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.

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.

"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."

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."

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."

Ellison doesn't either. But that doesn't mean he isn't ready for it. "The most valuable lesson I have learned in this campaign is that it is better to have a painful conversation than to avoid conflict. I've met with people disappointed in my approach to Palestine and people disappointed in my approach to Israel. But I look them in the eye and tell them what I believe and what I think is possible. Once we put horns on somebody, we can't deal with them. James Baldwin once said, 'Whatever can be faced, can be fixed.' And so I haven't turned down any meetings. And I have unhooked my emotional self from the outcome of this campaign.

"If I lose, I want it said it was because I wasn't willing to reach out a little further, or because I put myself in situations that allowed people to criticize me. It doesn't help folks in north Minneapolis to fold their arms and say, 'See—Keith tried it but it don't work.' Let me tell you, up or down, I am absolutely strong enough for this," he says defiantly. "If I become a civilian, I will go back to practicing law, getting people engaged, working with people around common problems. If I win—and I absolutely think I will win—same thing."

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