State Rep. Keith Ellison (DFL-58B) won 116 of the 131 precincts in Minneapolis on the way to claiming a decisive victory in the Democratic primary for the Fifth Congressional District.
The DFL-endorsed candidate overcame questions about his past to capture 41 percent of the total vote in the district, which put him 10 percentage points ahead of his nearest challenger, Mike Erlandson. Ellison said his campaign won because of the support of a diverse group of voters.
“We had this really broad-based coalition of people of all faiths, all colors, all cultures, all coming together,” Ellison said.
As the Democratic candidate in a district that leans hard to the Left, Ellison, a 42-year-old attorney and state lawmaker who lives in the Near North neighborhood, is poised to become the first Muslim member of Congress and the first black person elected to Congress from Minnesota.
But first he faces opponents in the general election that include the Republican Party's Alan Fine, the Independence Party's Tammy Lee and the Green Party's Jay Pond. Whoever wins the Nov. 7 general election will replace retiring U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), who has served in the House for 28 years.
Erlandson, who has served as Sabo's chief of staff for 19 years and is also the former state DFL party chair, won all 15 of the precincts in Minneapolis that Ellison didn't capture and garnered 31 percent of the vote in the district. He also won the majority of the 12 inner-ring suburbs that comprise the rest of the district, including Hopkins, Richfield, St. Anthony, St. Louis Park, Columbia Heights, Fridley and Spring Lake Park.
The precincts Erlandson won in Minneapolis are mainly focused in Southwest and South Minneapolis. Erlandson lives in the East Isles neighborhood and captured several precincts near Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. Many of the other precincts he won were on the southern edge of the city, near the suburb of Richfield (which he handily won). But Erlandson did win a Downtown precinct (the 7th Ward's eighth precinct), which encompasses most of the Loring Park neighborhood.
Former State Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge won the suburbs of Crystal, Golden Valley, Hilltop and New Hope (the city where she lives) to end up with 21 percent of the vote in the district.
City Councilmember Paul Ostrow (1st Ward) failed to win a precinct in Minneapolis and ended up with 5 percent of the vote in the district. Even in the city's 1st Ward, which he represents on the City Council, he struggled to garner support. He came in third behind Ellison and Erlandson in all but three precincts in that ward - in two of those precincts, he came in second and in one he came in fourth with Reichgott Junge pulling ahead of him by three votes.
All of Ellison's DFL primary challengers have said they will support the Democratic ticket in the Fifth Congressional District. Ellison said he's not taking any of his competition in the general election lightly.
“We celebrated Tuesday night, and Wednesday morning we were back hard at work,” Ellison said.
He added that he plans to campaign frequently in Southwest, an area of the city he said was important to his win.
“Folks in Southwest really came out, and they're really a rich source of voters in this congressional district, really aware, really active, really intelligent voters,” Ellison said.
As Ellison's campaign geared up to head to the general election, the other DFL challengers focused on returning a sense of normalcy to their lives.
Ostrow said he woke up and walked his daughter to the bus stop Wednesday morning before sliding into his desk at City Hall by 8:30 a.m. While he acknowledged that he was disappointed in the relatively low number of votes his campaign garnered, Ostrow said he was proud of the number of young people who worked on his campaign. He also swiftly shifted his enthusiasm for his Congressional campaign to the work he has in front of him on the City Council, noting that the city is heading into a budget process that he will be leading as chair of the Ways and Means Committee. Ostrow said the biggest challenge for his campaign was having the resources of some of his opponents.
“In a campaign, there's your message and your candidacy, but a key part of any campaign is also to convince those who might support you that you are a candidate who can ultimately win,” Ostrow said. “And quite candidly, I think that was a challenge for us.”
Reichgott Junge's campaign had a solid stack of resources, but she admits that she underestimated Ellison's strength. She said he was able to overcome the criticism of his past in a “remarkable way” by not getting defensive and convincing the core DFL primary voters that he could move on from the past and give them a strong representative in Congress.
“I think there was a desire in the DFL activist ranks to replace [the late Sen. Paul] Wellstone, and it ignited a desire for them to take a risk,” Reichgott Junge said.
Erlandson was unavailable for interviews Wednesday because he had promised his two small children that whatever the outcome of the election, he would spend the day with them after several grueling weeks devoted to the campaign trail. Peter Brickwedde, a spokesman for Erlandson's campaign, said the former DFL state party chair was proud of the campaign he ran and the fact that he finished a strong second to Ellison.
“We closed really hard,” Brickwedde said, noting that Erlandson did well in the suburbs but simply didn't have the support in Minneapolis to pull out the win. “It just wasn't our night last night.”
While DFLers absorbed the results of the primary, the candidates Ellison will face in the general election hit the campaign trail hard just hours after the polls closed. Alan Fine, the Republican-endorsed candidate in the Fifth Congressional District, fired off a scathing press release just after midnight calling Ellison an “extremist candidate.”
Two days after the primary election, Fine, a 44-year-old resident of the Linden Hills neighborhood, repeated criticisms of Ellison's past actions that were reported in a number of media outlets during the primary race. Ellison faced public scrutiny over his past ties to controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, which emerged in part because he helped organize the 1995 Million Man March, and then had to own up to 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.
While Ellison has publicly apologized for his past missteps, Fine said it wasn't enough.
“Keith Ellison right now is jumping up and down, talking about how we're unified and how he's going to run a positive campaign and all of these things, but the thing is that he has a responsibility to really address the issues of his past,” Fine said. “Character is important when we choose our nation's leaders.”
Tammy Lee, the Independence Party's candidate in the race, spent the day after the primary driving around the district with a 37-foot RV dubbed the “Independence Express” that served as a mobile billboard. Lee, a 35-year-old Golden Valley resident, said the contrast between her campaign and Ellison's is very distinct.
“His message was much more extreme and left and liberal than the message I'm giving, which is a centrist, pragmatic approach to politics,” Lee said.
Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at [email protected] and 436-4373.