In August, USA Today released a poll of Americans in which 39 percent of respondents reported feeling some negative bias towards Muslims. Twenty-two percent of respondents said they would not want Muslims as neighbors, and about 33 percent agreed that U.S. Muslims are “sympathetic to al-Qaeda.” These aren't negligible numbers -- and they help to underscore the significance of what happened last month in Minnesota's 5th congressional district.
Voters in that Minneapolis area district made history by electing to Congress Democrat Keith Ellison -- the first African-American to represent the state and the first Muslim ever elected to Congress. But there's much more to Ellison than those attention-getting firsts. (Indeed, Ellison usually downplays his religion, discussing it only when asked.) A fierce liberal, vocally opposed to the war in Iraq and unafraid to speak his mind about President Bush, Ellison is one of the members of the incoming freshman class interested in shaking up the limits of respectable debate in Washington on a range of issues.
Ellison came to Minneapolis from Detroit to attend law school at the University of Minnesota. He graduated in 1990, and began practicing law in Minneapolis. In 2002, he was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. “He was a pretty effective legislator on urban poverty issues in north Minneapolis and did a good job representing his constituents,” says Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in congressional politics.
As a state representative, Ellison had constituents from his district with him nearly every day, shadowing him and attending meetings. “Now it might be harder with Congress -- because it's a longer trip, it's a bit more of a commute -- but it's not impossible," Ellison told the Prospect. “Politically, what I care most about is inclusion, access, so the people can interact in a way that allows average working citizens to have a say so in the direction of the country. That's what I care most about."
Despite having just been elected, Ellison has already dealt with criticism for being a (moderate Sunni) Muslim. CNN's Glenn Beck asked Ellison to “prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.” Ellison told Beck that he did not have to prove his loyalty to the United States or to Mr. Beck.
“I know why I love this country, I mean I know why I do. He can't tell you," Ellison told the Prospect. “If you asked Glenn Beck why you love America -- why, not examples of how you do, but why do you -- he couldn't tell you. And if he did, he'd tell you something shallow like, ‘oh we have the biggest military, we have the best flag colors.'”
Ellison said he believes America is something deeper. “America is an 'overcomer' nation. Nobody's born perfect. All we can ever do is overcome. And America overcomes every time … You can talk about how racist, sexist, homophobic and all that America is, but the noblest ideals of this country shine through consistently. What could be better than that?”
Beck's interview came after Ellison had endured weeks of personal attacks from opponents while campaigning. During the race, he was repeatedly asked about his relationship with Reverend Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. The questions initially caused concern in the Twin Cities Jewish community; but Ellison said he was never a member of the group and only helped organize Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C. (Eventually, Ellison received an endorsement from the American Jewish World.) In late November he announced his plans to be sworn in over the Koran, not the Bible, eliciting another round of howls from the usual suspects.
Meanwhile, though, the congressman-elect has been making a name for himself on other issues. Ellison ran and was elected on a staunchly liberal platform emphasizing the war in Iraq, health care, and the economy. Once elected, he put his opposition to the president in stark relief in mid-November when he chose to attend an AFL-CIO labor union reception rather than a White House gathering with other members of Congress' freshman class.
Ellison said there was little question in his mind as to which event to attend. “President Bush supports the war; he's the author of it. I'm opposed to it. President Bush is not in favor of increasing minimum wage. I'm in favor of it. President Bush doesn't support the Employer Free Choice Act … I think it's essential to improve the situation for American people.
“It was not a close choice; it was easy to make,” Ellison said, adding quickly that he would have attended the reception had there not been a conflict. “The intent was not to disrespect the presidency,” Ellison said. “Would it have been better for me to say ‘screw you' to the AFL-CIO? To tell the organization that represents people who work so hard in this country every day on low wages with either no insurance, or expensive insurance that they can barely afford, who are sending their kids to die in a war that we don't know why we're fighting? I'm suppose to tell them no, I've got to go hobnob with Mr. Bush? No."
In May, while he was still a state representative, Ellison introduced a resolution in the Minnesota House to impeach President Bush. “I absolutely know and can show that [the president] deserves it; he deserves to be impeached,” Ellison said, citing as grounds the administration's program of illegal spying on American citizens, use of extraordinary rendition, pre-Iraq war intelligence, and condoning of torture. “I don't disrespect Mr. Bush … I'd like to see him live very comfortably on his ranch, ride some horses, cut some brush. If he got impeached it would allow him more leisure time, which he appears to like quite a bit.”
In the liberal stronghold of Minneapolis, Ellison crushed his opponents by a more than two-to-one margin. He received 56 percent of the vote, while Republican candidate Alan Fine and Independent Tammy Lee each received 21 percent of the total 239,780 votes cast. “We turned out the vote, man,” Ellison said. “Our campaign was designed to touch people, shake hands, look people in the eye, walk down the street, talk to them, connect with them. And it really worked.” He stresses that his overall message resonated with voters. “The message was get out of Iraq, cover the 47 million uninsured, return public policy to helping average working citizens, renewal energy, voter integrity,” Ellison said.
Beyond that ambitious agenda, there's no denying that people across the country could look to Ellison because he is a Muslim. “He is a voice for his constituents and a voice for Muslims across the country even if it doesn't translate to public policy,” said Pearson. “It's important, because Muslims have a voice from one of their own,” she said. The House leadership may find Ellison's perspective useful in discussing certain issues, like the war on terror and debunking myths about his religion. Pearson said Ellison could “reinforce that Muslims are not terrorists by definition … and play a very positive role in breaking down barriers, opening up dialogue, and improving relations.”
Certainly Ellison is eager to get going. After winning the election he says he felt “a deep sense of humility. I knew that what we had been talking about, we're going to get a chance to try and do it, to make it happen.”
Conrad Wilson is a reporter for The Minnesota Daily in Minneapolis.
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.
Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.