By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
It was still early in the day when the phone rang at Donna Ellringer's house. U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug was on the line, wanting to know how she'd liked the dawn drug raid he'd orchestrated at the 1818 Park Avenue apartment building, across the street from her house.
Ellringer, the head of the Park Avenue Block Club, was flabbergasted. Agents had made 12 arrests and confiscated one illegal weapon while she'd slept like a baby--albeit with a loaded shotgun next to her bed. Lillehaug, she says, snickered that his raids were so good they didn't even disturb the neighbors.
Never mind that technically, the only agents Minnesota's top federal prosecutor fields are lawyers (drug raids are conducted by police or the federal Drug Enforcement Administration): To hear Ellringer tell it, the U.S. attorney is the only high-level official in Minnesota who can find the Phillips neighborhood without a map. "He's our hero," she says, "our knight in shining armor."
That phone call came three months ago. On Friday, Ellringer set out to repay Lillehaug for the favor. She and a handful of other neighborhood anti-crime activists lined up at Phillips's Peavey Park, just up the street from the building where, two months after Lillehaug's raid, the body of 77-year-old Ann Prazniak was found in a cardboard box. Beneath a banner reading "Fight Crime with David Lillehaug," they announced that in the next two weeks they plan to gather the signatures of 5,000 people who want the federal prosecutor to run for elected office. "We are inundated with criminals running our streets," Ellringer said, facing the lone TV cameraman who'd come to cover the event. "This is no different from Bosnia most nights. We don't feel we've had enough leadership from downtown Minneapolis and from our state leaders. That's why we're asking David Lillehaug to run for--what is it again?"
Ellringer turned toward Jim Graham, the Phillips gun-store owner who last year mounted an unsuccessful bid to unseat 6th Ward City Council member Jim Niland. "Attorney general of the state of Minnesota," he supplied.
If it weren't for confirmation from DFL insiders that Lillehaug has in fact spent the last month exploring a run for state AG, it would be easy to believe that Ellringer's press conference was a spontaneous, if naive, outpouring of support. As things stand, however, it looks more like the kind of trial balloon Ross "the Boss" launched when he decreed that if the people insisted, well, he'd have to run for president.
Rumors that Lillehaug would make an electoral bid first surfaced about a month ago, says Wy Spano, a former state attorney general. Party leaders were concerned that the front-runner in the AG race, state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge (DFL-New Hope), wasn't showing as well as they'd hoped. Lillehaug's supporters, he speculates, may have interpreted that disappointment as a political opening.
"The answer is yes, he's running," says Spano, who predicts that Junge nonetheless will win both the DFL endorsement and the September primary election. "One of the things you can say about these rumors is that it is possible to stop them."
Lillehaug himself won't throw cold water on the draft movement. "I'm in a nonpolitical position right now," he told City Pages last week. "The only thing I have to say today [about Ellringer's effort] is that it's some indication that prosecutors are connecting with the neighborhood." He refused to say more, but didn't drop the topic either: "What do you think about it?" he inquired.
So far, Ellringer and the other anti-crime activists at the press conference--Graham, American Indian Movement leader Clyde Bellecourt, and Portland Block Club leader Muriel Simmons--seem to be the only group prepared to publicly endorse a Lillehaug bid. No campaign committee has been formed yet, and DFLers are divided on whether it's too late in the election year to launch a serious candidacy.
But Lillehaug is no newcomer to politics. In 1983, not long after receiving his law degree from Harvard, he worked as a full-time staffer for Walter Mondale's losing presidential bid. Later, in private practice, he supported the campaigns of a number of local and state-level DFL candidates. In 1990, he worked on Paul Wellstone's campaign for U.S. Senate. And ever since President Clinton appointed Lillehaug to his current post in 1993, party insiders have speculated on whether he'd go on to a federal judgeship or elected office.
Depending on whom you ask, an alliance between David Lillehaug and Donna Ellringer is either made in heaven or in hell. Ellringer--who previously gained notoriety for sponsoring neighborhood "crack tours" and seeking to have Phillips declared a federal disaster area--became a minor local celebrity when her husband, Maurice, was arrested last September following a racially charged post-debate brawl between supporters of Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and challenger Barbara Carlson. Minneapolis police officer Charlie Adams claimed that Maurice Ellringer struck him with his car while trying to leave the fracas. Ellringer, who wasn't charged in the incident, said he and his wife were fleeing an angry black mob.
More recently, Donna Ellringer has become the epicenter of a media feeding frenzy in the wake of Ann Prazniak's death. She was at 1818 Park when police found Prazniak's badly decomposed body, and was quoted to that effect. She was photographed tacking a farewell sign to "Miss Ann" on the single tree outside the apartment building. And the night after the grisly discovery, some 125 people attended an impromptu memorial service at the nine-bedroom Victorian the Ellringers are slowly restoring.
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."