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September 6, 2006

A Big Fight in Minnesota’s Fifth


In a midterm election year in which the two major parties were at first expected to go at it tooth-and-nail in a wide-open battle for control of Congress, the most intriguing election storylines thus far have featured, oddly enough, Democrats against Democrats.


First there was Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s battle with Ned Lamont in Connecticut, which has received more ink in the national press, by a considerable margin, than any other race this year. And now we’re in the final days of an even more fascinating election battle, also over a “safe” Democratic seat in Congress, in Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District. In a year in which both the governorship and an open U.S. Senate seat are up for grabs, it’s a race for a single House seat that has Minnesota talking, as I learned last week on a visit to the area.


The district, consisting of the entire city of Minneapolis as well as several suburbs, is considered the most liberal, and thus safely Democratic, in the state. And while Minnesota has begun to trend more centrist in recent years – the Democrats have not elected a governor since Rudy Perpich left office in 1990 - it still has a reputation as one of the most liberal states in the country, and has gone for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1972.


The scrum began with the announcement on March 18 that Martin Olav Sabo, a 13-term Democratic Representative who had never faced significant opposition in his entire time in Congress, would not seek re-election. This set off a scramble to replace him, with as many as 15 local political figures declaring their intention to run at one time or another.


Four candidates quickly emerged: Minneapolis City Councilman Paul Ostrow, Sabo’s longtime chief of staff Mike Erlandson, former state legislator Ember Reichcott Junge (the only woman in the race) and Keith Ellison, a two-term state legislator from Minneapolis, who has been the race’s true lightning rod. Ellison was endorsed by the party on the first ballot at the state nominating convention, causing several candidates who had vowed to abide by the endorsement to drop out of the race.


Ellison is a complex and intriguing figure. An African-American who was born and raised in Detroit, he converted to Islam while an undergraduate, and flirted with black nationalism while a law student at the University of Minnesota. In articles for the campus daily, Ellison defended the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan (who has referred to Jews as “bloodsuckers” on more than one occasion) against charges of anti-Semitism. Ellison also proposed splitting the U.S. into separate nations for blacks and whites.


Ellison would be the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, and the first African-American congressman from Minnesota. And despite Chris Rock’s famous joke that “there ain’t no black people in Minnesota except for Prince and Kirby Puckett,” there is in fact a considerable African-American population in the Twin Cities area.


The candidate’s past writings and associations have raised concerns among some Minnesotans, particularly in the Jewish community. Ellison has written letters and met with Jewish leaders, and also played up his friendship with fellow Minneapolis legislator Frank Hornstein, whose wife is the senior rabbi at the state’s largest synagogue. He has repudiated his past statements, and acknowledged that he indeed believes Farrakhan is an anti-Semite. Somewhat surprisingly, Ellison was endorsed in late August by the American Jewish World, a Twin Cities Jewish community newspaper.


The campaign, meanwhile, reached a new zenith of unpredictability on September 2, when it was revealed that an anonymous e-mailer, who had been e-mailing local reporters with incriminating dirt about Ellison, was none other than Ostrow’s campaign manager. A day earlier, a candidate running for Ellison’s open state legislative seat was assaulted by a group of teenagers while campaigning in north Minneapolis.


Ellison’s supporters see him as something more than just a first-time candidate for Congress, or even as a racial or religious trailblazer. His gift for inspiring oration reminds some of the late Senator Paul Wellstone, who was the last true political star created by the often feckless and ineffective Democrat Farm Labor Party (as the Democrats are known in Minnesota). Ellison would likely become a significant figure right off the bat, his supporters believe, and would certainly zoom to the top of any “most hated by Republicans” list of people in Congress.


It’s certainly troubling that Ellison said and wrote the things he did. And it is troubling as well that Ellison recently had so many unpaid parking tickets that his driver's license was suspended earlier this year, as it is generally incumbent upon lawmakers to obey the laws themselves.


But the candidate does deserve credit for distancing himself from his past statements, and from Farrakhan himself. Whether the past gets in the way of Ellison’s future is something the voters of the Fifth District will decide on September 12.

© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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