The quest for Sabo's seat

Is the 5th Congressional District still up for grabs?

With the DFL endorsement of Keith Ellison to run for the U.S. House seat vacated by the retiring Martin Sabo, the race itself would seem to be a foregone conclusion: No DFLer could manage to lose in what is perhaps the most liberal district in the nation.

But is it? Since he received the old gray party's nod two weeks ago, Ellison, a state rep from north Minneapolis, has faced a measure of scrutiny. Most of this tends to center around the fact that he's a black Muslim.

In one moment last week, Ellison found himself defending the Koran in the conservative talk-radio confines of KSTP-AM, a discussion that lasted a good half hour after his appearance was over.

It would be easy to dismiss that, but there emerged a trend this week about Ellison's past in what would seem to be far friendlier waters for him: The Minneapolis Issues e-forum. There list members repeatedly posted critiques and defenses of Ellison, who apparently will have to outrun his past as a brash young attorney before he was elected to the house four years ago.

None of this would matter much if it were just typical DFL infighting and navel gazing. But it turns out a couple of little-noticed (thus far) candidates are still running in the Fifth, and they have the backing of their respective parties.

(Minneapolis City Council member Paul Ostrow and former state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge are running without the DFL endorsement; former Sabo aide and party chair Mike Erlandson is in limbo, apparently.)

For starters, there's Jay Pond, the Green Party candidate who received his party's endorsement last weekend. Pond's issues are exiting Iraq, finding renewable energy resources and pushing for single-payer universal health care. It may sound like Green business as usual, but all issues will play well in the Fifth.

Pond's bio notes that he is HIV positive, has lived in Japan, and ran as a Green for congressional seat in California against Nancy Pelosi in 2002, getting 10,000 votes. More than that, Pond ran against Sabo two years ago, and garnered a respectable 18,000 votes.

Then there is Tammy Lee, who received the Independence Party endorsement last week. Lee, who lists eliminating the national deficit as her top priority, says there are all sorts of centrist enclaves in the district. Because of this, perhaps, she similarly plays up universal health care and renewable energy as campaign issues.

Lee is not exactly an unknown either. She has an extensive background in the private sector--you may know her from her days as the spokesperson for Sun Country Airlines. She also served as communications director for Skip Humphrey's failed 1998 gubernatorial campaign and press secretary for U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan.

The upshot is, it's Ellison's race to lose. Certainly the Independence Party doesn't have the appeal it had when Jesse Ventura became governor in 1998, and the Green Party has lost oodles of credibility since Ralph Nader's infamous bid in 2000.

But there hasn't been a non-Democrat representing the Fifth since 1960, and it would seem that if anything's going to give, this would be the year.