State Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, perhaps the most controversial Democratic lawmaker in the state, is facing a primary challenge from Liz Lee, a first-time candidate who has amassed support from an array of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor establishment, which has shunned Thompson.
Thompson and Lee will appear on Tuesday’s ballot for House District 67A, which covers much of St. Paul’s East Side, a heavily Democratic area.
Thompson was expelled from the House Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus by his peers last year after police reports surfaced in which women accused Thompson of violence in several jurisdictions before he was elected. He has never been convicted of domestic abuse, and he denied the abuse allegations.
The remarkable event capped a tumultuous period that featured top Democrats, including Gov. Tim Walz, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-4th), House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and DFL Chairman Ken Martin calling for the first-term lawmaker to resign.
Thompson refused and sought the DFL endorsement for his re-election. He didn’t get it; Lee did.
Despite the dramatic backdrop, the primary campaign has thus far played itself out in relative quiet.
Lee has been amassing endorsements and campaigning publicly but only mentions Thompson by name when asked.
“John can speak for himself,” she said in a recent interview.
It’s unclear what Thompson has done to publicize his campaign other than yard signs.
He did not return numerous phone calls and emails from the Pioneer Press, and his social media channels are silent, aside from a single post in July urging people to vote for him. His campaign website, as of Friday, appeared to have not been updated since 2020, when he was elected. That website still contained now-outdated endorsements from former supporters, including Walz and McCollum, whose campaigns criticized the stale and misleading information when the Pioneer Press made them aware of it.
Thompson, a married father, worked in St. Paul Public Schools and was friends with Philando Castile, who was killed by a St. Anthony police officer during a 2016 traffic stop. Castile’s killing led Thompson to become an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Following the murder of George Floyd, Thompson’s firebrand activist style proved difficult to square with his stature as a legislator after he was elected to the open seat in 2020.
He pushed for sweeping changes to policing — prioritizing community-based programs over hiring more cops — and other progressive policies, as well as introducing bills aimed at funding East Side projects. But controversies soon surrounded Thompson. Among them:
He faced backlash after a profanity-laced outburst during a protest outside the Hugo home of a police union official.
He claimed he was racially profiled after being pulled over by St. Paul police during a traffic stop, an incident that also exposed Thompson’s inattention to regulations such has having a proper driver’s license. He later apologized to the officer.
A Hennepin County jury convicted him of misdemeanor obstruction charges stemming from a 2019 incident in which he shouted at police and tried to block a doorway inside North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale. Thompson said police discriminated against him.
Lee, a 31-year-old nonprofit consultant who has worked in several Democratic congressional offices, isn’t trying to frame the primary as a referendum on Thompson but is trying to push the narrative that she’s the person for the job, regardless of her opponent. “My goal has been to re-center our race to the East Side, to the constituents, and to voters to make sure they are able to pick the best candidate,” said Lee, who is single with no children.
“I’m a Hmong daughter of the East Side,” she began her pitch in a recent interview, echoing her video introduction on her campaign website. “I grew up here and I have seen a lot of changes. … The goal is an East Side that works for everybody.”
Top among her priorities to that end are reducing the cost of housing, attracting well-paying jobs to the area, and improving environmental sustainability, which includes investing in mass transit. She said the first bill she would introduce at the Legislature “would probably be a housing bill. As someone who is a renter, I think there are a lot of challenges, particularly on the East Side, but not unique to here. I think it’s also really important to support homeowners. … We want to make sure people who have lived here for generations can afford to stay here.”
The winner will face Republican Beverly Peterson in the Nov. 8 general election.