Ellison struggles to refocus campaign

DFL-endorsed congressional candidate, is bruised but not beaten - not yet, anyway

As Keith Ellison leaned back in a chair in the middle of a congressional campaign office littered with papers and files, he looked weary.

The night before, the DFL-endorsed candidate had taken part in an hour-long radio debate along with three other Democratic contenders for the Fifth Congressional District seat that will be vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo (DFL). As Ellison prepared for yet another debate that night, the 42-year-old attorney and state legislator made headway on some paperwork for his law practice and then began making the daily litany of campaign phone calls.

Just weeks removed from a barrage of public scrutiny and criticism focused on his past associations with controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Star Tribune reports detailing a pattern of tardiness in filing campaign finance reports and late payment of about 40 parking tickets that resulted in the suspension of his driver's license, the strain of what has become a bruising primary race against six fellow DFLers shows on his face.

But as Ellison begins discussing the issues forming the platform of his campaign, he slowly becomes energized. His voice strengthens as he talks about the billions of dollars being spent on the war in Iraq and why a search for peace and an increased emphasis on diplomacy need to be among the very highest priorities of the federal government.

&#8220I'm running [for Congress] in large part because I think peace should be the guiding principle of our nation; diplomacy should be how we do business; we should be an agent for peace around the world; and we should interact with our neighbors and resolve conflict as peacefully as possible,” said Ellison, who has represented House District 58B, covering part of Downtown, since 2002.

He lives in the city's Near North neighborhood with wife, Kim, and four children ages 9-17.

Peace has become the central issue in Ellison's campaign - he supports the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The billions of dollars spent on the war, he said, should be redirected to fund domestic needs such as affordable health care, renewable energy, expanded mass transit systems and more police officers. He said those issues are important to cities across the nation, including Minneapolis and the inner-ring suburbs in the Fifth Congressional District. Ellison balked at critics of an immediate withdrawal who charge that U.S. troops need to remain in Iraq to aid in reconstruction efforts.

&#8220I don't think our presence there is making things better,” Ellison said. &#8220There are arguments that it's making things worse.”

A better solution, he asserts, would be for the United States to immediately withdraw its troops from Iraq and engage the warring factions in diplomacy.

While peace is the issue Ellison seems most passionate about, he also becomes emphatic when talking about civil and human rights. If elected, Ellison would be the first black member of Congress from Minnesota and the first Muslim serving in the United States House of Representatives.

&#8220I'm proud of who I am. I'm proud to be black. I'm proud to be Muslim. But I don't think those should be the most important issues of the [Congressional] race,” Ellison said.

He said he the nation's leaders need to stand up and fight for the rights of people of color, women, and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. When it comes to same-sex marriage, he argues that government has no business deciding whom individuals can and cannot marry based on gender. He likens measures against same-sex marriage to Jim Crow laws that once prohibited people of differing races from marrying.

&#8220I think it's a question of a freedom of choice. And I think gays and lesbians should have the freedom of choice to get married,” Ellison said.

He applies that same advocacy for freedom of choice to the issue of abortion. Ellison said abortion is a tough issue and that he wants to work to prevent women from having to make that choice by supporting comprehensive sex education and a livable wage so that all women have the ability to support their children.

&#8220I recognize the sanctity of human life, but when it comes down to it, a woman has to be free to make the choice of what she's going to do,” Ellison said. &#8220And I don't think the government should make that decision. And I don't think she should have to wait 24 hours to make up her mind about the issue.”

Like other candidates in the Fifth Congressional District race, he wants to see changes made to the current health care system. Ellison supports a universal, single-payer health-care system. He advocates having people of all ages invest in a Medicare system just as senior citizens currently do.

&#8220People say, ‘Well, how are we going to pay for that?' We're already paying for it. We pay for the uninsured right now. They just don't have continuous care. They have end-of-the-line care,” Ellison said.

Other issues Ellison lists as top priorities include a greater reliance on renewable energy and improvements to the nation's public education system. He supports universal all-day kindergarten and universal early education and said he thinks leaders need to reexamine the steeply rising costs of higher education.

But at this point, most voters know more about Ellison's late campaign finance report filings and past activism than any of the issues he said will be priorities if he's elected. Ellison said the focus on his personal life hasn't worn him down.

&#8220I'm not whining about anything,” he said. &#8220I'm just staying positive. I'm talking about the issues whenever I get the chance.”

He points to his wide array of labor endorsements - from the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and others - as a sign of the support he's garnered. But Sarah Janecek, co-publisher of the online newsletter Politics in Minnesota and a Republican lobbyist who lives in Lowry Hill, said the concerns raised about Ellison's past actions might have damaged his candidacy beyond repair.

&#8220I think it's politically correct to openly back Keith Ellison, but I think it's a different matter when people are in the privacy of a voting booth,” she said.

She said Ellison would have been a &#8220slam dunk” had the issues about his past actions not taken center stage. But she called Ellison's late campaign finance report filings and the suspension of his license for failure to pay his parking tickets a serious matter for an attorney seeking a seat in Congress.

&#8220I think that this is the classic example of moral relativism. Democrats, in their haste to nominate someone who happens to be black, gave him a free pass in the vetting process,” Janecek said.

But Joel Bergstrom, a Linden Hills resident and chair of Senate District 60, said many of the active Democrats he's been talking to still plan to support Ellison in the primary. He acknowledged it's difficult to judge the impact of the reports about Ellison's past, but said many Democrats agree with the congressional hopeful's position on many issues.

&#8220From the sense I get from talking to people, people are really excited to elect this person who's got a tremendous energy and vision,” Bergstrom said.

Janecek said it's up to Democrats whether they want to send Ellison to Congress. Like many other political observers, she said whoever wins the DFL primary in this heavily Democratic district will run away with the general election. She said the questions about Ellison's personal history are in the past, and as far as the political issues go, many of the DFL candidates share very similar positions.

&#8220It depends on what Democrats want to do,” Janecek said. &#8220To me, it's a question of character. And if Democrats want to forsake the fact that someone repeatedly breaks routine laws that the rest of us abide by, so be it.”

Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at [email protected] and 436-4373.