5th District: The Battleground That Wasn't

Ellison: "I have the passion of a Wellstone and the practicality of a Sabo"

Ellison: "I have the passion of a Wellstone and the practicality of a Sabo"

Two months ago, when U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo abruptly declared that he would not stand for reelection in November, there was ample reason to believe last Saturday's 5th District DFL convention would offer up some of the most entertaining political theater of the new millennium. Each of the dozen or so fairly prominent pols who threw down had a mere seven weeks to convince 222 DFL delegates why he or she should be the endorsed candidate to succeed Sabo. The DFL's hegemony in the district provides any endorsee with the inside track to what is essentially a lifetime appointment to Congress. Given the high stakes, crowded field, and collapsed time frame, the headlong rush to secure or block the endorsement promised to turn the convention into a delicious scrum of backstabbing mayhem, rancor, and slapstick all around the hallways of St. Louis Park High School.

But it didn't happen that way. Instead the day gracefully evolved into a coronation of Keith Ellison, the two-term state legislator from north Minneapolis. Ellison, a 43-year-old attorney and former director of the Legal Rights Center, came prepared, delivered the most charismatic oration, and finessed the pros and cons of being the only African American candidate courting delegates who were, like the district itself, predominantly white.

Put simply, Ellison didn't belabor the obvious. He didn't need to talk about "diversity" except in the context of supporting immigration. He shrewdly chose former Sen. Allan Spear, the first avowedly gay member of the Minnesota Legislature, to introduce him to the convention, and then had Spear link with him not only as an "outsider" but as someone protesting an "unwinnable" war (Vietnam for Spear, Iraq for Ellison). From the beginning of his campaign, Ellison emphasized his long opposition to the war and assiduously courted the Peace First organization, of which many members were already committed to St. Thomas professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. Before the first ballot had even been cast, veteran peace activist Marv Davidov told me that Ellison fit the "peace candidate" criteria Nelson-Pallmeyer had set forth as a condition for his group's eventual support, and that Ellison's most formidable rival for the endorsement, Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, did not.

The second person to introduce Ellison was his colleague at the Capitol, Rep. Connie Bernardy, a Sunday school teacher and mother of three from Fridley, who rose to proclaim that Ellison "values hard work." Then Ellison strode forward holding hands with the former high school sweetheart who is now his wife. It was left to Spear to remind convention-goers that Ellison hailed from "the streets of Detroit." Ellison climaxed his own remarks by claiming, "I have the passion of a Wellstone and the practicality of a Sabo." When the results of the first ballot were announced, Ellison had exactly twice as many votes as Dorfman, his nearest challenger. From that moment on, it was clear that his endorsement could be delayed, but not derailed.

It's equally difficult to imagine how Ellison could be defeated in the September primary. As of Monday morning, one of his competitors is expected to be Mike Erlandson, the lone candidate to supply the measure of infighting everyone envisioned back in the free-for-all days of March. At first blush, Erlandson couldn't be more of a party insider. He was chair of the Minnesota DFL from 1999-2005, then served as Sabo's aide, and was supported in this race by both Sabo and the congressman's daughter, Julie. Despite all that, he waited until the end of his eight-minute opening remarks to reveal that he wouldn't abide by the endorsement. Erlandson finished a dismal fourth on the first ballot. The other three primary challengers are drab political moderates whose only real hope of victory is to go negative on Ellison, perhaps by stirring suburban and/or Jewish voters with reminders of Ellison's role in organizing Minnesota participants for the Nation of Islam's 1995 Million Man March.

If Ellison is elected, he will be the first black man elected to Congress from the state—and, it has been reported, the only Muslim member of the House of Representatives. But perhaps the more salient concern is what will happen if Ellison is not elected. Already, his willingness to work through the traditional DFL Party apparatus, and to temper his criticism of elected officials such as Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback and the Minneapolis School Board, has earned him the enmity of black activists such as Ron Edwards and Spike Moss. Meanwhile, his example has inspired other people of color to run, such as civil rights attorney Jorge Saavedra, the other rising star at the convention. Saavedra threw his support to Ellison after the first ballot.