Why the Democratic Party Hasn’t Canceled Keith Ellison—For Now

Illustration for article titled Why the Democratic Party Hasn’t Canceled Keith Ellison—For Now
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin (AP Photo)

Less than a month after Al Franken was accused of groping a woman, the U.S. senator from Minnesota resigned from his seat under pressure from his Democratic colleagues. Two months have passed since Rep. Keith Ellison, also a Democrat from Minnesota, was accused of assaulting a woman. He is still deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He won his party’s nomination for state attorney general and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement after his former girlfriend, Karen Monahan, came forward with allegations that Ellison physically and emotionally abused her.


Ellison has hung on because he seems more credible than his accuser, several DNC members and political consultants told The Root. The allegations appear to reflect a rocky relationship, not an abusive one, they said. It’s the kind of defense that goes to the heart of the tension between the “believe women” mantra and the principle of due process. It is being debated among Democrats as Monahan and her lawyer say she has been treated unfairly. Monahan has not been granting new interviews but has been using her Twitter handle to criticize the Democratic Party’s response to her claims and sharing how this ordeal has subjected her to daily death threats.

There’s another important distinction between the Ellison case and others, said a DNC member and longtime friend of Ellison who has worked in progressive national politics for years. The congressman’s conduct, unlike that of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s boorish behavior during his confirmation hearings, has been respectful and Ellison has taken the allegations seriously, the DNC member said.

“He has asked for a House Ethics Committee investigation, so he’s not running from it and that goes a long way in helping people to decide whether or not you are telling the truth,” said the DNC member, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

That DNC member cited the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s report that found Monahan’s claims “unsubstantiated.” Minnesota Public Radio also reviewed more than 100 text and Twitter messages between Monahan and Ellison and found no evidence of physical abuse, the station reported.

James Barone, an at-large DNC member who worked as a Minnesota state’s attorney for 37 years, said none of the DNC members he has spoken with are willing to withdraw their support from Ellison. Monahan’s refusal to release video she says shows Ellison abusing her is a major reason why.

“You never say someone needs corroborating evidence because that is inappropriately questioning the veracity of a person,” Barone said. “But the fact that there is a statement that there is evidence and no, you can’t see it, puts a wrinkle in this that is different than many of the many situations I dealt with in my professional life.”


A DNC member who holds a committee leadership role and asked for anonymity was more direct: “We need women who come forward to be able to produce evidence they say they possess. Otherwise, it hurts other women and their allegations and it makes it a he-versus-she situation, and that’s not what this is about. This is about truth and justice.”

Andrew Parker, Monahan’s lawyer, clarified that it was Monahan’s son who first publicly disclosed the existence of a video. She would have never mentioned it otherwise, he said.


Rachel Noerdlinger, a New York City-based public relations expert who has worked with politicians in crisis situations, said it doesn’t matter who discussed the video first because it “raises more questions than answers” about Monahan.

“Maybe she will release the video and judgment will be cast,” Noerdlinger said. “But, at this time, there is no such video; lots of information has been reviewed, and none of it leads to evidence of domestic abuse.”


Still, several DNC members told The Root few people want to talk about the allegations openly f0r fear of being seen as undermining the Me Too movement. Some declined to comment, calling it a “very touchy” subject. Even if the allegations are true, several of the members said, they do not warrant stripping Ellison of his right to serve.

Monahan and Ellison were engaged in an on-again, off-again relationship between 2011 and 2016. According to media interviews and the DFL report, Monahan said Ellison was narcissistic and physically abusive. Monahan alleges a physical altercation took place on Aug. 26, 2016, at his home. She claims he walked into the bedroom and began yelling at her while she was lying on the bed. Ellison allegedly yelled at her to take out the trash then said “get the fuck out of my house” before trying to pull her off the bed. Ellison has said that simply didn’t happen.


Parker told The Root that the DNC should have conducted the investigation, not the Minnesota DFL. He said the firm that conducted the investigation, Lockridge Grindal Nauen P.L.L.P, has a long-term contract with the Minnesota DFL and that it has given more than $50,000 to Ellison’s political campaigns.

