Keith Ellison Has a Long History of Controversies, But Can He Still Win His Attorney General Primary?

Once a clear frontrunner, a recent accusation of domestic abuse has threatened to knock congressman Keith Ellison's bid to become attorney general of Minnesota off track. The Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee, who has been accused of verbally and physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend, Karen Monahan, faces a Democratic primary Tuesday. But over his 20-year career in public service, he has been no stranger to weathering controversy.

Nation of Islam

In the 1990s Ellison was a member of the Nation of Islam, an anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ and racist group. Ellison penned a number of opinion pieces defending Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and marched with him. In 2006, during his run for Congress, Ellison tried to claim that he was never involved with the group, but later amended his statements and denounced the group. "I wrongly dismissed concerns that they [Farrakhan's remarks] were anti-Semitic. They were and are anti-Semitic and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did," he wrote in a letter. "But at no time did I ever share their hateful views or repeat or approve of their hateful statements directed at Jews, gays or any other group."

Still, Jewish progressives in Minnesota endorsed Ellison, and he won his seat in Congress.

Campaign Finance Problems

During the 2006 election, Ellison successfully made it through a number of campaign finance issues. He was sued twice by the attorney general of Minnesota for late campaign filings and unreported or misreported contributions.

An Inside Job

Once in office, Ellison courted controversy when he compared the George W. Bush administration to the Nazi party, all while insinuating that 9/11 might have been an inside job. While addressing a group of atheists in his home, he compared the attacks on U.S. soil to the Reichstag fire of 1930s Germany. "After the Reichstag was burned, they blamed the Communists for it, and it put the leader [Hitler] of that country in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted," he said. He told the crowd that he wouldn't go as far as to openly blame Bush for 9/11 because, "you know, that's how they put you in the nut-ball box—dismiss you."

Ellison later apologized for his comments and said that he did not believe that President George W. Bush was in any way responsible for the attacks.

Keith Ellison controversies primary election
Democratic National Committee Deputy Chair Representative Keith Ellison talks to reporters as he leaves a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Will his latest controversy sink him?

In a long Facebook post Saturday, Karen Monahan's son, Austin, accused Ellison of verbally and physically abusing his mother and said he had the video and messages to prove it. Ellison denied the allegations.

The following day, Karen Monahan took to Twitter to back up her son's accusations. "What my son said is true," she wrote. "Every statement he made was true. Keith Ellison, you know you did that to me."

She also began leaking a series of text exchanges between her and Ellison, none of which confirmed her story of abuse. Briana Bierschbach of Minnesota Public Radio reviewed more than 100 text message exchanges between the pair and confirmed that "there is no evidence in the messages reviewed by MPR News of the alleged physical abuse."

Monahan said that while she does have video proving abuse, she won't release it because "It's humiliating, it's traumatizing, for everyone's family involved, and for me," she told Minnesota Public Radio Monday. "It sets the expectation for survivors of all kinds of forms of abuse, whether it be abuse toward women, abuse from police officers, abuse from other people in power, to have to be the ones, like I'm doing right now, to show and prove their stories. It's feeding into that."

Monahan later told CNN that she uploaded the video to a flash drive but misplaced it during a move and can not currently find it.

In a brief statement Sunday, Ellison confirmed his former relationship with Monahan but denied any abuse or the existence of a video. "Karen and I were in a long-term relationship which ended in 2016, and I still care deeply for her well-being," he wrote.

In 2006 another woman, Amy Alexander, made similar claims of abuse against Ellison. On that occasion, he denied ever dating her and ended up suing Alexander and successfully obtained a restraining order against her.

It appears that Ellison may weather the most recent allegations. He had received endorsements from 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Senator from Minnesota Tina Smith as well as the state's Governor Mark Dayton, none of whom have commented on the situation or revoked their support for the congressman.

Democracy for America, Howard Dean's PAC, said in a statement that they were "not in a position to evaluate allegations made against a candidate in the closing hours of an election, but, as an organization, we believe that every woman who tells her story deserves to be heard."

MoveOn, a progressive policy advocacy group, wrote on Twitter that they were, "deeply concerned about allegations regarding Keith Ellison." The organization wrote that "our society must have absolutely no tolerance for domestic violence, and hold everyone to the same standard. We will closely monitor this situation as more facts come to light."

It is unclear how these allegations will affect Tuesday's race, and Ellison's four competitors have so far cautiously avoided placing blame on either party.

"I think for us right now it is really important for us not to politicize the pain of what she's going through, and I want to make sure that we're giving her time to really take care of herself and care for her health," said Ilhan Omar, a Farmer-Labor Party-endorsed candidate and Minnesota state representative. "So I will reserve my opinions until I'm certain that she is in a good place to really advocate and speak on her behalf."

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts