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Doug Wardlow and Keith Ellison can’t agree on what an attorney general does

Keith Ellison and Doug Wardlow both want to be Minnesota's attorney general, but they don't agree on what that means.

Keith Ellison and Doug Wardlow both want to be Minnesota's attorney general, but they don't agree on what that means. Associated Press

We have two men vying for one position -- Attorney General of Minnesota -- and they do not agree on what an attorney general does.

During a debate that aired Sunday, Republican candidate Doug Wardlow told the audience that the job of the attorney general is “not to weigh in and make laws,” but that his Democratic opponent, Keith Ellison, “apparently thinks it is.”

“If you want to make laws, you should have stayed in Congress,” he said.

Ellison “shot back,” according to a report in the Star Tribune, that Minnesotan attorneys general have always been transparent about what policies they supported -- and furthermore, that Wardlow himself was hardly an exception.

“It’s very clear [Wardlow] has a policy agenda. He just doesn’t want to say what it is,” Ellison said.

Putting the heated language aside, the exchange does pose an important question: What exactly does an attorney general do? Can we agree on a job description? Have we ever?

Technically, a state’s attorney general -- currently Lori Swanson in Minnesota -- represents its people in civil and criminal court cases. That includes representing consumers when, say, a contractor doesn’t finish a project she’s been paid to do, or when a pharmaceutical company allegedly price-gouges patients who will pay just about anything for insulin.

The attorney general also acts as the legal advisor to state legislators. She lets them know whether proposed legislation -- or, in some cases, their actions -- are or are not constitutional. (Fun fact: It is not required for the attorney general herself to be an attorney.)

That’s the textbook definition, but what it means to be an attorney general is quickly evolving into a built-in check on the highest political office in the nation. Attorneys general have been the front lines in countering some of President Donald Trump’s most influential decisions, from ending key Affordable Care Act subsidies to each installment in a series of bans on travelers from several Muslim majority countries.

Lest you think that’s a liberal development, it’s not. Attorneys general were also engaged in stymying the efforts of former President Barack Obama. Somewhere between 1980 and 2010, the number of lawsuits brought by state attorneys against the federal government per year rocketed from three to 11, and that spiked to 27 in 2017.

The office of the attorney general is becoming more partisan nationwide -- and that should be expected, because attorneys general, like everyone else running for office, are politicians. They are elected by the people, endorsed by political parties, and swayed by the political sentiments of the time.

Most of all, they’re human beings. Attorneys general have had political stances since the day the office came into existence. Just ask Francis R. E. Cornell, who was Minnesota’s attorney general between 1868 and 1874, and a noted abolitionist.

Or Joseph A. A. Burnquist, who held the seat during the ‘40s and ‘50s, and was fervently against the United States’ involvement in World War I, which he called “the world’s baptism of blood.” Or Walter Mondale, who went on to become vice president alongside Democrat Jimmy Carter, and was vocal on civil rights issues like ending housing discrimination and desegregating schools.

Wardlow himself, for all his disparaging of Ellison’s political views, has a history working with the Alliance Defending Freedom, and has, among other things, defended a funeral home’s supposed right to fire a transgender woman for wearing feminine clothing to work. And a bakery’s right to refuse wedding cakes to paying same-sex customers. And a school district’s right to forbid transgender youth from using the locker rooms where they feel they belong.

Not to mention he’s promised to “fire 42 Democratic attorneys” “right off the bat” as soon as he takes over the office.

We may well argue whether the office of the attorney general should be partisan or able to help shape policy. But one thing is certain, and voters should be advised: It is now.