The 5th District debate

In studio debate
The three major party candidates in the 5th Congressional District race debated Friday on MPR's Midday program.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

On Wednesday, Fine held a 25-minute news conference in which he said Ellison was unfit to serve in Congress. He also said Ellison's selection in Tuesday's primary was "an embarrassment to our district, our state, our country and our world." Fine continued the criticism right from the start of the debate.

"I believe that someone who makes those types of choices is not fit to be a congressman," Fine said.

Those choices, Fine says, revolve around Ellison's past law-school writings in which he called for separate black and white nations and praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. He also questions Ellison's involvement with the Nation of Islam.

"We're not talking about one day," Fine said. "We're not talking about one moment. We're talking about someone who has been supporting these types of individuals over a long period of time, who has taken a leadership role in their organizations. I think that is a major issue that the public should be aware of."

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Fine has not provided any documentation that Ellison has been or is a member of the group. Ellison denies being a member of the Nation of Islam and says he's never met Louis Farrakhan. Ellison says he has worked with local members of the Nation of Islam to organize Minnesotans to attend the Million Man March.

Ellison says Fine and the Minnesota Republican Party are focusing on his past because they don't have other issues to run on.

"The last thing in the world they want to talk about is the real issues affecting people," Ellison said. "They want to engage in personal destruction and name calling and they want to lower the debate and they want to suppress the vote."

Debate moderator Gary Eichten asked Ellison whether he should be held to the same standard as former public safety commissioner Rich Stanek. In 2004 Ellison worked to get Stanek fired from his job as public safety commissioner because Stanek used a racial slur a decade earlier.

"The truth is he used the 'n' word in a case where he was being sued for police brutality. He's apologized for that and I accept that. I never used a slur. I never said anything denigrating about an ethnic group or a group of people. What I did was wrote an article while I was still in school 16 or 17 years ago regarding affirmative action," he said.

The allegations surrounding Ellison are not new. He's been forced to answer questions about his past since he won the DFL endorsement in May. What is new is the level of attack from Alan Fine and the Republican Party. The GOP has repeatedly criticized Ellison's past and wants to know if other DFL candidates agree with Ellison's past views.

Throughout the debate, Independence Party member Tammy Lee tried to stay above the war of words between Ellison and Fine. She relied on the basic campaign theme that many IP candidates use -- she's not a Republican or a Democrat.

"We're going to see a lot more bad stuff and mudslinging come out during this campaign. I respect the fact that Keith said he's running his own campaign and it's going to be about the issues. I think Alan and the Republican Party are running his campaign. they're going to have a very different style and approach and I'm running my own campaign. I will contrast my positions with the other candidates in this race," she said.

Lee is trying to present herself as the political moderate in the race. She says she's liberal on social issues but fiscally conservative. On the war in Iraq, Lee says she wants to start removing some U.S. troops but wants to keep some there to protect against any threats from Iran. Ellison wants an immediate troop withdrawal. Fine says he wants a greater involvement from other countries.