Keith Ellison dogged by his past

Rep. Keith Ellison
Rep. Keith Ellison
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Between now and the September primary election Keith Ellison needs to prove to voters that his background as a community activist, state lawmaker and defense attorney makes him the best choice to be one of the ultimate insiders -- a member of Congress.

For much of the time since he moved to Minnesota in 1988, though, Ellison has been more of an outsider. In 1989 he helped shut down a Minneapolis City Council meeting to protest the deaths of two African American senior citizens. Ellison charged that Minneapolis police killed them in a mistaken raid. A month later, he and others took their concerns to the state Capitol to urge then-Gov. Rudy Perpich to investigate the claims.

Rep. Keith Ellison campained at a parade in Minneapolis with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"This looks like another effort by bureaucrats to derail the efforts of the community," Ellison said at the time. "We know what we want. We came here to ask for it and we do not want to sit up here and deal with another bureaucratic system. We want justice and we know how we want justice."

In the late '80s and early '90s Ellison used his activist voice to protest police brutality and racial profiling. He was elected to the state Legislature from north Minneapolis in 2002. Since then he's worked on voting rights and the environment and opposed the death penalty.

In 2004 he also led the charge to get former Republican state legislator Rich Stanek fired from his job as public safety commissioner. At that time Ellison questioned whether Stanek was qualified for the job because Stanek had admitted using racist remarks a decade earlier.

"I do believe in racial reconciliation, but you know what? When somebody makes an apology on the eve of them being confirmed for a job that they want, I sort of doubt the sincerity of that apology," he said.

Now others are raising the same concerns about Ellison, especially about his relationship with the Nation of Islam. That group has been working to improve the conditions for African Americans, but has been criticized for being anti-Semitic, anti-gay and anti-white.

When he was in law school in 1990, Ellison wrote a column in the University of Minnesota's student newspaper defending Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam's leader. In another column he called for a separate nation for blacks.

Waiting for an explanation
Daniel Rosen, a Minneapolis attorney and a member of the board of directors at the Jewish Community Relations Council, says Keith Ellison hasn't given a thorough explanation of his work with the Nation of Islam. Rosen also says Ellison's past relationship with anti-semitic organizations should disqualify him as a candidate for Congress.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Ellison was also a member of the Black Law Student Association and was criticized for sponsoring anti-semitic speakers at the U of M.

"My recollections of Keith are of that person who was very much in support of the Nation of Islam and their messages they tried to convey to the larger community," says Dan Weiss, a University of Minnesota Law School classmate of Ellison's. He was also a member of the Law School's Jewish Caucus.

Back then Weiss says Ellison would downplay or ignore some of the hateful messages portrayed by the Nation of Islam. Even so, Weiss and another Jewish law student say they never got the impression that Ellison himself was anti-Semitic.

Weiss doesn't live in Minneapolis now so he hasn't payed too much attention to Ellison's recent political career. But he says Ellison should explain whether his views have changed since then.

"If you're going to latch on to a very strong, but racist, movement, you have to be sure to explain why that happened so people in the community know why that happened so they know that you really have changed," Weiss says.

Ellison is trying to do just that.

This is the sort of person that the Democrat's candidate for Congress is associating with... It is outrageous. This is the face of the DFL Party today.

"My ideas about Minister Farrakhan have changed in a number of important ways," he now says.

Ellison says he favored Louis Farrakhan's teachings on certain subjects, like black self sufficiency and personal responsibility. He says his law-school writings and other activities were independent of any outside groups. Ellison says his only interaction with the Nation of Islam was for 18 months during the mid-1990s when he worked with the group to organize Minnesotans to attend the Million Man March. Ellison says he hasn't had any involvement with the group since that time and has never been a member of the organization.

He says he was wrong to dismiss concerns about the group's anti-Ssemitic views and has learned to scrutinize the groups with which he works.

"Human beings are complex, we evolve," he says. "We ought to let each other evolve. We ought to let each other be better than they were today. If someone is the same as they were 16 years ago, that would be the very definition of stuck in a rut, wouldn't it?"

In an attempt to alleviate concerns about his background, Ellison wrote a letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council and has been speaking at synagogues to emphasize his work on civil rights issues.

An Ellison supporter
DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis called Ellison a friend of the Jewish community. He also says Ellison has worked on behalf of Jewish causes. In particular, he says Ellison worked to censure a state representative who made questionable comments about the Holocaust.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

That isn't enough for Daniel Rosen, a Minneapolis attorney who is also on the board of directors at the JCRC. Rosen says Ellison's ties to the Nation of Islam should disqualify him as a candidate.

"If Keith Ellison establishes a record of advocating for Jews and the Jewish Community, that is as lengthy and enthusiastic as his record of advocacy for anti-Semites and anti-Semitic organizations then at that time we can weigh his two records and decide who the real Keith Ellison is. We haven't reached that time," according to Rosen.

But other leaders in the Jewish community support Ellison. Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, was Ellison's colleague in the state Legislature. He calls Ellison "a friend of the Jewish community." As an example, Hornstein points to Ellison's effort to censure another state representative who made questionable comments about the Holocaust. Hornstein says electing Ellison would make a strong statement.

"To have a potentially historic election, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress and to have the first Muslim ever elected to Congress be a strong friend of the Jewish community and someone who is very sensitive to our concerns both domestically and internationally, is a real plus," Hornstein says.

Ellison's background has received intense scrutiny since he won the DFL endorsement in May. He has also been criticized for speaking in support of convicted murderer Kathleen Soliah and for his ties with convicted gang leader Sharif Willis. Ellison says his work as a defense attorney focused on ensuring fair trials for everyone.

At times Ellison has been frustrated that most of the questions about his campaign have been about his past. He says a greater focus should be on the issues.

"The real question is where am I at today? What am I about today? Today I'm about peace, and peace being the guiding principal of our nation. I'm about universal health care coverage for the 46 million Americans who don't have it. I'm about voter integrity to make sure that we don't have another election in which the results are suspect as they were in Ohio and Florida," he says.

Since Minnesota's 5th Congressional District is considered the state's DFL stronghold, the Democrat who wins the September primary could represent the district for a long time. Congressman Martin Sabo is not running for re-election after serving 28 years.

Ellison, former state senator Ember Reichcott Junge, former DFL State Party chair Mike Erlandson and Minneapolis City Council member Paul Ostrow are all running in the primary. In addition to the party endorsement, Ellison has the backing of several labor unions. He says he's not taking anything for granted and is working to attract minorities, peace activists, environmentalists and the more liberal members of the party to support him.

Ellison has also been appearing at campaign events with some prominent DFLers with the hopes of boosting his candidacy. During the Juneteenth parade in North Minneapolis, Ellison hustled along the parade route with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Rybak says he doesn't think voters will reject Ellison in September because of his background. But others worry Ellison's past could be a drag on the entire DFL ticket if he wins the primary. They worry the DFL candidates for governor and U.S. Senate will have to answer if they support Ellison's past views.

Minnesota Republican Party Chair Ron Carey raised those concerns at his party's convention when he discussed a speaker Ellison stood with in the past.

"This is the sort of person that the Democrat's candidate for Congress is associating with... It is outrageous. This is the face of the DFL Party today," according to Carey.

At least for now, Ellison's DFL primary opponents aren't saying much publicly about his past. But as the September 12 primary approaches, some DFL insiders expect his opponents to try to capitalize on the controversy. Ellison is hoping that primary voters care more about their future than his past.

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