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The rise, fall and future of Minnesota Rep. John Thompson – Twin Cities

John Thompson isn’t going away.

The tenure of the Minnesota House member from St. Paul may be coming to an end after losing the Democratic primary to newcomer Liz Lee, but Thompson said his unflinching “fight against racial injustice” won’t end.

“I haven’t lost who I am,” Thompson said in an interview with the Pioneer Press. “I’m still a Black man living in Minnesota, one of the most racist states in America.”

That kind of in-your-face-rhetoric characterized Thompson’s rapid ascent from private citizen to activist to state lawmaker in a matter of years. And it might have doomed him, as well. That, and a number of controversies that punctuated his career in the public eye — a career that some of his Black peers had hoped might last longer. Some hope it still might, although many acknowledge the staid decorum of the Legislature always would have been a hard match for Thompson’s temperament.


“If my friend wasn’t killed by Jeronimo Yanez, I would never have been a politician,” Thompson said, naming the now-former St. Anthony police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a 2016 traffic stop in Falcon Heights. “Before that, I didn’t even know who to vote for.”

The two men became friends while working for St. Paul Public Schools, and Thompson has said he felt both outraged and duty-bound to act after Castile’s killing and Yanez’s ultimate acquittal by a jury on charges of manslaughter and dangerous discharge of a firearm.

John Thompson attends a fundraiser Aug. 21, 2016, at Central High School in St. Paul. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Thompson became active in the Black Lives Matter movement, which gained momentum locally after Castile’s killing — and then went into overdrive after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Out of that activism, Thompson emerged as the DFL-endorsed candidate for an open seat representing St. Paul’s heavily Democratic East Side, and he was elected in 2020.


Even before his election, Thompson was a controversial figure. At a Black Lives Matter protest outside the Hugo home of then-Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll, Thompson screamed profanities at young white girls watching, suggested Hugo could be subject to arson like other areas in the wake of Floyd’s murder, and struck an effigy of Kroll’s wife, Liz Collin, who then was working as a WCCO-TV reporter.

In his interview with the Pioneer Press, Thompson said he didn’t know the effigy, a pinata, was supposed to be Collin, and he said he regretted that. At the time, he apologized for his “inflammatory rhetoric” but also struck a tone of defiance — a defiance that has never left Thompson.

John Thompson, Minnesota Democratic candidate for district 67A, speaks during a protest near Minneapolis Police Union Chief Bob Kroll's house on Aug. 15, 2020, in Hugo. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Thompson outside the Hugo home of Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob Kroll in 2020. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

“I’m not embattled. I’m not disgraced,” he said in the recent interview. “I walk outside with my head up high. You cannot break me.”

Perhaps not broken, but Thompson’s influence as a lawmaker was severely curtailed after a string of controversies led nearly every top Democrat to call for his resignation and prompted the DFL House caucus to expel him in a September 2021 closed-door vote, an exceedingly rare exile by his would-be compatriots.

Those controversies included:

The final straw came after police reports surfaced in which women accused Thompson of violence in several jurisdictions years before he rose to prominence. He never has been convicted of domestic abuse, and he continues to deny the allegations.

“I’m the first person ever to be convicted in the House of Representatives for something I was not convicted of in court,” he said.


Some Black veteran lawmakers say friction between Thompson and his colleagues was inevitable.

“I think that the key word for John is passionate — passionate is probably an understatement,” said Jeff Hayden, a DFLer who served 12 years in the Legislature, representing Minneapolis districts from 2009 to 2021. “He’s laser-focused on the thing he cares about or the things he believes the community is focused on. I just think the Legislature is a little different than people think. You’re representing your community — but so is everybody else. And it’s 201 of us.”

State Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said she doesn’t think Thompson’s tenure was always doomed, but that a Black man’s passions — especially amid the coronavirus pandemic’s limited interactions and the mandate from minorities in the wake for George Floyd’s murder — meant Thompson was likely to have a challenging time building relationships, which are crucial to accomplishing one’s goals at the Capitol. This is especially the case, Moran noted, since the Legislature Thompson served in was divided between a DFL-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate.

“Coming in with all that passion doesn’t always resonate with other legislators,” Moran said. “You can be seen as a bully, or as too far here or too far there. This place is a political beast.”

Some of Thompson’s critics have privately used the word “hothead” to describe him, pointing, among other anecdotes, to his blurting out in a live-and-virtual House debate that a Latino lawmaker was “racist.” That lawmaker, state Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, received an apology from Thompson after filing a formal ethics complaint.

Hayden and Moran agreed that Thompson embodied a post-George Floyd urgency among communities of color to not just effect change rapidly, but to do so in a confrontational style.

“I think as a person of color, particularly a Black Minnesotan, there’s a lot of pressure on you to deliver to your community — to ‘keep it real,’ as we say,” Hayden said. “They wanna see you go toe-to-toe and not seem part of the establishment. The challenge for all of us, and for John, is making sure people at home see you as a fighter, but also within the decorum of the Legislature.”

Both Moran and Hayden said the essence of Thompson’s voice — a proud Black man willing to press both Republicans and fellow Democrats — is invaluable, and they hope he stays active.

“What I would like John, who I call my brother, to do, is take some time to be still, and reflect, and figure out what it is he wants,” Moran said. “He can represent that district so well, and the East Side needs representation.”


John Thompson speaks to the media after a verdict in his trial at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Thompson was found guilty of obstructing the legal process when he shouted at police, barred a doorway he was told to vacate and resisted arrest in a 2019 incident in Robbinsdale. (Craig Lassig / Special to the Pioneer Press)
Thompson speaking to the media in 2021. (Craig Lassig / Special to the Pioneer Press)

When Thompson spoke with the Pioneer Press for close to an hour, he wasn’t still.

He said he wasn’t bitter, but he railed against Democrats and Republicans with equal fervor, calling them “two wings of the same bird.”

He said Gov. Tim Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and Attorney General Keith Ellison, all Democrats, gave hollow promises. Ellison, who is Black and has pushed for changes to policing for his entire career, is a “puppet of the Democratic Party,” Thompson said, adding that Ellison also asked him to resign, albeit not publicly, as Walz and Hortman did. Ellison could not be reached for comment.

Thompson maintains his actions in Hugo were the root of his scrutiny as a lawmaker and ouster from his caucus.

“I’m not a monster, but I’m the first African American ever to hold this seat from St. Paul,” he said. “The party was scared of me. I got kicked out because of my mouth, because of Hugo, Minnesota. Why were we in Hugo in the first place? Because … racism.”

What would he have done differently?

“I would have opened my mouth a lot more, but the party kept telling me to be quiet,” he said.


Thompson said he holds no ill will toward Lee, who secured the DFL endorsement, trounced Thompson in this month’s primary, and is a presumptive favorite to win the general election in November in the district against Republican Beverly Peterson.

“I didn’t lose ‘my seat,’ ” Thompson said. “This seat doesn’t belong to me. People vote.”

He said he plans to take time to consult with family to figure out his next path.

“I’m not going nowhere,” he said.

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