From Ellison to Obama and back

Today’s New York Times reports that prospective Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer backs Minnesota Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison for Democratic Party Chairman. (Minnesota’s Fifth District covers Minneapolis and its inner-ring suburbs.) In the wake of Clinton’s loss, the Democratic Party seems poised to move directly to the Axis of Sanders/Warren. I have previously argued here that Ellison was a forerunner of President Obama. I’d like to revisit the argument this morning now that he may be called on to pick up the wreckage.

After Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination in June 2008, I set out a comparison of Ellison with Obama. Watching Obama’s emergence I experienced at least a slight sense of déjà vu. With modifications and variations, the Obama phenomenon was anticipated by the rise of Keith Ellison in 2006. I think the comparison remains valid and illuminating.

I didn’t know anything about Ellison when he won the endorsement of the DFL (Democratic) Fifth District convention in May 2006. The endorsement kicked off a competitive four-way primary battle that Ellison won with a plurality of the vote in September 2006. Minneapolis and the Fifth District being one-party territory, Ellison’s primary win guaranteed Ellison’s election to Congress in November 2006.

After I first posted an item or two about Ellison that June on Power Line, writing about him as carefully as I could, I started getting calls from prominent Democrats and other knowledgeable sources with first-hand knowledge of Ellison. They were unhappy at the thought that Keith Ellison might become the face of the Democratic Party in Minnesota’s largest city. With a competitive Democratic primary for the Fifth District endorsement to be held the following September, the information provided by these sources proved to be of interest to many Fifth District Democrats.

Given Ellison’s status as the first black congressional nominee in Minnesota and first Muslim congressional nominee in the United States, the constraints of political correctness drastically inhibited the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s coverage of Ellison. Indeed, it was frustration with the Star Tribune’s coverage of the race and noncoverage of Ellison’s past that provided the impetus for prominent local Democrats and others who approached me with information about Ellison.

They helped me kick off a series of Power Line posts on Ellison that I summarized in the October 2006 Weekly Standard article “Louis Farrakhan’s first Congressman” and the companion Power Line post “Keith Ellison for dummies.”

From the time of Ellison’s first published article in the University of Minnesota Daily in 1989 under the name Keith Hakim through the time he first ran for public office ten years later under the name Keith Ellison-Muhammad, unsuccessfully seeking the Democratic endorsement for a state legislative seat, Ellison was a self-avowed advocate of the Nation of Islam. Ellison’s self-identification as a member and leader of the Nation of Islam remained one of the deep secrets of his 2006 campaign.

Both Ellison and Obama attended Louis Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March. In Ellison’s case, attendance came in the heyday of his involvement with the Nation of Islam. For Obama, attendance appears to have been an act of racial solidarity. In Obama’s eyes, Farrakhan himself was retrograde.

In Dreams From My Father, Obama meditates on Farrakhan, finding: “If [black] nationalism could create a strong and effective insularity, deliver on its promise of self-respect, then the hurt it might cause well-meaning whites, or the inner turmoil it caused people like me, would be of little consequence.” As Steve Sailer noted, Obama “dispassionately rejected Black Nationalism as economically and politically impractical.” In Sailer’s words, Obama concluded that “the Black Muslims are losers, and Obama, with his two Ivy League degrees and boundless ambition, is a winner.”

Obama nevertheless found the functional equivalent of Farrakhan in Jeremiah Wright. Wright had no such reservations regarding Farrakhan. Wright had an enduring relationship with Farrakhan that extended back at least as far as their joint trip to visit Col. Gadaffi in 1984. In casting his lot with Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ, Obama found the useful Christian analogue of the Nation of Islam.

Ellison abandoned his affiliation with the Nation of Islam after he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic endorsement for a state legislative seat as a self-identified member of the Nation of Islam running under the name Keith Ellison-Muhammad in 1998. In 2002, as a Muslim, Ellison won the Democratic endorsement for the legislative seat minus the -Muhammad. In 2008, of course, after avowing his allegiance to Wright in a celebrated speech, Obama famously cast aside Wright and Trinity United Church under pressure late in the primary season.

