Rep. John Thompson on Hugo protest: ‘That’s something I really regret’

Thompson gave an hour-long interview ahead of an endorsement convention where he faces two challengers

By: - March 24, 2022 7:00 am

Rep. John Thompson, I-Saint Paul, shows he now has a Minnesota driver’s license after a July 4, 2021 traffic stop revealed he held one from Wisconsin, raising residency questions. Photo by Nicole Meri/Minnesota Reformer

Rep. John Thompson, the St. Paul lawmaker who was banished by his Democratic-Farmer-Labor colleagues and now caucuses as an Independent, said he regrets the Hugo protest that first made him a political albatross for fellow Democratic elected officials, including Gov. Tim Walz. 

Months after the police murder of George Floyd, activists traveled to the Hugo home of then-Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob Kroll, arguing the bombastic and controversial union leaderhad helped foster a toxic culture in the police department. They also criticized his record, which included more than 50 complaints over 31 years and 11 lawsuits, per his own accounting. They beat piñatas of Kroll and his wife, former WCCO reporter and anchor, Liz Collin, who now reports for the right-leaning Alpa News

“If somebody showed up to my mother’s house, banging on a piñata that was an effigy of my mother, I would lose my doggone mind,” Thompson said in an hour-long interview with the Reformer.

“That’s something that I really regret,” said Thompson, who only became politically active after his friend Philando Castile was shot and killed by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez.

He spoke with the Reformer a week ahead of a DFL endorsement convention. He faces two challengers who hope to beat him for the endorsement and the August primary, Hoang Murphy, founder of the St. Paul-based nonprofit Foster Advocates; and Kaozouapa “Liz” Lee, a nonprofit consultant and former Washington, D.C., staffer. 

Thompson was booted from the House DFL caucus after police reports became public showing domestic abuse allegations from more than 10 years ago. He also faced questions about his residency after a July 4, 2021 traffic stop in Saint Paul showed he held a Wisconsin driver’s license. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Why should your constituents re-elect you?

My message is consistent, and I’m a walking, talking, breathing testimony of “be the change you want to see.” I don’t have an Ivy League background. I’m like everyone who lives in my district. When young people in our community see somebody that looks like them doing something like this right here, it actually gives them an image of something that they can aspire to be. I’m already winning because when I go to Arlington Rec Center the kids say, he’s a politician. That feels good for people to see. We don’t need another rapper, or a basketball player. We can have them, but we actually do need legislators. 

You went from being an activist to legislator. What are you finding works and what doesn’t work?

My job as a legislator is to plant seeds right now and come back and water them. When I say I’m sitting in the Agriculture Finance committee and I have an opportunity to talk to the chair and have the same conversation that I’m having with you about our at-risk youth, I’ve just planted some seeds. What I find out is a lot of people at the state Capitol, they really want to help my community, but they don’t know much about my community. Then we slam it in their face, and they close up and, hey, don’t want to hear about my community. But if we just sitting down with a cup of coffee and I take you to my community, and I show you what I’m talking about, that’s how we get $1.5 million for the Sanneh Foundation in the East Side of Saint Paul

Minnesota House Rep. John Thompson speaks about his platform and campaign for re-election at Golden Thyme in St. Paul Friday, March 18, 2022. Photo by Nicole Meri/Minnesota Reformer

You’ve pushed back and given statements on the allegations of domestic assault made against you before. Do you have anything new to add or say about that or any of the other controversies involving you?

I didn’t run for office 20 years ago. I’d be a damn fool to be the same man I was. People try to attack people and not attack the problem, and I’m attacking the problem, not people. 

The thing about the Hugo protest is, I didn’t know it was somebody’s wife. I didn’t know that. I just saw the piñata. But why was I there? At the end of the day, I was there because you don’t promote somebody with that many service complaints. I’m not the anti-police legislator. I wouldn’t be here if my friend wasn’t murdered. 

These tactics never change. Historically, any Black man who’s ever stood up and did exactly what I’ve been doing for the past seven years has always been a target of these same allegations and tactics to try to tear them down. I’m as tough as bricks. I won’t fold until the racial disparities fold. I got spit on in Hugo, Minnesota. I got called a n*gger in Hugo, Minnesota, but nobody will tell that story. They focus on John Thompson yelling at those precious white kids. We do a good job of hiding the racism they say doesn’t exist in this state.

I’m a human being. I’ve never done politics before so I’m going to bump my head but you will never catch me in Hugo, Minnesota again. As a matter of fact, my wife said showing up to people’s houses is off-limits for the rest of my life. 

When you had so many political leaders call for you to resign, did you ever consider doing so?

No, absolutely not because what you saw happened is no different. I’m no different than any other Black leader. You name one Black leader in this state who hasn’t had some type of ridicule. I am just very vocal about issues that matter. Pardon my brash delivery but there’s nothing sweet about racism.

You became a political liability for other Democratic elected officials in the state who had endorsed you, including Walz. How did that feel?

What’s sad is friends have had to distance themselves from me, right? Friends should be on the front lines fighting with me because of a political seat. So, is it people or politics? My message is consistent. I am going to continue to fight for people over politics.

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