“It raises the specter of bias and partiality and pre-judgment in the interest of their regular client the DFL,” Parker said. “They’re investigating a celebrity leader of the progressive movement within the DFL.”


Parker has his own conflicts of interest. Ellison’s GOP opponent, Doug Wardlow, worked at Parker’s previous law firm, Parker Rosen LLC, and has publicly supported the Republican’s candidacy, according to the Intercept.

Neither the Minnesota DFL nor the lead investigator of the report responded to The Root’s request for comment.


In a statement to The Root, DNC spokesperson Adrienne Watson said, “Democrats believe all who come forward with allegations have the right to be heard, and their allegations taken seriously. That includes Ms. Monahan. We agree that, in addition to a review by the House Ethics Committee, this matter should be investigated by authorities.”

The spokesperson did not respond to The Root’s request for DNC Chairman Tom Perez to be interviewed for this story. Ellison’s campaign emailed a statement to The Root that says, in part, “I believe women who come forward must be heard, and to have their allegations fully investigated. This is why I have complied with this investigation fully, and will do so with any other inquiries. I thank the Minnesota DFL for taking this issue seriously and requesting this investigation.”


A spokesperson for the House Ethics Committee declined to answer whether it has launched an investigation or if one is on-going.

Parker suggested that race may be a reason why his client’s allegations aren’t being treated as seriously as Christine Blasey Ford’s because, in part, she is not a “white woman with a Ph.D.”


When Parker was asked directly if he believes race is working against Monahan—he said she was born in Iran and was later adopted by an American family—he said, “I don’t know if there is a racial factor involved. I don’t think so.

“Is she more believable? Does she mean more? You care more about her? I don’t know.”


A couple of points to consider: One, the Trump administration limited the scope of the FBI investigation into Ford’s claims and the president demeaned them as a “hoax.” GOP leadership made it clear it would support Kavanaugh’s nomination well before Ford’s testimony. For comparison, Democrats have called for the FBI and House Ethics Committee to launch investigations into Monahan’s claims without any timeline. Top Democrats were quick to call for former Rep. John Conyers’ and Franken’s resignations when women raised abuse claims against them. Republicans did no such thing with Kavanaugh. And Monahan’s claims that Ellison is a narcissist wouldn’t disqualify him from public office, DNC members and political observers interviewed for this story said.

“This might be problematic but [Monahan’s allegations] aren’t about sexual assault or misconduct,” said Camonghne Felix, a political analyst who formerly served as a deputy press secretary and speechwriter for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “This is very much about how men treat women while in relationships with them. This is about hyper-masculinity, which I think is an important conversation to have but still fundamentally different from the ones we were having about Kavanaugh, which were about the gaslighting that abusers are allowed to use against victims and how the Republican Party was willing to treat survivors.”


It’s uncertain how Monahan’s allegations will impact Ellison’s prospects in November. A recent poll had Ellison head of Wardlow by five points, with 18 percent undecided.

Wardlow, who blasted the DFL’s report, brought up the allegations in their first debate and Ellison responded appropriately, the DNC members and political observers interviewed for this story said.


Unless something major—like the release of the video Monahan claims to have showing Ellison being abusive—comes out, Monahan’s allegations may end up leaving him with little more than a few political bruises. For now, Felix said, Ellison is doing everything an innocent man is supposed to do in his situation: deny the allegations, call for investigations into the claims and be as respectful of the accuser as possible.

“As long as you make it clear that you are just as invested in the truth as everyone else, but from a place of grace, respect and honoring survivors, then you are probably going to have a situation that looks a lot more like Keith Ellison’s than Kavanaugh’s,” she said.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.



The big problem I see here is that they claim there’s video evidence but won’t release it. If they show it to people, then people can corroborate. Otherwise, if they hadn’t said anything, things would be a lot more complicated. As it is now, one party claims they have video evidence of abuse but won’t release it, but claim they need to be believed anyways, and that’s going to be problematic if we can’t see the evidence you say you have.