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Corporate Power Is On The Ballot In Minnesota

Nov 5, 2022 Julia Rock
The attorney general race between Keith Ellison and Jim Schultz could shape consumer rights litigation across the country.
Corporate Power Is On The Ballot In Minnesota
Keith Ellison and Jim Schultz (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

One of the staunchest consumer protection advocates in America will face off against a corporate lawyer in an election on Nov. 8 that could shape litigation against corporations nationwide.

Incumbent Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) has sued a major private equity landlord for failing to maintain rental units, aggressively prosecuted wage theft, led multi-state actions to lower prescription drug prices, and moved to block a major acquisition by health insurance giant UnitedHealth Group under antitrust law.

His Republican opponent Jim Schultz, meanwhile, has said that if he wins office he will cut resources to the attorney general office’s corporate prosecution division. The 36-year-old hedge fund lawyer has also called Ellison’s lawsuit against oil companies for deceiving the public on climate change “frivolous.”

In a similar case, Schultz claimed in a recent debate that Ellison went too far in prosecuting an egg company for tripling its prices early in the COVID-19 pandemic — while failing to disclose that the egg company’s CEO, Beth Schnell, had donated $2,500 to Schultz this cycle, the maximum individual contribution. The price gouging case was eventually settled by an agreement that the company would donate more than a million eggs to hungry Minnesotans.

Ellison is facing an unexpectedly tight election in a state where a Republican has not won statewide office since 2006. While Republicans and corporate outlets like Politico Magazine and the New York Times have suggested the race is a referendum on crime and abortion, given the office’s actual statutory authority, the outcome of the election could have much bigger implications for Minnesotans on issues like health care and consumer and worker protections.

If Schultz wins, he has made clear that he does not intend to use the office to take on corporate power in health care, housing, and workers’ rights issues the way Ellison has.

The candidate has never held political office, and his employment record has largely gone unscrutinized, in part because he has declined to disclose any information about his private-sector clients. The attorney, who admitted he has no courtroom experience, has spent the last decade working for law firms and hedge funds that have been active in the post-mortgage meltdown real estate market and in the subprime lending space.

His donor list — which features maximum contributions from private equity lawyers and corporate executives, as well as nearly $2 million in donations from the corporate-funded Republican Attorneys General Association — stands in stark contrast to Ellison’s broad support from labor unions and consumer protection attorneys.

Meanwhile, every single advertisement currently running to boost Schultz and attack Ellison is focused on crime, according to data from AdImpact — even though the attorney general’s office lacks jurisdiction on the issue.

A Tale Of Two Lawyers

Ellison and Schultz have spent the past decade doing vastly different types of work, and their backgrounds suggest the dissimilar ways each would likely approach the job of attorney general.

Ellison has been a key player on the national political stage for over a decade. As congressman and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus from 2011 to 2017, he fought to add labor and environmental protections to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the major Obama-era trade agreement, and pushed for robust investigations into the financial instruments and the banks that led to the home mortgage meltdown.

In 2017, Ellison unsuccessfully ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee chair, representing the populist wing in a battle for the future of the party, but lost to former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

After being elected Minnesota attorney general in 2018, Ellison again captured national headlines in July 2020 for prosecuting the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd.

Ellison has also played a key role in Minnesota and nationally as a labor, environmental, and consumer advocate, leading and participating in multi-state efforts to lower drug prices, bringing an antitrust suit against the nation’s largest health insurer, and backing and aggressively enforcing legislation to help win workers hundreds of thousands of dollars back in stolen wages. He also sued individual members of the Sackler family for their role in the opioid crisis, sued oil companies for deceiving Minnesotans about the climate crisis, and won settlements against internet companies for overbilling customers.

In February, Ellison sued one of the largest landlords in the state, owned by a major hedge fund, for failing to repair crumbling properties. “Systematically under-resourcing the upkeep of their properties and leaving many tenants in homes that are uninhabitable is a deliberate strategy to maximize and extract profit from Minnesota families,” Ellison said in a news conference on the case.

Meanwhile, because Schultz has never held political office, information about how he has spent the past decade is scant. He has not disclosed his private sector clients.

As a result, Schultz’s private-sector work has flown under the radar. After graduating law school, Schultz worked in the real estate practices of two different corporate law firms — Kirkland & Ellis, and Dorsey & Whitney. Schultz then moved to a real estate investment firm as an attorney.

In 2016, according to his LinkedIn profile, Schultz started working for Two Harbors Investment, a real estate company founded at the peak of the financial crisis to invest in subprime mortgage-backed securities — the financial instruments that fueled the risk-taking activity that led to the home mortgage meltdown.

The firm, Two Harbors Investment, later moved into the mortgage servicing business and build-to-rent investments. In 2013, Bloomberg News reported that Two Harbors — alongside private equity firms Blackstone Group and Colony Capital — was seeking to transform the single-family home business “dominated by small investors into a new institutional asset class that JPMorgan Chase & Co. estimates could be worth as much as $1.5 trillion.”

