Roll Call eats the Star Tribune’s lunch in its story on Minnesota’s Fifth District (Minneapolis) congressional race today. Here are excerpts of Dan Rasmussen’s story:
A few weeks ago, Minnesota state Rep. Keith Ellison’s (D) prospects of becoming the first Muslim ever to serve in Congress looked strong.
As he moved toward the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, Ellison had garnered high-profile endorsements from the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party as well as from the Minnesota AFL-CIO and other key unions.
But that was before two conservative Web logs began to do a little digging on Ellison’s background. What they found – Ellison’s ties to Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and his public defense of radicals who were later convicted of murder – has made many Democrats in the Minneapolis-based 5th district a bit nervous.
Ellison said he is increasingly frustrated about the extent to which the allegations about his past have distracted attention from the substance of his campaign.
Ellison dismissed the allegations as “not legitimate” and “meaningless.”
“I’ve introduced more bills than any other Democrat. Does anyone want to talk about that?” Ellison asked. “I’ve gotten bills passed while in the minority, that’s something that’s not supposed to happen. Does anyone want to talk about that? I’ve worked to increase penalties for people stealing gas. Does anyone want to know about that?”
But critics say questions about his past need to be answered, particularly those about his relationship with the Nation of Islam.
In law school, Ellison wrote an opinion piece defending Louis Farrakhan and also helped bring a speaker to the campus for a lecture titled: “Zionism: White Supremacy, Imperialism or Both?”
Ellison also has been criticized for a speech he made at a fundraiser for Sara Jane Olsen, a member of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s who changed identities and hid out in Minnesota for many years, living as a suburban mom, before pleading guilty to several violent acts.
“I think, just like the people who want to come together and lock up Sara, we need to come together and free Sara,” Ellison said in 2000.
Ellison also spoke in support of Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther who was convicted of murdering a New Jersey state police officer and a fellow activist.
Ellison said he was advocating for a fair trial and that he does not and did not support criminal activities.
“At the time I was the director of the Legal Rights Center. Indigent defense was what I did every day,” he said. “These people were accused of something bad. I didn’t know what their actions were, but before the trial, I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s give them a fair trial.’”
Ellison said the scrutiny of his past actions is diverting attention from his liberal message.
“It’s distracting,” he said. “It’s forcing me to address issues that don’t have anything to do with what’s going on [in people's lives] today.”
Ellison, the most liberal of the leading candidates, is running on a platform of peace, universal health care and renewable energy. He said he sees his base as minorities, liberals, labor unions and people who oppose the war in Iraq.
“I don’t think the DFL endorsement guarantees anything,” he said. “But with a hard-working candidate and a hard-working campaign, we’re going to energize and electrify the base. Then you’ve got a winning ticket.”
Rasmussen’s article also discusses the context of these issues in the race among the DFL (Democratic) candidates competing for the endorsement in the September primary, quoting commentators Michael Brodkorb, Sarah Janacek, Doug Grow, and Barry Casselman as well as competing candidates Michael Erlandson and Ember Reichgott Junge. Erlandson expresses the hope that “newspapers and blogs will continue to scrutinize the candidates.”
We’ll take a brief look at Ellison’s quotes here in part 14 of our “Who is Keith Ellison?” series, coming soon.