Draft Dodger

U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug is playing hard to get, but DFL insiders say he's in the race for attorney general

Since then, a steady stream of reporters and local officials have come through the Ellringers' living room to watch drug deals being made across the street. And Donna has told every one of them that Lillehaug is the only ranking official who has been a regular fixture in the area. He personally measured out the drug-free zone that encompasses a local school and the Ellringers' house. He has attended block-club meetings and takes members' phone calls, assuring them he'll look into the problem properties they report.

That Lillehaug's campaign might have been effectively kicked off by a figure as controversial as Ellringer surprises some observers. "He has long-standing ties to Mondale--he could have endorsed him," notes D.J. Leary, editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota. "He would make a tasty morsel for the liberals with his support of the death penalty... and the Qubilah Shabazz case."

In 1995, Lillehaug's rising star was tarnished by his failed prosecution of Qubilah Shabazz, Malcolm X's daughter, on charges she plotted to assassinate Minister Louis Farrakhan. Shortly thereafter a federal judge threw out his high-profile prosecution of University of Minnesota surgeon John Najarian, complaining that Lillehaug should never have taken the case to trial.

But unlike those cases, Lillehaug's involvement with inner-city anti-crime efforts has earned him nothing but positive headlines. In January, he toured Phillips with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who lauded his collaboration with the block clubs. A month later, he announced $1.5 million in new funding from the federal "Weed and Seed" program for local anti-crime efforts--nearly three times as much as Minnesota had received in each of the two previous years. And last week's issue of Newsweek featured a story about Lillehaug that detailed his indictment of an alleged leader of the 6-0-Tre Crips on charges he ordered the 1994 firebombing of an East Side St. Paul home, killing five children. The story praised Lillehaug's efforts to win the trust of St. Paul NAACP head Nick Khaliq, who had been highly critical of the Shabazz case.

The article didn't say anything about a potential electoral bid--one reason why the draft-Lillehaug campaign astonished Khaliq. "I thought there would be very few things I would hear about politics that would surprise me, and this surprises me," Khaliq said last week upon hearing about the Phillips press conference. "I just thought there were some other pressing concerns he'd want to address or clean up first. Especially the fragile relationship between his office and the African American community.

"I guess it gives some legitimacy to those people who said he was doing what he did for political gain."

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