In seeking their respective nominations, both Ellison and Obama found support among the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot CAIR and friends. The MB-related support for Ellison and Obama is indicative of the melding of the left with Islamist forces at home and abroad. It is an alliance that Ellison embodies.

As Joel Mowbray reported on Power Line, in Ellison’s case the support came in bundled contributions from CAIR executive director Nihad Awad. Awad headlined an August 2006 fundraiser for Ellison that netted $15,000 to $20,000. Awad also bundled contributions totaling just over $10,000. (CAIR is the front group that was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the government’s prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation. The Ellison campaign issued a terse denial regarding Awad’s bundling of contributions to Ellison, though it refused to explain away the overwhelming evidence assembled by Mowbray to the contrary.) The Minneapolis Star Tribune did not get around to reporting on the Ellison fundraiser featuring Awad until after the Democratic primary the following month.

The MB affiliate Hamas itself seems to have supported Obama during the 2008 campaign. Hamas spokesman Ahmed Yousef expressed Hamas’s support for Obama in April. Al Jazeera reported an even more striking expression of support for Obama from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. According to Al Jazeera, Obama supporters operated a phone bank supporting Obama in the primaries out of an Internet cafe in the Gaza Strip. Like Ellison’s relationship with CAIR, Hamas’s support for Obama received little interest from the mainstream media.

Both Ellison and Obama had friends among homegrown terrorists. Ellison was a vocal supporter of Kathleen Soliah/Sara Jane Olson, the former Symbionese Liberation Army member who was apprehended in St. Paul in June 1999. (Olson ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of possessing explosives with intent to murder Los Angeles police officers in 1975 and to the murder of Myrna Opsahl in the Crocker National Bank robbery the same year.)

By the same token, Obama’s friends in Chicago include former Weather Underground terrorists William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Ayers and Dohrn spent 10 years in the terrorist group that bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol and other government buildings in the 1970’s.

Finally, both Ellison and Obama were the leftward-most viable candidates running for the Democratic Party nomination, and both won the nomination against heirs apparent. In Ellison’s case, the presumptive nominee was Mike Erlandson. Erlandson had served as the chief of staff of 14-term incumbent Martin Sabo, and he was Sabo’s handpicked successor. At the Fifth District convention in May 2006 Ellison presented himself as the serious radical alternative to Erlandson. (Dennis Kucinich’s counterpart at the Fifth District convention was “peace activist” Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer.) Fifth District delegates rejected Erlandson, instead choosing to take the plunge with Ellison. In the multicandidate primary that followed in September, Ellison won with 41 percent of the vote.

Similar dynamics propelled Obama over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary contest. Until the Iowa caucus, she was the prohibitive frontrunner and heir apparent to Bill Clinton. Opting for a candidate untainted by support for the war, Democrats ultimately settled on Obama. Obama staked his primary campaign on the proposition that he was the Ivory Soap candidate on the issue of Iraq. His opposition to the war was deeper and purer than that of the other serious candidates among the multicandidate Democratic field. His position at the far left of the party proved to be a powerful asset against Hillary Clinton.

Despite the natural alliance that should exist between them, Obama scrupulously avoided Ellison during the 2008 campaign. He was deep into the sugarcoating of his political views. The New York Times reported in a June 2008 article by Andrea Elliott, for example, that Ellison had volunteered to speak on Obama’s behalf at a mosque rally in Cedar Rapids, presumably before the Iowa caucuses in January. Prior to the event, aides to Obama asked Ellison to cancel the trip. An Obama aide appeared at Ellison’s Washington office to explain that Obama has “a very tightly wrapped message.” It wasn’t so tightly wrapped that we couldn’t decipher it in 2008, but Obama knew what he was doing.

The clue that Ellison provides to the meaning of Obama’s emergence in the 2008 campaign is akin to the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze.” How fitting that Clinton’s defeat as Obama’s successor points the way to Ellison’s possible leadership of the Democratic Party as Obama leaves office. By contrast, however, as a clue to the direction of the Democratic Party in the aftermath of Clinton’s defeat, Ellison would bay loud and clear.


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