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?

Asked over breakfast if he feels that Minnesota could have an honest discussion about race, Ellison wisely ducks. "I haven't even allowed myself to consider that during this campaign. I am busy trying to focus on what connects us. That means a common agenda with common principles. The people of the United States want peace, they want their kids to have a future, and they want their parents, and maybe themselves, to have a decent retirement."

On the stump, Ellison frequently states that "peace is the guiding principle of our campaign." He is the only candidate in the primary race who opposed the war in Iraq before the U.S. troops went in. And despite the albatross of Farrakhan, he was the only one of the four candidates at a recent Temple Israel debate to support a U.N.-sponsored cease-fire in Lebanon when both President Bush and Israel were dragging their feet.

The other main planks of Ellison's campaign involve health care, labor, and the environment. He calls universal access to the medical system "the civil rights issue of our time" and advocates a single-payer system. Like the other candidates, he favors an increase in the minimum wage; more than the rest, however, he emphasizes the role of unions. "We need to talk affirmatively, not defensively, about labor," he says. "What brought the working class into the middle class? The union movement. And what is returning the middle class back to the working class? The absence of the union movement. I believe you can't just have a critique of the system without a vision of how to fix it. One way I know labor is part of this is by how much the corporatist types take aim at labor. When they see having the right equipment so you and I don't get cancer as being too expensive, as cutting into their profits, well, my goodness! Labor has to be part of the fix, even as we negotiate international contracts."

Minneapolis Central Labor Union President Bill McCarthy is impressed: "Keith talks up workers' rights as a way to rebuild the middle class whether he's in front of a labor audience or not. That kind of championing is rare. And that's why he got our endorsement."

And though Ellison is not particularly well-known for his environmental work, he is a founder of E-JAM (Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota), which has successfully fought to toughen mercury emission standards after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency had allowed industry lobbyists to effectively write the specs. "I spend about four days a week lobbying at the State Capitol during the session and I see how effective Keith has been," says Brian Elliot, the associate national political director of Clean Water Action, which has given Ellison a perfect scorecard all four years he's been a legislator, and has endorsed his congressional candidacy. "I remember how he got this little tax provision that had a tremendous impact on reducing lead in old houses. It was a complicated provision and Keith wasn't a member of the tax committee or a member of the majority. We weren't working on it because frankly we didn't think it could pass. But Keith did the research and then talked a majority of people into voting for it. And he encountered a lot of skepticism as an urban legislator talking to farmers about pesticides. But he did his homework and earned their respect, and he understands it takes a long time to get things done. He's a real friend of the environment."

Ask Ellison's legislative colleagues what strikes them about his work and they invariably mention his almost daily allowing a "shadow," a constituent who follows you around all day and learns the nuts and bolts of politics. "We all pay lip service to shadowing and we'd all like to do it more often. Keith does it better and more often than anybody. It's amazing the way he brings people into the process," says state Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis), who is supporting Ellison's congressional bid. Adds Frank Hornstein, "One reason Keith authors so many bills is because people come to him with ideas and proposals that he takes seriously. He really is a true representative."

And that, ultimately, will be the justice of the September 12 primary. A standard line in Ellison's stump speech is that there are no throwaway people, that everybody counts. Ironically, those are the people he needs to overcome four months of attacks. Ellison may have won the endorsement, but Junge will outspend him—she had a fundraising advantage even before receiving an estimated $100,000 from the women's group EMILY's List.

"This campaign understands that it will not win the way other candidates win," Kahn says. "If you look at her lit, Ember [Reichgott Junge] is going after the women's base and the suburban base and Mike [Erlandson] is going after the senior base and the Sabo voters. I'm not sure what base Paul [Ostrow] is going after. But we need a new base, people new to voting in the primary, and I think we will get it. I think we will win. I think we'll inspire a lot of people who don't normally vote. And if he doesn't, then I think he deserves to lose. But I don't think he is going to lose."

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