Saturday, December 30, 2006

The One About Keith Ellison

It was interesting to read the various reactions to incoming U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) announcing that he would take his oath of office on the Koran. Interesting, because even a number of responses in favor of Ellison's announcement seemed to have very little understanding of the background behind the whole brouhaha.

You see, I voted for Keith Ellison in the 2006 general election, even though I didn't vote for him in the primary election.

In March of 2006, long-time Representative Martin Olaf Sabo announced that he would not seek re-election as the represenative of the Minnesota Fifth Congressional District. Upon his announcement, a flurry of vaguely-to-fairly well-known politicos, at least by Minnesota standards, announced they would seek the nomination to replace Sabo as the district's representative. Two things you should know about Minnesota politics:

1. The city of Minneapolis, which is wholly contained within the Fifth Congressional District, is considered one of the most liberal cities in America. Its previous mayor was a black woman, Sharon Sayles Belton, while its current mayor, R.T. Rybak, is a former liberal activist. The Minneapolis City Council seats no Republicans, and three members of the Green Party. Based on this tradition, it was reasonable for a politician to assume that if he or she managed to win the party nomination for the seat, he or she would not only be the favorite to win the seat, but to be able to hold the seat as long as he or she chooses to - Sabo himself had been the district's representative since 1978 and had never faced serious opposition.

2. The Democratic Party, as a 'brand name', does not exist in Minnesota per se; rather, a union of the state's Democratic Party with the Depression-era Farmer-Labor Party during World War II created what is known in the state as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, usually shortened to "DFL" by locals. Though with the transition of agriculture from a family to a corporate concern, 'farmer' issues are often addressed by state Republicans as well as Democrats, and though the political power of unions is declining in Minnesota just as it is in other parts of the United States, the simple history of the DFL has kept it a more left-leaning and progressive party than the national Democratic Party, especially in the past ten to fifteen years. (This should surprise no one who is a student of American political history; after all, Robert LaFollette's Progressive Party was born in neighboring Wisconsin at about the same time as the Farmor-Labor Party came into existence in Minnesota.)

During the spring of 2006, most folks I spoke with seemed to prefer former state Senator Ember Reichgott Junge over Ellison for the DFL nomination; meanwhile, Sabo himself backed his former House Chief of Staff Mike Erlandson for the nomination. Ellison seemed mired in discussions about unpaid parking tickets and other supposed flaws. This wouldn't last. Ellison campaigned hard in grass-roots style, motivated supporters, and went to the convention with a solid bloc of support; he parlayed that support into the DFL nomination, on the fourth ballot. Nevertheless, Minnesota does not automatically award its party slots in the general election to winners of the party caucuses - Ellison would have to defend his nomination in a primary election, and both Reichgott Junge and Erlandson remained in the race to contend against him.

Meanwhile, the Republicans had nominated former U of M Business School professor and entrepreneur Alan Fine for the seat, without opposition. While the DFLers squabbled during the primary, Fine maintained a position above the fray, with a very high-minded and tolerant tone that won plenty of attention from moderate voters. Even the allegedly liberal Minneapolis Star-Tribune complimented Fine for his pre-primary carriage (the linked story appears to be unavailable now, unfortunately). Even though Ellison was considered advantaged by the party nomination, most observers expected either Erlandson or Reichgott Junge to emerge from the primary as the DFL's official candidate.

Ellison, still working hard, beat them both, by sizable margins - he captured over 40% of the primary vote in a tough three-way race. And it was at this point that Alan Fine, apparently having set himself up as a moderate in the event of a contest against Erlandson or Reichgott Junge, abandoned his moderation and went on the attack. Despite attacks on Ellison's 'character' having had no effect on his popularity in the primary election, Fine apparently followed some political handler's script and pit-bulled his way out of the race. By the time the election was held, Fine ended up polling almost identically to Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee, far behind Ellison's 56% of the vote.

