A Big Fight
in Minnesota’s Fifth
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
a complex and intriguing figure. An African-American who was born and
Detroit, he converted to Islam while an
undergraduate, and flirted with black nationalism while a law student at
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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