Ellison credits grassroots campaign for victory

Many political newcomers say DFLer motivated them to get involved in his congressional campaign

When Uptown resident Jennifer Umolac heard Keith Ellison’s victory speech after his win in September’s hard-fought DFL primary election, she was moved to tears and spurred into action.

“After the primary, he had the whole audience chanting ‘love,’” Umolac said, adding that Ellison’s message of peace and unity resonated strongly with her. “I showed up at his [campaign office] door asking what I could do to help.”

Umolac wasn’t alone. A number of the supporters on hand at a Downtown election night party celebrating Ellison’s Nov. 7 win in the Fifth Congressional District race had similar stories of being drawn to the DFLer’s campaign after a speech they heard or encounter they had with the candidate. Ellison has prided himself on running a grassroots campaign fueled by the motto “everybody counts,” and his victory has in part been attributed to his ability to energize constituents that haven’t been politically involved before.

Many of those constituents packed the party at Trocaderos, 107 3rd Ave. N., after the polls closed with reason to celebrate. Ellison, the DFL-endorsed candidate for Congress in the district that includes Minneapolis and 12 inner-ring suburbs, garnered 56 percent of the vote on his way to victory. The 42-year-old attorney and state lawmaker made history with the win by becoming the first Muslim elected to Congress and the first black person elected to Congress from Minnesota.

But 26-year-old Muna Ahmed said while those historical firsts are important, it’s not what motivated her get out and door knock for Ellison throughout Minneapolis. She said she wants to see leaders who fight for issues affecting the increasingly diverse American population.

“I want to see a difference in politics,” said Ahmed, who is Muslim. “And I think he will make a difference.”

But as Ellison delivered a rousing acceptance speech to a packed room, he told supporters that he can’t create the kind of political change he promised during his campaign alone.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, ya’ll. This whole campaign I’ve talked about ‘we.’ And ‘we’ means me and you,” Ellison said. “Each of us has to take up a mantle tonight.”

Ellison will replace retiring U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, who is stepping down after holding the seat for 28 years. Ellison campaigned heavily on making peace the guiding principle of the nation, and he has called for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. He has also stressed the need for universal health care and strongly advocates a renewed emphasis on civil and human rights.

Councilmember Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) said Ellison’s progressive agenda and unique campaign style is just what the DFL needs.

“I think this is going to re-energize this party,” he said.

Tahsha Jackson, a 37-year-old resident who lives near Dinkytown, had never gotten involved in politics before she heard Ellison speak at a rally in Loring Park in October. Drawn to Ellison’s focus on civil and human rights, Jackson started volunteering. After weeks of door knocking and distributing flyers, she spent much of Election Day making calls to encourage voters to head to the polls.

“Most of the calls I made were to people who said they had already voted for Keith,” said Jackson, who was all smiles as precinct results showed Ellison with a commanding lead.

Ellison’s nearest challenger, Republican Alan Fine, received slightly more than 21 percent of the vote, just barely ahead of Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee, who also garnered just over 21 percent of the vote. Green Party candidate Jay Pond received slightly less than 2 percent of the vote.

Ellison won all 131 precincts in Minneapolis. Of the 223 precincts in the district, he lost just three. Fine and Lee each won a precinct in Golden Valley and Fine won another precinct in New Hope.

While packing up her campaign office in Loring Park, Lee said she knew all along the race would be difficult to win.

“I had a base of zero, so I knew it would be a steep climb,” Lee said, adding that Ellison was boosted by the “wave of blue” that swept the country. “This was the year of the Democrats.”

Pond received 13,000 fewer votes in this year’s election than when he ran against Sabo in 2004. He said Green Party candidates across the country saw lower numbers, a trend Pond attributes to Americans’ desire to make sure Democrats got back into power.

“I still believe in my country’s ability to make change, and last night they voted in change. And they didn’t do it as aggressively as I want change, but it’s a good sign,” Pond said.

Pond struggled to find his footing and pick up momentum in this year’s campaign in part because many of his key issues – peace, a commitment to renewable energy, single-payer universal health care and marriage for all – were issues Ellison also focused on heavily in his campaign.

Political analysts had predicted that Ellison would emerge victorious in the left-leaning district despite a campaign that at times was tumultuous. Ellison faced heavy 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.

Nathan Fletcher, a 36-year-old Golden Valley resident, said Ellison’s past missteps were the least of his concerns when he headed into the polling booth.

