Running Man

Keith Ellison, the DFL's endorsee for Congress in the Fifth District, has spent the summer countering attacks from Republicans—and Democrats. What made him everyone's favorite target?

The 2006 campaign season was barely a glimmering on the horizon to most people when the first shock wave hit the state's DFL party. On March 18, Fifth District Representative Martinæ Sabo—a 27-year veteran of Congress, and a legendary bringer of the bacon by dint of his service on the powerful Ways and Means Committee—announced that he would retire at the end of his current term. Sabo's abrupt exit, just seven weeks before the DFL endorsing convention, touched off a succession scrum that quickly turned into a virtual Who's Who of established party regulars, including longtime Sabo aide and former state party chair Mike Erlandson, Minneapolis City Council members Paul Ostrow and Gary Schiff, Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, and former state Senator Ember Reichgott Junge.

In all, no fewer than 11 DFLers put their eyes on the prize in the weeks following Sabo's withdrawal. The expansive slate of candidates attested to the fact that the Fifth is not just any congressional district in the eyes of the Democratic Party. Encompassing Minneapolis and its near suburbs, the Fifth is the state's most liberal urban district and the DFL's greatest stronghold in this purple era of state politics. Claiming the party's post-Sabo mantle there is the closest thing to a lock on a long career in national politics, and the power and prestige that come with it, that any Minnesota Democrat could hope to find.

Shocking as Sabo's late departure may have been, an even bigger surprise awaited the DFL machine at the party's May 6 endorsing convention at St. Louis Park High School. Going in, the conventional wisdom dictated a tight contest between Gail Dorfman, Mike Erlandson, and Keith Ellison, a two-term state representative from north Minneapolis. It turned out to be no contest at all: Ellison ran roughshod over the rest of the field, polling twice as many delegate votes as anyone else on the first ballot and receiving the endorsement by unanimous acclaim after three ballots. His charismatic oratory and command of the issues excited the delegates, but he'd built his diverse, winning coalition by playing against type on identity politics. His nominating speeches were delivered by Allan Spear, the state's first gay legislator (now retired), who praised Ellison's early stand against the war in Iraq, and another lawmaker, Connie Bernardy, who was a Sunday school teacher and suburban mom. She reminded folks that Ellison "values hard work."

Ellison's endorsement seemed to augur a sea change for the party. For years, the DFL had been conferring its blessings on cautious dullards who wouldn't seem out of place in a powdered wig (Roger Moe, anybody?). Ellison, by contrast, was a 42-year-old black attorney who had entered public life as a student activist at the University of Minnesota and later headed the Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit organization that specialized in the defense of indigent clients. More notoriously, Ellison—who converted to Islam as a 19-year-old college student in 1983—played a prominent role in rallying the Minnesota contingent to the 1995 Million Man March, in which nearly a million African American men marched on Washington at the behest of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

The party's endorsement left Ellison poised to become not only the first black elected official Minnesota had sent to Washington, but also (according to U.S. Senate historian Donald Ritchie) the first Muslim ever elected to Congress. As a jubilant throng of Ellison supporters left the premises that day, Minneapolis Park Board member Annie Young stood off to the side, resting an ailing hip, and watched them go. She raised her eyebrows and sounded a prescient alarm. "They should enjoy it now and then get back to work," she said warily. "Keith is a black man with designs on a very powerful position. You know there will be attacks."

Keith Ellison has essentially been under siege ever since. Ellison himself is to blame for some of this. Valid questions have been raised about the chronically sloppy way he has handled his personal and campaign finances. But those who oppose Ellison's candidacy have supplemented those legitimate concerns with a barrage of diatribes and innuendo impugning his character in a much more insidious manner. By July 12, less than 10 weeks after Ellison secured his party's endorsement, the newsletter Politics in Minnesota, which strains to define conventional political wisdom in the state, brazenly called him a "dead man walking." With the make-or-break DFL primary still two long months away, PIM's editors suggested that the best way for Ellison to "rehabilitate his career" was to simply abandon his bid for Congress and refile for his local legislative seat before the July 18 deadline. Yet today, less than two weeks before the primary that will almost certainly produce the next congressperson in this "safe" Democratic district, the polls and pundits indicate that Ellison is locked in a four-way contest that's too close to call.

The mud started flying just days after Ellison's surprise convention win. The first major barrage came early the following week, when an anonymously circulated email quoting the candidate's past pronouncements on race in America and detailing his tenuous, guilt-by-association ties to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam was sent to a wide range of local politicos and news organizations. A number of right-wing blogs began flogging Ellison for his alleged anti-Semitism, and by the following weekend those charges were being reported in mainstream media.

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