said the crowded primary contests will be be "fun."

Pawlenty and the endorsed Democratic candidates showed up to register to run at the secretary of state's office at about the same time. Pawlenty and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, and DFL governor candidate Erin Murphy met in the media-crowded secretary of state's office and awkwardly exchanged pleasantries.

Later, Murphy agreed with Pawlenty that primary contests are good. "Competition makes me better."

The race to replace Ellison in the very-Democratic U.S. House district attracted the most candidates Tuesday, eight Democrats. They include former state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and the first Somali-American to serve in a state Legislature, Ilhan Omar. Also on the list are Ellison's former wife and the daughter of the late U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo.

The E85 saga

A story that does not seem to go away brought another explanation Tuesday, June 5, about why state Rep. Erin Maye Quade did not seem to know E85 is an ethanol blend.

Minutes after the Democratic state convention endorsed her as the party's lieutenant governor candidate Sunday, Forum News Service asked her if she knew what E85 is (up to 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline). She said she still was learning.

On Monday, she tweeted that she "misspoke." On Tuesday, a reporter asked her about the issue and said that in the noisy convention she thought the question was about a highway.

"I know what E85 is," she said Tuesday, praising Gov. Mark Dayton for using E85 to fuel many state vehicles.

A transcript of the convention interchange, which has become a big a social media topic:

Forum News Service: "What is E85?"

Maye Quade: "I'm sorry?"

FNS: "What is E85?"

Maye Quade: "I am still learning a lot. It sounds like a type of oil."

Governor candidate Erin Murphy (who was standing further away from the reporter than Maye Quade): "Ethanol."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.