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 Ellisons had children during Keith's first and third years of law school. They bought a house after Keith graduated and landed a job at Lindquist & Vennum. But after three years, he took a pay cut to become director of the Legal Rights Center. Ellison oversaw the relocation of the organization, and meanwhile the couple had two more children. Kim worked as a lifeguard at the local YMCA, where the flexible hours allowed her to rotate childcare with her friends. This was the period when they fell behind on some income tax bills that ultimately resulted in liens on their house.

Sifting through a spinach omelet at the Seward Café, near his campaign headquarters, Ellison concedes that there is no good explanation for all the traffic tickets and late campaign forms. "It's my personal fault and I need to be better. It has taught me a valuable lesson, and gave my adversaries a stick to beat me in the head with.

"But," he says, forging ahead, needing, despite his better instincts, to explain, "the biggest misconception is that I thought I was above anything. I live my life on fast-forward, and I didn't have enough regard for my personal details. You get up at 7:00 for a community meeting and then find yourself running late for court at 9:00, grab the nearest spot, put in your quarters, but court keeps you longer than the meter. You put the ticket in the visor and get to another meeting, and then another, or maybe you get a call that somebody was shot on Broadway, or something else. And you just keep going, and you've forgotten about the ticket." He sighs, knowing that what he just said is both true and inadequate. "But I've cleaned that crap up," he concludes.

No matter how large or small the gathering out on the campaign trail, Keith Ellison introduces himself with a sentence or two of autobiography and then launches into the substantive part of his stump speech with this tone-setting declaration: "I am running for Congress because I believe that we have to boldly and unapologetically assert the idea that we are better off together than we are apart." The tragedy of these past three and a half months is that elements of his own DFL party have been undermining those words every step of the way.

Most of the time, the center-right elements of the Democratic Party are pressing for adoption of their philosophy on practical grounds: Soft-pedal differences with conservatives and broaden the appeal. But leaving aside the question of whether that strategy works anywhere, it certainly doesn't apply in the solidly liberal Fifth District, where, if anything, a young, charismatic progressive who doesn't mince words is a presumptively hot commodity.

By contrast, Ellison's opponents are play-it-safe party regulars with thoroughly mundane political histories. Paul Ostrow recently was usurped as the president of the Minneapolis City Council by a colleague from a neighboring ward. And as the former head of the Minnesota DFL Party and the chief aide and favorite son of the beloved Sabo for the past 14 years, you'd think challenger Mike Erlandson would have had a wellspring of support at the district endorsement convention. He finished fourth. In Ember Reichgott Junge's last race eight years ago, she finished third despite being the DFL-endorsed candidate for attorney general.

There is no way for any of these three to contend, let alone win, if a charismatic progressive like Ellison is not put on the defensive. It's not surprising, then, that if you follow the Fifth District campaign for any length of time, you will inevitably hear tales of clandestine faxes, scurrilous phone tips, and other forms of "opposition research" on Ellison. Sometimes the Republicans are blamed, but it also isn't unusual to hear one rival camp among Ellison's three DFL opponents blaming another rival camp—on background, of course. "Outwardly, this has been a clean campaign. But you also hear about different camps spreading information, doing whispering campaigns," says Frank Hornstein. "Clearly Paul Ostrow has accused Keith of not being fit for office, and he's also talked both directly and indirectly about Keith and Farrakhan, but others have also, in their own way. Can I give you a paper trail? No. But other candidates are not immune."

"Minnesota is full of nasty politics, and it is not surprising that Keith has not escaped it—he'd be naive to think that he could," says Al McFarlane, publisher of Insight News, which has endorsed Ellison. But McFarlane adds that the "historic opportunity" of electing someone like Ellison from such a safe district has provided "an extra dimension" to the attacks on him. "Keith is a likable guy. How do you dislodge that? The two things people use to make middle-of-road Minnesotans less comfortable with Keith are his religion and his history of advocacy in the community. But Keith is a passionate voice for a certain amount of tolerance, a word I haven't heard used in a long time. He is also a voice asking for people to move beyond their comfort level and listen to people with competing and contrasting points of view," McFarlane says. "But even among progressives, I think there is a reluctance to accept black leadership in this community. By that I mean having a black person in charge, speaking on behalf of everybody else. But I have confidence that both Keith and the community will be able to overcome that reluctance."

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