“With the amount of corruption in politics, that was peanuts,” Fletcher said.

Fine, who did not return calls seeking his reaction to the general election results, began harshly criticizing Ellison hours after the primary election. But Ellison prided himself on running a positive campaign and refused to respond with negative attacks.

“In this campaign, we’ve proven that toughness is not about how much pain you can inflict. It’s about how much pain you can take for your people,” Ellison told the enthusiastic Downtown crowd after the polls closed, a remark that received wild cheers.

Fletcher joined several other viewers at the victory party in comparing Ellison’s campaign style to that of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. Although Fletcher didn’t work on Ellison’s campaign, he was sold when he heard the DFLer speak at an event. He said he was impressed by Ellison’s realistic view of domestic issues like drugs and poverty in America and the street-smart ways he has proposed to deal with those problems.

“He’s the first politician I’ve ever heard who speaks to reality,” Fletcher said. “I feel he’ll speak from a place few politicians will.”

Umbolac was hardly able to contain her excitement at Ellison’s win. She dressed up as “Captain Democracy” while campaigning Tuesday and wore the same costume – a red, white and blue getup that featured a jester’s hat and jean jacket covered in campaign stickers and was accented by a carefully drawn curly black mustache and bits of glitter – during Ellison’s victory party that night. The 38-year-old jumped around during an interview and held up a white sign with the word “peace” largely emblazoned in bright blue letters while chanting “I think we’re going to see change tonight!” She said she thinks many Americans are disgusted with the direction of key issues like the War in Iraq and health care, and candidates like Ellison will help bring about change.

“Everyone’s looking for change,” Umolac said.

Steve Eubanks, who splits his time between residences in Minneapolis’ Harrison neighborhood and Georgia, said he was at the victory party because he is a friend of Ellison’s. He said he’s proud Minnesota is willing to send someone to Congress who speaks his mind and offers a diverse point of view.

“In a lot of places, Keith wouldn’t have even been on the ballot as a viable candidate,” Eubanks said.

Councilmember Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) said the one thing she wanted to do on election night was make sure to attend Ellison’s victory party.

“I wanted to be a part of the crowed I knew would be here,” Hodges said, gesturing to a the diverse crowd that featured people from all walks of life. “You don’t see crowds like this very often.”


Kelliher, Pogemiller set to lead DFL-dominated Legislature


By Kari VanDerVeen

When the Minnesota Legislature convenes Jan. 3, it will do so under the leadership of two Minneapolis legislators.

Democrats in the House chose Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-60A) to serve as speaker. Kelliher represents Bryn Mawr, Lowry Hill, Lowry Hill East, East Isles, Kenwood, Cedar Isles Dean, and parts of the Lyndale and CARAG neighborhoods.

Kelliher’s leadership of the House will be paired with the leadership of Sen. Larry Pogemiller (DFL-59) in the Senate. The district Pogemiller represents includes Nicollet Island and the East Bank.

The two will lead a state Legislature that is solidly in the hands of DFLers, who gained ground in the Senate and took back control of the House. The House will have 85 Democrats and 49 Republicans, while the Senate will have 44 Democrats and 23 Republicans.

Joel Bergstrom, the DFL chair for Senate District 60, said he thinks Kelliher is a legislator who can lead progressive change while also keeping the lines of communication open with Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who narrowly won reelection, and get him on board with DFL-led initiatives.

“Discipline is going to be part of it. With a huge majority, I think they’re going to be careful not to over step, because they still have to work with the governor,” Bergstrom said.

Bergstrom also noted that although the Legislature will be led by urban DFLers, those leaders have to maintain an agenda moderate enough so that Democrats from suburban and rural areas who won by smaller margins can go back to their constituents in two or four years and talk about issues that resonate with voters there.

Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) said the DFL leadership’s renewed emphasis on issues such as education, health care and property-tax reductions means he’ll be bringing back bills – such as one to reduce class sizes – that he introduced in previous years that didn’t receive a hearing in the GOP-controlled House.

“I think now we’re in a position with a Minneapolis speaker where a lot of these initiatives are going to get the consideration they deserve,” Hornstein said.

Voter Turnout

Sixty-six percent of eligible voters in Minneapolis voted in the Nov. 7 general election, according to Minneapolis director of elections Cindy Reichert. That was up from the 62 percent of voters who headed to the polls in 2002, the last year there was a mid-term election. In 2004, Reichert said Minneapolis had a 70 percent voter turnout rate.


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