Keith Ellison: "Let's say that the war on drugs is over" [INTERVIEW PART 2]

Infrastructure investments are a key component of Ellison's vision for Northside revitalization.
Infrastructure investments are a key component of Ellison's vision for Northside revitalization.

This summer, Keith Ellison came under Republican fire on at least two fronts.

At home, his GOP challenger Chris Fields made North Minneapolis' poverty and crime a campaign issue by saying Ellison hasn't done enough for black people, and abroad, Michele Bachmann tried to connect Keith with Islamic extremism by alleging America's first Muslim congressman "has a long record of association with the Muslim Brotherhood."

-- Keith Ellison on Chris Fields: "He should be ashamed of himself" [INTERVIEW PART 1]
-- Chris Fields says Keith Ellison isn't doing enough for black people
-- Michele Bachmann on Ellison: 'He has long record of association with Muslim Brotherhood'

Part three of our interview (to be published tomorrow) will delve deeper into Ellison's thoughts on radical Islam, but in today's installment, Keith talks about some of the things he thinks Congress can do to help unemployed Northsiders find work, and reveals a bit about his personal relationship with Minnesota's most notorious Republican and critic of Islam.

-- On what Congress can do alleviate unemployment in North Minneapolis --

There's a number of things. One thing, we need to invest in transit, so we can help job seekers get to places where there are jobs. I'm a big-time supporter of Bottineau Commuter Rail, the Southwest Line, Northstar Commuter Rail -- I've funded and worked hard to get Central Corridor, which should be up by 2014, and of course the Hiawatha Line happened while I was still in the legislature. Transit is big --[it] puts people to work, gives minority vendors jobs to work on, and after it's built, helps people get jobs.

We have massive infrastructure needs right here in Minnesota. If Congress invested in infrastructure, we could have Lowry Bridge up and running, the 4th Avenue Bridge, [a] bridge from St. Louis Park to Highway 100... investing and repairing those bridges would put massive numbers of people to work.

I've been an author of an Infrastructure Bank Bill. That's $25 billion we would throw toward public-interest bonds, [and we could] leverage this thing up to about $625 billion nationally, and Minneapolis, the city would take part of all of that.

More than that we need to invest in workplace development. We have a lot of people who aren't working -- well, let's train them. That means investing in the MnSCU system and making college more affordable.

The reason we have this jobs gap is because we have an education gap. So the learning gap and the job gap are related, they're just about 15-20 years apart. About the achievement gap -- well, what if we had universal all-day pre-K and kindergarten and made sure every kid was reading by 3rd grade. That wouldn't solve the problem tomorrow, wouldn't solve the guy looking for a job today but it would help his son's problem.

We need to pass 'ban the box.' [When private sector employers ask people if they have a criminal record], if the answer is yes, then give them a chance to show they've made meaningful changes in their lives and will work a job. Because of incarceration rates, more black people are going to have to mark yes on that box than white people as a percentage of the population. Let's ban the box.

Let's change the criminal justice system and put drug dealing and taking in its proper context. [That involves] more treatment. Let's say that the war on drugs is over. I'm not saying open up the prison doors, I'm saying, we're very wasteful with the most expensive component of the criminal justice system -- a prison cell. We shouldn't be putting 19-year-olds who sell a few rocks in prison for two years, we shouldn't be doing that. We should be rehabbing these people, we should be cutting both demand and supply. If you were to do these things I just recommended, you wouldn't solve the problem tomorrow, but you would make big-time dents.

Now, of course, we still have to convince people that all people are equal without regard to color, we have to make sure minority vendors get an equal shot at taking part in these projects.

-- On what his personal relationship with Michele Bachmann is like --

Ellison on Michele: "Frankly, she can be very charming."
Ellison on Michele: "Frankly, she can be very charming."

We're cordial. She recently invited me to get on a bill with her regarding Medicare. I seriously considered it, chose not to, but it wasn't because I don't like her. I don't think it's a good piece of legislation for me to be on.

I can't speak for her. I have no personal animosity toward Michele Bachmann. Her views are often wrong, you know? But, it ain't personal, not at all, and quite frankly, she can be very charming. She's going to ask about your family, she's got a smile on her face. She's not a bad person to be around, but we have diametrically opposed views, you know?

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