All fired up

Republican congressional candidate Alan Fine unleashes criticism DFL opponent Keith Ellison media’s coverage of race

As Alan Fine made his way toward one of the classes he teaches at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, a stack of newspapers in the building’s entrance grabbed his attention. The bold-faced headline on the front page of the Minnesota Daily, the university’s student newspaper, blared, “With elections near, mudslinging begins.”

“Somehow, I think I’m in this article,” Fine said with a nervous laugh as he picked up a copy of the paper.

Fine, the Republican candidate in the Fifth Congressional District race, wasn’t just in the article – he was one of the candidates at its center. Fine has made headlines for the scathing criticism he began unleashing on DFL-endorsed opponent Keith Ellison just hours after the polls closed on the Sept. 12 primary election. But while Fine generated much of the frenzy himself with a sharply worded press release fired off the night of the primary election and a press conference the next day in which he said he’s “offended as a Jew” to be running against a candidate who has past ties to controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the GOP candidate is upset with the media’s coverage of his remarks and the Fifth Congressional District race.

He’s so irritated by the coverage that he spent the better part of two recent interviews railing about the media’s treatment of his campaign and the congressional race. Fine charges that the media haven’t spent enough time examining questions about Ellison’s past, even though it has been widely scrutinized in local media outlets. At the same time, he said he’s concerned that the media aren’t carefully analyzing each candidate’s positions on the issues. And most of all, the 44-year-old business consultant and Linden Hills resident resents media reports that suggest he’s engaging in “mudslinging” or “smear tactics.” Fine said he’s simply asking questions about Ellison’s past that he claims the media have chosen to ignore because they favor the DFL candidate.

Fine also seems convinced that because he’s a Republican candidate in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, the media haven’t given him a fair shake.

“Whatever I say, you’re going to draw negative connotations from it,” Fine said just days after the primary election when asked by the Downtown Journal why he had decided to immediately launch into sharp criticisms of Ellison. “But I’d like you not to. I’d like you to look at us as candidates and really look at the issues, and look at the nature of who we are as people.”

But Mary Vavrus, a University of Minnesota communication studies professor who is an expert in the area of media studies, said Fine is “grasping at straws” with his complaints about the media. She said if any of the candidates have been the target of unfair media coverage, it has been Ellison.

Like others in the community, she also wonders if the negative tone Fine’s campaign has taken on since the primary election has been orchestrated by statewide or even national GOP leaders.

“Up until Ellison won in the primary, I think Fine understood he was a sacrificial lamb,” Vavrus said. “And I don’t know who got to him, but it does seem that such a drastic change in tone from pretty affable and pretty easy-going to being really [negative] seems to be an indication that he’s getting signals and advice from sources other than his campaign staff.”

Fine scoffed at speculation that GOP leaders are directing his campaign, saying the press conference was held as a way to express his reaction to the primary election. He said he wrote every word he said that day, and he takes complete responsibility for his remarks.

“I believe I did the right thing. I realized beforehand what the ramifications would be,” Fine said, arguing that not everything on the campaign trail “has to be done with a smile.”

But before Fine came out swinging at that press conference, many of his campaign events did seem to be done with a smile – and there is an overflowing archive of press releases to prove it. Fine eased into the race with a press release in June focused on how he wants to make the American Dream available to all Americans and how leaders “need to stop pointing fingers at each other.”

Then in early August, more warm and fuzzy news – literally – came from the Fine camp. A press release announced that the candidate planned to adopt a dog for his 12-year-old son from the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley. The release quotes Ghandi as saying “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Fine ties this in to his plan to fight crime in the city with the release noting, “Fine’s moral vision for partly dealing with crime in Minneapolis is to strengthen family and teach children responsibility. What a great way to start!”

Four days later, Fine sent out a press release informing the media that the “official vehicle of the Fine campaign is an electric scooter.” The release took a not-so-subtle jab at DFL candidate Mike Erlandson – who made the environment a top priority of his campaign but drove a Cadillac Escalade SUV – by pointing out that more than 70 of the battery-powered scooters could be purchased for the price of one Cadillac Escalade. It also featured an accompanying photo of Fine perched on the scooter holding his son’s new dog, Blaze, while giving the “thumb’s up” sign.

And then came a press release that while at the State Fair at the end of August, Fine did 16 pull-ups at the Marine booth and “raised the bar” for the Fifth Congressional District race. Fine used the opportunity to point out that he’s a U.S. Masters swimmer and fitness enthusiast who believes preventive health care is critical in “bringing down dramatically our nation’s health-care costs.”

But the playful press releases seemed to fade away with August.

Fine is still sore over the fact that he couldn’t garner media attention for a symposium held days before the DFL primary election that he organized as a venue for leaders of the Somali, Hmong, Cambodian and Latino communities to discuss problems they are experiencing. The media had a chance to analyze the issues at that symposium, Fine said. He charges that those issues received little attention while his criticisms of Ellison made front-page headlines.

And he’s not happy with many of those headlines, saying they made it seem as if he was attacking Ellison as a Muslim. Fine is adamant that he’s not critical of Ellison because he is Muslim, but rather because of his past. Ellison has faced public scrutiny over his work in 1995 organizing the Million Man March, which was convened by Farrakhan, and 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.

Ellison has said he never belonged to the Nation of Islam and never met Farrakhan. Although Ellison has apologized for what he said are mistakes in his past, that doesn’t appease Fine.

“I would love for there to be a black man [from Minnesota] in Congress. I would love for there to be a Muslim in Congress. I have no problem with that,” Fine said. “But I do have a problem having someone that has these issues in his past.”

Steve Rendall, a senior analyst at the national media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and host of its weekly radio show “CounterSpin,” said while it is fair to criticize a candidate for past views and associations, once that candidate has disavowed those things he or she shouldn’t continue to be held accountable for them.

“If he’s made a clean break with those past controversial views, then it’s really not fair to continue to hold him accountable for it,” Rendall said.

And while Fine has said he’s “offended as a Jew” by Ellison’s past associations, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) released a statement supporting Ellison and calling on Fine to end his “unbalanced and irrational attacks” on the DFLer.

“Keith has demonstrated his support for Israel and issues of importance to the Jewish community. His explanation of his past has been accepted by Minnesota’s organized Jewish community, and it is only the GOP attack machine who seems intent on not moving on,” NJDC Executive Director Ira Forman said.

For his part, Ellison has expressed his desire to move on and focus on the issues of the campaign.

“I am not the victim of any negative media,” Ellison said in a statement posted on his website. “The victim in all of this is the voters of the Fifth District. They need to know where the candidates stand on these issues.”

And while Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee said she thinks it’s fair for voters to know about what she calls Ellison’s “troubling past,” she said its relevance to how he would serve as a member of Congress will be up to voters. She largely dismissed Fine, saying the race really comes down to her and Ellison.

“I would love to get to the issues of this campaign,” Lee said.

 

Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at 436-4373 and kvanderveen@mnpubs.com.