Soul Food: Ellison Answers Critics, Replenishes DFL

You only had to sweep your eyes around the confines of the Blue Nile restaurant on primary night to understand how and why Keith Ellison was able to overcome a gauntlet of enormous obstacles and secure a surprisingly easy victory in the race to succeed U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo as the DFL standard-bearer in the 5th Congressional District. Once and future antagonists--Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and the Rev. Jerry McAfee; Jackie Cherryhomes and dozens of folks who worked to bounce her from the Minneapolis City Council five years ago; and Sam and Sylvia Kaplan and the Rev. Randy Staten--stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a bevy of neophyte voters, seasoned labor activists, and the most diverse crayon box of races and creeds a Minnesota politician has ever mustered, all celebrating Ellison's triumph.

Let's recount what Ellison was up against since securing the DFL endorsement at the 5th District convention in early May. Right-wing blogs such as MDE kept up a steady, vicious stream of attacks, inferring that Ellison supported terrorists, hated Jews (Powerline beat this drum big-time as well), assaulted women, neglected his children, and was otherwise unfit for office in every way conceivable. Meanwhile Ellison was outspent by at least one (Ember Reichgott Junge) and probably two (the other being Mike Erlandson) of his primary opponents; while the third, Paul Ostrow, was only too willing to further soil his fading political reputation and play the role of designated attack dog. (Ostrow professed to being shocked, shocked, that his campaign manager was implicated in the internet-based smears directed at Ellison.) Two months ago, the newsletter Politics in Minnesota said Ellison was a "dead man walking" and advised him to quit the race and reapply for his seat on the Legislature as the only way to salvage his political future. (One half of that PIM team, Republican Sarah Janecek, gamely sought to restitch the tatters of her credibility as prognosticator on 'CCO radio last night, pointing out that a majority of primary voters went against Ellison. It was left to her PIM partner, Blois Olson, to note that the same was true of Tim Pawlenty when he was elected four years ago. Say goodnight, Sarah.) And the Star Tribune, the state's largest daily and arguably the most influential media voice in the district, endorsed Erlandson.

In response, Ellison ran an old-fashioned, shoe-leather campaign with a new-fashioned coalition of supporters. He let Erlandson and Junge saturate the media and concentrated on a grassroots, door-to-door effort specifically targeted at nontraditional voters. The unions, led by SEIU, partnered up with activists from ACORN and other progressives who chose to reform the DFL from within, for a massive and masterful GOTV campaign. Christians, Jews, and Muslims rallied their flocks. Student volunteers flooded the campaign. Ellison's theme--"Everybody counts; there are no throwaway people"--was made tangible through the primary ballot. More than three times as many DFL voters participated than in the 2004 5th District primary (although Sabo's ironclad incumbency probably depressed the vote total in this and previous primaries).

One thing these results showed was that the blogs and the pundits are overrated. No Minnesota candidate has ever encountered the vigor and concentration of negative fervor from the blogs that was borne by the Ellison campaign. Yet when it was time for the voters to weigh in, the influence of their hate campaign was negligible.

But that doesn't mean the smears against Ellison will abate between now and November. Four minutes after midnight closed out primary day, operator Michael Brodkorb posted a note stating that he knew all along that Ellison would win, but that the DFL had to spend money that otherwise would have gone to statewide candidates like Mike Hatch and Amy Klobuchar to ensure Ellison's victory. In closing, he stated, "Trust me--there is more exposing of Ellison to be done and I'm just the blogger to do it." We will see a replay of Ellison being linked to Louis Farrakhan and Kathleen Soliah in media markets around the state, with calls from the Republicans for Hatch and Klobuchar to denounce Ellison or rebut the charges against him. Ellison is keenly aware of this. Numerous times during his acceptance speech he noted that the work is not done in this campaign. Twice he specifically mentioned that the battle is now going to be state-wide.

No one can predict how the people of Detroit Lakes, or Tower, or Albert Lea, will respond in November to the smear merchants frantically pushing hot buttons on a candidate seeking to represent people who live hundreds of miles away from them. But in September, Keith Ellison survived a nasty, negative onslaught, and then thrived by mobilizing new constituencies and running a positive, honorable campaign. Don't be surprised if these newly enfranchised voters stick around to help try and finish the job by invigorating and broadening the DFL statewide in November.

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