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?

"I have to admit, as we sat and talked to him for two hours, our minds flashed back 16 years and our first long conversation with Paul Wellstone," Sam says. "Sylvia and I know each other well enough that we can both feel where the other is headed. And here was a guy who didn't have an agenda as much as what came through to us was he believes in social justice and the common good, which is a Jewish tradition."

"He was clearly our kind of candidate," says Sylvia. "He was genuine. There was a lot of laughter and he was not pandering to us, not a salesman in that sense. It was a conversation about how he looks at the world and came to the conclusions he came to. And he listened, which is how Paul seduced us. It's like riffs in jazz: You say something, they say something and you go with it, but if a candidate doesn't listen, you can't do that. He clarified a number of things and admitted to some mistakes."

"And once we got to know him," Sam adds, "there is an appeal that we might send off a black Muslim to Washington, that we could be proud to be associated with that kind of change. I do think it's important that while the other candidates struggled to find the right words to deal with Iraq, Keith has been right out front, saying we need to stop this."

At the end of the meeting, they wrote Ellison a check, and set up a mammoth fundraiser attended by Walter Mondale, Rybak, and others, in late July. "It was a very important meeting," Ellison says. "There aren't many people who really care about people and have the means and the desire to really do something about it, and they are among those people. But more than that, they have good insights. They don't act like, 'I'm rich and you're not.' You can disagree with them. They're cool people, and regardless of what happens in this campaign, I'm better off having gotten to know them better."

But Ellison couldn't sit down and talk with everyone for two hours. With the blogs and Kersten putting blood in the water, it was only a matter of time before other members of the mainstream media started asking Ellison when he stopped being an anti-Semite. The issue came to dominate the campaign. On June 28, the Strib began a long feature story on the race by stating, "It seems that state Rep. Keith Ellison's campaign for Congress so far amounts to answering one question: How close was he to the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan?" A day earlier, Strib columnist Doug Grow told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, "The whole campaign has been devoted to Ellison explaining his past relation to Farrakhan."

 

So Ellison was already on the defensive when his opponents rolled out the second spate of news stories shortly after the 4th of July. These were materially different from the trumped-up charges of anti-Semitism. The new press leaks documented literally dozens of parking and speeding tickets, additional penalties for late payment of those tickets, and the fact that Ellison's license was suspended for a time this year. The candidate also failed to pay some of his income taxes in five separate years between 1992 and 2000, causing liens to be placed on his property by the IRS and the state of Minnesota. And he ignored so many warnings to comply with campaign finance reporting requirements that he ultimately was assessed an unprecedented $2,500 fine. The episodes make up a pattern of flouting the law that is so chronic and varied that it was bound to haunt his campaign.

That checkered history will be enough for some voters to disqualify Ellison. As Politics in Minnesota opined, in their now infamous "Dead Man Walking" column on July 12, "Reasonable people of all political stripes cannot accept a candidate who wants to make the laws but not obey them."

But reasonable people of all political stripes can also wonder what harm has been committed. Do Ellison's infractions suggest he would not be able to fulfill the functions of a congressperson? At the same time he was neglecting his personal finances, he was introducing more bills in the Minnesota House than any of his DFL colleagues, and continuing to defend clients in court.

It was the public aspect of life that interested Ellison more, from the time he was a kid in Detroit. His father was a psychiatrist and his mother a social worker. He was the middle child among the five Ellison boys. "That's what everybody called them, 'the Ellison Boys.' They were tough, they were smart, and they stuck up for each other," remembers his wife Kim, who met her future husband when they were both teens. Now, the Ellison Boys count one surgeon, one Baptist minister, and three lawyers. While attending nearby Wayne State, Keith Ellison converted to Islam at the age of 19 and married Kim at 23. All his life he had been suffused in Detroit's African American culture.

It was law school that drew Ellison to Minnesota. "He was a lot more intense when he was younger," says Jordan Kushner, a classmate of Ellison's at the U. "Keith felt the burden of being a black man in that environment. He was one of the very few black law students out of 250, and there was no black faculty."

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