That year, Two Harbors launched a publicly traded real estate investment trust led by a former Goldman Sachs executive, which was the largest such entity focused on single-family homes.

Schultz was at Two Harbor Investments until 2017, and then moved to the hedge fund Värde Partners, according to his LinkedIn profile.

The state Democratic-Farmer-Labor party called on Schultz last month to disclose his clients from his hedge fund work, but Schultz has not done so.

Such information could be illuminating, seeing as Värde owns or holds stakes in massive real estate developers, mortgage servicers, and consumer lenders.

Between 2017 and 2021 when Schultz was at the firm, Värde made major investments in mortgage servicing, residential real estate, and consumer lending. That included acquisitions of the fintech lenders Aplazame, WiZink, and Mercury Financial, and the “buy now, pay later” firm Genoapay.

In 2021, Värde “announced it has provided more than $250 million of capital to purchase and fund the development of single family residential projects across three transactions in the U.S.”

When Ellison has attacked Schultz for his work at Värde, Schultz has pointed out that the Minnesota Pension Fund — which the state attorney general sits on the board of — has invested money with the firm, suggesting that if the firm were so bad, Ellison would have pressed the pension fund to avoid the investment.

Corporate Cash Versus Union Support

While Schultz’s client list remains obscure, his donor list provides clues to his allegiances, since he has received numerous maximum individual contributions from private equity lawyers and real estate interests.

Partners at Schultz’s most recent employer, Värde, are largely prohibited from making political donations since the state pension fund is an investor. Former managing partner Jason Spaeth, however, made a maximum individual contribution.

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Schultz has received maximum individual contributions from corporate lawyers at his former workplaces Kirkland & Ellis and Dorsey & Whitney, and he has also received maxed-out donations from attorneys at the corporate firms Mayer Brown LLP and Robins Kaplan LLP. Schultz has furthermore received maximum contributions from individuals employed at various private equity and financial firms including Laxard, Ascentis, and Stone Arch Capital, as well as health insurance giant UnitedHealth Group.

But the bigger chunk of spending in the election has come in the form of independent expenditures, or spending by groups that are not subject to contribution limits but are prohibited from coordinating with campaigns.

Ellison and his backers — primarily the People’s Lawyers Project, the state arm of the Democratic Attorneys General Association — have spent $4.2 million on advertising, while Schultz and his backers have spent $3.4 million, according to data from AdImpact.

Top donors to the Democratic Attorneys General Association include the Progressive State Leaders Committee, which supports progressive attorneys general, as well as Amalgamated Bank, which is majority owned by the Service Employees International Union affiliate Workers United. The association is also bankrolled by major labor unions including the American Federation of State City & Municipal Employees and the Communication Workers of America, among other donors.

The biggest spender boosting Schultz and attacking Ellison is Minnesota for Freedom, which is solely funded by the Republican Attorneys General Association and has spent $1.8 million boosting him and attacking Ellison.

Top donors to the Republican Attorneys General Association include the Concord Fund, a dark money group steered by former President Donald Trump’s judicial adviser Leonard Leo; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its affiliates; and Koch Industries, the conglomerate led by billionaire Charles Koch.

The Attorney General’s Power

Every pro-Schultz and anti-Ellison advertisement currently airing is focused on crime, according to data from AdImpact.

One such advertisement, funded by Minnesota for Freedom, features a scene with an apparent inmate calling from a Minnesota prison. “Hey, I want you to know why the inmates are supporting Attorney General Keith Ellison,” the supposed inmate says. The ad features a scene of a violent carjacking, which actually took place in Miami, Florida, not Minnesota.

Dozens of faith leaders in Minnesota demanded the ad be taken down for using “race-baiting tropes.”

In reality, the attorney general’s office has no original jurisdiction to prosecute street crimes. While Schultz has said he will use the state’s racketeering law to bypass this statutory restriction, experts doubt this move would be legal. Only in rare cases can county attorneys or the governor ask the attorney general to step in to prosecute a crime.

Instead, the attorney general’s office is tasked with enforcing state laws and consumer protection laws, and representing state agencies in lawsuits — and it is in these areas where the results of Tuesday’s election could have far-reaching implications.

Schultz says that if he is elected, he intends to increase funding for the office’s criminal division by diverting funds from the office’s other divisions, if the legislature refuses to give him additional funds for his efforts. The Republican state legislature has denied three requests from Ellison for more funding for the office’s criminal division, which had one attorney when Ellison took office in 2018 and now has three.

The power of the state attorney general’s office to impact corporations across the country was highlighted this week, when actions by an attorney general blocked a private equity firm from looting grocery stores attempting a controversial merger.

In early October, grocery store giant Kroger’s announced it intended to acquire the private-equity owned giant Albertson’s.

But first, Albertson’s announced, it would issue a $4 billion dividend to its private equity shareholders — further looting a company that has already exorbitantly hiked prices during the pandemic ahead of a potential merger that could lead to mass layoffs.

In a stunning turn of events, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) sued to block the dividend, and won a temporary injunction on Nov. 3.

Meanwhile, multiple state attorneys general have sued to block the merger.

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