I hadn't voted for Ellison in the primary, though this was largely because I really didn't feel I knew him very well - though he'd been serving as the representative for District 58B, comprising much of the city of Minneapolis, in the Minnesota State House since 2002, I'd been unaware of his positions or achievements, because they hadn't made headlines. In addition, I thought similarly to what Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee eventually said during the campaign itself; that it seemed a sizable portion of Ellison's candidacy was novelty-driven, giving Minnesotans the chance to elect the first-ever Muslim to national political office.

During the course of the general election campaign, I got to know Ellison a bit better - not personally, but at least by proxy. I watched one televised debate and attended another, and was stunned in particular at the degree to which Fine's candidacy appeared to boil down to arguments that he simply wasn't Ellison. Nevertheless, every one of Fine's attacks was dutifully repeated as 'news' in the local media; even Lee's comment above was magnified into an accusation that Ellison was simply a 'novelty candidate', which was not at all what Lee was suggesting. Only the local alt-weekly, the City Pages maintained some degree of objectivity surrounding Ellison's record, thanks largely to the work of local writer Britt Robson; even then, Robson's essays were frequently attacked in letters-to-the-editor by conservatives for being 'too pro-Ellison'. Through it all, Ellison stayed above the fray (though clearly it wasn't always easy for him) and refused to descend to cheap-shots and a campaign of tit-for-tat attacks. Meanwhile, Ellison continued to work the political 'ground game', especially among the immigrant Somali community; this combination of factors helped him to his easy Election Day victory.

I learned two things from watching Ellison's campaign in 2006:

1. Ellison himself is smart, disciplined, and extremely tough. He also is not afraid or uninterested in doing the kind of political scut-work that seldom gets headlines, but does result in good public policy. He's going to be a great representative for me and the other folks in his district.

2. Much of what passes for political news coverage these days, even among local news providers, is nearly indistinguishable from sports coverage; stories about Fine's attacks on Ellison were carried with the same breathlessness as the sniping between former teammates Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, while discussions about the race itself focused far less on the candidates' positions on issues and much more on the horse-race aspects of the political race, as if voters had no other interest than watching the scoreboard and wondering who would eventually be crowned 'champion'. (Granted, this isn't an original insight on my part, but until this election, I had no idea how far local news had gone down this trail, as national political coverage has done long since.)

Ellison, as I mentioned, is smart. So he had to be aware that his announcement that he was going to take his oath of office on the Koran was going to draw fire. And predictably enough, it did, from two different sources:

- Conservative writer Dennis Prager, wrote a now infamous essay entitled America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on.

- Representative Virgil Goode (R - VA) sent a letter to his constituents in response to the Prager article apparently attacking Ellison for simply being Muslim; his letter contained the equally infamous phrase, "..if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran."

In addition, in the midst of the fray, Ellison was invited onto conservative radio host Glenn Beck's show and asked, point-blank, "What I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies'," and in which Beck also asked Ellison if he thought Goode was a bigot.

I don't blame any of these guys for thinking they'd be able to get a rise out of Ellison for their attacks; after all, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, when he was staring out, never seemed to hear a criticism he wasn't willing to go off against. Again, though, this simply shows that all these guys are responding, not to Ellison himself, but to their own prejudices and pre-conceptions of what Ellison is and what he supposedly represents.

Ellison's responses, unsurprising to anyone who actually watched him during the 2006 election, were uniformly calm, intelligent, and understandable; his interview with Wolf Blitzer pretty much covers the entire spectrum of his critics, and Ellison deflects those critics with polish and aplomb.

And of course, when Ellison spoke before a group of Muslims at a convention of two different Muslim organizations, he put the whole thing into perspective:

Muslims, you're up to bat right now. . . How do you know that you were not brought right here to this place to learn how to make this world better? How do you know that Allah, sallalahu aleyhi wasallam, did not bring you here so that you could understand how to teach people what tolerance was, what justice was? ... How do you know that you're not here to teach this country?

We had faith in Allah, and we patiently endured this adversity. And facing adversity bravely and with patience in the faith in Allah is an Islamic value. . . . That's what it means to be a Muslim.

I am damned glad I voted for Keith Ellison as my representative in Congress.

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