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?

By his own admission, Ellison did not take the anti-Semitism charges seriously at first. He had never been a member of Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, and he believed—too readily, it turned out—that most people would understand there was a distinction between Farrakhan's extremist and undeniably anti-Semitic views and the mainstream of Islam, just as there was a distinction between the Moral Majority and the mainstream of Christianity.

Fortunately he had a number of Jewish friends to serve as a sounding board, and they told him he would have to respond. Among the most important was State Rep. Frank Hornstein from south Minneapolis, who sat next to Ellison at the Capitol when the two were incoming freshmen legislators four years ago. Their friendship was minted in February 2003 during a 90-minute car ride to a cheese factory in Litchfield after both accepted the challenge from a rural Republican colleague to come learn about agricultural issues. It was enhanced a few months later on the House floor, when Hornstein watched Ellison take the lead role in the ethics case against Arlon Lindner, who had claimed gays and lesbians weren't persecuted during the Holocaust. Hornstein's mother was a Holocaust survivor. His wife is the senior rabbi at Temple Israel, one of the largest synagogues in the metro. Since 9/11, the mosque Ellison belongs to, Masjid An-Nur, has frequently engaged the Jewish community through Temple Israel.

"I told him I thought this Farrakhan stuff was serious and important to address. He kind of laid it on the line in terms of, 'This is what I said and what I did,' and I said, well, it's important to get that in writing. And he wrote a letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council. This was still early, not long after his endorsement," Hornstein says. The May 28 letter specifically cites not only Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, but a number of other people and situations named in the blogs as evidence of Ellison's bigotry. The letter uses unequivocal words like "reject and condemn" to describe his feelings toward advocates of anti-Semitism. "What struck me is at the end of the letter when he says, 'Whatever comes out of this, I want to be a part of improving Black-Jewish relations,'" Hornstein says. "I've heard him repeat that many times and know it to be true."

Ten days after Ellison submitted his letter to the JCRC, the number-two person in the al Qaeda hierarchy, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, was killed in a bombing in Iraq. The weblog Kennedy vs. the Machine (as the name suggests, it was created to boost the candidacy of Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Mark Kennedy) posted Zarqawi's picture over the caption, "Condolences can be sent to Ellison HQ." KvM operator Gary M. Miller justified this heinous stunt by claiming that Zarqawi and Ellison have a "shared history of anti-Semitism."

As the operator of a website promoting Republican Mark Kennedy was equating Ellison with a mass-murdering Muslim terrorist, Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten was taking the case for Ellison's anti-Semitism into the mainstream media. Near the end of a column titled "Let's not forget Ellison's support of Nation of Islam," Kersten wrote, "Imagine that a Republican seeks his party's endorsement for the U.S. House of Representatives, despite having been allied with a white supremacist organization just a decade earlier...That man wouldn't get his party's endorsement."

Sylvia Kaplan read those words and thought, "What in the world are we doing agreeing with Katherine Kersten on this stuff?" Sylvia's husband, lawyer Sam Kaplan, is a past president of the Minnesota Jewish Federation. They have three children currently living in Israel. They are also among the most prominent fundraisers for Democratic candidates in the state. They were traveling in China when Sabo announced his retirement, and came home to find phone messages from 11 prospective candidates currying their support.

The Kaplans had initially favored City Councilwoman Lisa Goodman for the Fifth District, but she chose not to run. They were favorably disposed toward Gail Dorfman, but did not think she could win the endorsement, and figured they'd bide their time before committing to a candidate. After Ellison won over the delegates, it wasn't hard to find operatives of his DFL primary opponents spreading the word that the Kaplans were very unhappy about the choice. Sylvia says some of this stemmed from Ellison's support for former Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles, who was forced to resign in February. And then there was the internet drumbeat. "Like other people," notes Kaplan, "we read the blogs, which made it sound like Keith was very close to Farrakhan."

Mutual friends of Ellison and the Kaplans began lobbying gently for a meeting. They included Hornstein, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, and, perhaps most influentially, Art Himmelman. A consultant whose business card reads, "Helping communities work collaboratively for social justice," Himmelman is the man who first introduced the Kaplans to the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone. By the second weekend in June, a meeting had been tentatively set up in Rochester, where the Kaplans and Ellison were attending the state DFL convention. The three met on the day after Kersten's anti-Semitism column appeared in the paper.

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