Rep. Keith Ellison (D)
Elected: 2006, 2nd term.
Born: Aug. 4, 1963, Detroit, MI .
Education: Wayne St. U., B.A. 1985, U. of MN, J.D. 1990.
Family: Married (Kim); 4 children.
Elected office: MN House of Reps., 2002-06.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1990-2002.
The congressman from the 5th District is Keith Ellison, a Democrat elected in 2006. Ellison, previously a relatively unknown state legislator, garnered international attention when he became the first Muslim to serve in Congress and the first black representative from Minnesota. He was raised Catholic in Detroit, the son of a psychiatrist and the third of five boys. (Four became lawyers and the fifth a doctor.) Ellison studied economics at Wayne State University, and it was there that he converted to Sunni Islam. He moved to Minnesota in 1987 to study law at the University of Minnesota, worked in private practice, and ran a nonprofit criminal-defense firm while also hosting a public-affairs radio show. Ellison won the first of two terms in the state House in 2002.
|Keith Ellison (DFL)||228,776||(71%)||($1,476,449)|
|Barb White (R)||71,020||(22%)||($55,796)|
|Bill McGaughey (Ind)||22,318||(7%)|
|Keith Ellison (DFL)||33,988||(84%)|
|Gregg Iverson (DFL)||6,251||(16%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (56%)
The retirement of Democratic Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, who had held the seat since 1978, unleashed a torrent of pent-up political ambition. Nearly a dozen Democrats sought the party endorsement at the May 2006 Democratic-Farmer-Labor district convention. But the main contenders were Ellison, former DFL chairman and longtime Sabo aide Mike Erlandson, and former state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge. Ellison, who strongly opposed the war in Iraq, attracted support from war opponents and key backers of the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone. “I have the passion of a Wellstone and the practicality of a Sabo,” he told convention activists. Ellison easily won the DFL endorsement, but Erlandson and Reichgott Junge did not heed the endorsement and competed for the Democratic nomination in a seven-way September 12 primary.
Ellison campaigned on his opposition to the war and on the need for environmental justice and government-funded universal health care. But he had to overcome a number of unhelpful personal revelations: unpaid parking tickets and moving violations that led to multiple suspensions of his driver’s license; $25,000 he once owed in back taxes; and two fines from the state campaign-finance board for late filings. Most damaging were his ties to the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic pronouncements. Ellison said his association with the group was limited to 18 months during which he helped organize the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C., although his writings about Farrakhan were traced back to his law-school days. Ellison reached out to local Jewish leaders, insisting that he’d been unaware of the group’s anti-Semitic views. He relied on direct mail and grassroots campaigning and identifying potential new voters. Reichgott Junge courted suburban voters, while Erlandson, backed by Sabo, courted senior citizens. Despite the personal baggage, Ellison won the primary with 41%, followed by Erlandson with 31% and Reichgott Junge with 21%.
Heavily favored in the general election, Ellison faced two third-party candidates and Republican Alan Fine, who described Ellison as “an embarrassment to our district, our state, our country, and our world.” But Ellison won with 56% of vote, while Fine and Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee each won 21%. Controversy followed Ellison after the election. A conservative commentator stirred up opposition to Ellison’s plan to take the oath of office with the Quran, rather than the Bible. “If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress,” radio talk-show host Dennis Prager wrote on the Internet. In a politically adept move, Ellison borrowed a Quran from the Library of Congress that was once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
In the House, Ellison got a seat on the Judiciary Committee and again found himself the center of controversy in July 2007, when he compared September 11 to the burning of the Reichstag building in Nazi Germany, an event used by Adolph Hitler to suspend civil liberties. Several House Republicans wrote to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking her to reprimand Ellison, but he soon backed away from the comparison, saying, “It was probably inappropriate to use that example, because it’s a unique historical event, without any clear parallels.”
Ellison established a liberal voting record. On the Financial Services Committee, he challenged predatory-lending practices and foreclosures by credit-card and mortgage companies, which he said “have torn holes in the fabric of neighborhoods” in Minneapolis and across the nation. In November 2007, the House passed the Anti-Predatory Lending Act, which included provisions he helped craft.
He has championed the creation of a Department of Peace. In January 2009, he was one of 22 House members, all Democrats, who voted “present” on a resolution recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza. In December 2008, he became the first member of Congress to make the Hajj pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, later describing it as a “transformative” experience.
Ellison was an early supporter of Democrat Barack Obama for president, but said that he and other Muslims were frustrated by the candidate’s refusal to appear at a mosque during the campaign. In 2008, Ellison was re-elected easily.