Muslim seeks both House seat and a place in history
MINNEAPOLIS — Keith Ellison is hoping that this city of mostly
white Christians is ready to make a black Muslim its next congressman.
Ellison, a state representative and criminal defense lawyer, is
the state-party endorsed Democratic candidate in the liberal-leaning
5th Congressional District. That makes him the favorite in his quest
to become the first Muslim member of Congress.
But Ellison is dogged by questions about his faith, particularly
after disclosures about his past associations with the Nation of
Islam, a group led by Louis Farrakhan.
While Ellison has since denounced Farrakhan, Jewish leaders say
the candidate’s ties to the organization remain an issue.
“For Jews, there’s no ambiguity when it comes to the
Nation of Islam,” said Stephen Silberfarb, executive director
of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“It’s a group that hates the Jewish people.”
Around 1990, Ellison — then a University of Minnesota law
student known as Keith E. Hakim — wrote several columns in
the student newspaper that are getting a second look.
One column defended Farrakhan against charges of anti-Semitism,
while a second suggested the creation of a state for black residents.
In 1995, Ellison helped organize a delegation to Farrakhan’s
Million Man March in Washington.
Ellison, 42, said he was never an enrolled member of the Nation
of Islam. He got involved to help improve the lives of black men,
he said, and did not fully grasp concerns about Farrakhan’s
anti-Semitism until after the 1995 march.
“There are legitimate concerns in the Jewish community. That’s
why I’m happy to answer them,” Ellison said. But, he
added, “I do also think there are people out there who are
fear-mongering, who are trying to scare the Jewish community and
manipulate this issue.”
Last month, party delegates at the state convention endorsed Ellison
to succeed Rep. Martin Sabo, who is retiring after nearly three
decades in Congress. It is a typical practice in Minnesota, even
with a primary months away.
The district, which includes Minneapolis and most of its first-ring
suburbs, is about the closest thing to a Democratic certainty. Democrat
John Kerry outpolled President Bush 71 percent to 28 percent in
For Democratic candidates, the tougher race is the Sept. 12 primary.
Ellison is facing three well-known Democrats, including Mike Erlandson,
a former state party chairman and longtime top aide to Sabo who
was supposed to be the retiring congressman’s anointed successor.
Early on, Ellison promised to drop out the race if he did not secure
the party endorsement. Erlandson refused to make a similar pledge.
That upset the party faithful and often can undercut a candidate’s
chances in the primary.
To appeal to voters, Ellison is talking less like a trailblazer
and more like a fiery liberal, reminding many Minnesota Democrats
of their icon, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, and embracing the L-word
in a way almost no Democrat elsewhere would do.
“I think Democrats have to rediscover and re-embrace liberalism,”
Ellison said. “I would say that every good thing about this
country came out of the mind of a liberal. Absolutely, I’ll
Whoever wins will take on Republican Alan Fine, a business professor,
Two of his Democratic opponents have said Ellison’s past associations
at least raise questions, though none have made it an issue —
Dawn Sims, a Minneapolis resident and office administrator, said
many of her friends are happy to see a prominent black candidate
for higher office — and are not too concerned about his past.
“He might have done or said some things at one time that not
everyone would agree with,” said Sims, who is black. “But
I think most of us have said or done something in our life that
we’re embarrassed of now.”
Ellison has tried to steer the discussion to other things, like
his work on pro bono death penalty cases and his legislative work
on environmental issues, including efforts to reduce contamination
caused by lead, mercury and pesticides.
A Detroit native, Ellison grew up in a Catholic household before
converting to Islam as a 19-year-old student at Wayne State University,
long a hotbed of black activism. He said he was inspired by reading
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and by friendships
with fellow students who were practicing the faith.
He’s quick to point out that he adheres to the religion’s
more moderate Sunni branch.
“Islam is as diverse as any Christianity is,” said Ellison,
who would be the first Muslim in Congress, according to U.S. Senate
historian Donald Ritchie.
It’s not clear how that will play with Minneapolis voters.
The city is 65 percent white and 18 percent black. Muslims account
for 20,000 of the 2.5 million residents in the Minneapolis-St. Paul
area, although a steady influx of Somali refugees likely has increased
that total since 2000.
Sumbal Mahmud, a corporate lawyer and spokeswoman for the Islamic
Center of Minnesota, said the years since the Sept. 11 attacks have
been difficult for Muslims in America, and Ellison’s candidacy
is an important sign on the road back to acceptance.
“Hopefully it will mobilize the Muslim community to become
more engaged in civic life,” she said. “We all need
to see politicians who speak to our own experiences.”