A debate between Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and his Republican challenger Chris Fields on Thursday in Minneapolis got so personal and vitriolic that Ellison ultimately blew up in anger, calling his opponent “a low-life scumbag” and causing the radio station hosting the event to cut to commercial twice in an effort to calm things down.
The whole debate was nasty from the start, with Ellison frequently interrupting Fields and calling him a liar, and Fields accusing Ellison of being corrupt and influenced by interest groups who donate to his campaign.
Things reached a boiling point when Fields accused Ellison of having been behind a recent story about Fields’ divorce six years ago in which his ex-wife accused him of domestic violence.
“You are a low-life scumbag. You are a low-life scumbag,” Ellison said at a point when Fields began making remarks on Ellison’s own divorce.
Fields brought up the topic after Ellison touted the work of Congressional Democrats on equal pay and health care access for women.
“And the Congressman can sit here, and talk about all of these great things for women,” Fields said. “But you know what he did? With this money that he raised, he took $240,000 and gave it to some Washington, D.C., firm, and then the Minnesota DFL, who he has given thousands, tens of thousands of dollars to—”
Ellison interrupted: “I wouldn’t go there, if I was you.”
Fields continued: “—and they took that money and gave it to this Washington, D.C., firm, and started looking through my divorce.”
Here’s the transcript of what happened next:
Ellison: “What’d they find?”
Fields: “And what they found was a statement that my ex-wife had never given me, and she issued a statement saying, hey, it was a deeply troubling period. Now I will tell you this—”
Ellison: “You’re real stupid for bringing up your domestic violence allegations. I wasn’t gonna say a thing about it. I wasn’t gonna mention it.”
Fields: “You know, if you want to talk about divorce —”
Ellison: “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Fields: “—talk about your own. Talk about the fact—”
Ellison: “You are a scumbag.”
Fields: “—that you only pay $500 for child support. Talk about that. You used that money to hurt my ex-wife, who I still love.”
Ellison: “You are a low-life scumbag. You are a low-life scumbag.”
Fields: “I did not spend money to look into my divorce. You did.”
Ellison: “You are a gutter-dweller, and you’re an idiot for bringing up your domestic violence charges.”
Fields: “There was never any.”
(Moderator interrupts, tries to steer things back to economic issues.)
Ellison: “Wow. I can’t believe you did that.”
Then came a brief discussion of economic issues, in which Ellison was asked about the historical and continuing problems for African-Americans. Fields, who is also black, returned to the topic of his divorce papers:
Fields: “But here’s the thing, when he says that we’re not doing anything about it, that I’m personally not doing anything about it — well you know what, I’m trying to remove the biggest obstacle to it. And that’s you, right now, okay, because you have not focused. You focused on looking at my divorce papers. You focused on taking trips overseas—”
Ellison: “I did not look at your divorce papers.”
Fields: “Well, apparently—”
Ellison: “My daughter is in the next room, and you get up there talking about that?”
Fields: “You know what—”
Ellison: “I’m using a lot of self-control right now, sir.”
Fields: “My ex-wife was crushed by what you did—”
Ellison: “I had nothing to do with that, and you know it! And I called you, and I told you I had nothing to do with it! And you know I didn’t have anything to do with it, and yet you brought it up anyway! And what it boils down to is what she said you did to her!”
Fields: “And you know what—”
Ellison: “And how do you deal with that? Did you do it or not?”
The station then cut to a commercial break. But when it came back to the debate, Ellison and Fields could still be heard bickering.
“I told you I didn’t have anything to do with it!” Ellison said. “You didn’t have to mention it! You brought it up!”
The station quickly returned to commercials and only came back after the pair had calmed down.
In the afternoon, Ellison released a statement apologizing for the incident:
“In response to my opponent’s false statement, I made an uncivil reference to him. I should not have done so. I acted beneath my personal standard as a public official, and I apologize,” Ellison said. “His untrue reference to the terms of my divorce was over the line, but my comment to him was over the line too.”
The full audio is available from KFAI radio, with the key moment beginning at about the 36:40 mark.