A local link

Ellison's Minneapolis office gets up and running

Brian Elliott begins each day a little anxious about the work ahead of him in his new role as district director for Congressman Keith Ellison.

Working with just three other full-time staff members, Elliott is charged with setting up a local office that the more than 600,000 residents of the Fifth Congressional District can contact with their thoughts and concerns. The staff's chief job is to continue to connect with constituents in the same way Ellison did during his campaign, which was fueled by the motto &#8220everybody counts” and focused on energizing constituents that hadn't been politically involved before. It's no small task, especially considering that Ellison - the first Muslim to serve in Congress and the first black representative Minnesota has sent to Washington, D.C. - has been one of the highest-profile members of the freshman class on Capitol Hill and has attracted international attention.

Yet Elliott, a 32-year-old Kingfield resident, said at the end of each day, he's happy with the amount of work being accomplished at the office space tucked inside the Minneapolis Urban League building at 2100 Plymouth Ave. N. Elliott jokes that there's no handbook for setting up a congressional office, so he's just been digging in.

&#8220There are no standard job descriptions or standard work,” Elliott said, noting that staff members work long hours and have to make an effort to take at least one full day off each week.

While half-unpacked boxes remain in a few corners of the office, the congressional e-mail account is now up and running - a relief to volunteers who had to help go through Ellison's campaign e-mail and retrieve relevant messages - and the office is in the process of hiring a constituent service coordinator and three or four additional staff members to handle contact with constituents. Roughly half of their working hours will be spent responding to constituent concerns that come through the office and the other half will be spent out in the community, holding office hours and meetings at community centers, coffee shops and other areas of the district where constituents gather. They'll also likely attend community meetings, Elliott said, not necessarily to speak but to just make residents aware that they are available and open to feedback.

&#8220We're really approaching this in a way that doesn't require you to come to the office,” Elliott said. &#8220Our doors are always open, but we also encourage people to really be looking for us in the community.”

Elliott was previously the associate national political director for Clean Water Action Alliance, one of the nation's largest environmental organizations, before leaving that position to coordinate local operations for Ellison. In his position with Clean Water Action, Elliott spent a large amount of time lobbying legislators at the Minnesota Legislature. It was there that he got to know Ellison, who represented part of Downtown in the House from 2002 until he was elected to Congress last fall. Elliott worked on Ellison's campaign early on and Clean Water Action endorsed the congressional candidate.

After Ellison was elected, the opportunity to create a local office for a progressive member of Congress drew Elliott away from his position at Clean Water Action.

&#8220The opportunity doesn't come along very often,” Elliott said.

Elliott completed his master's degree in environmental policy at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in 1998. He knows Minneapolis well because he and his wife, Geri Katz, both grew up in Southwest - he in Fulton and she in Lynnhurst.

&#8220I grew up with my family walking around the lakes, fishing at the lakes,” Elliott said.

The other permanent full-time staff member in the district office is Trayshana Thomas, who manages Ellison's schedule when he's in Minneapolis. Thomas has worked with Ellison for eight years, serving as a legal assistant at his law office and working on his campaigns for both the Minnesota Legislature and Congress.

She said Ellison's schedule is packed when he returns to the district each weekend. He tries to get to some type of public venue to engage with constituents each weekend, attend a faith-based gathering every Sunday, and schedule meetings with organizations such as labor groups.

&#8220We're getting a lot of requests [to meet with Ellison] from just about every arena,” Thomas said.

As the district's office is getting up and running, a lot of calls and communication have been going to Ellison's Washington, D.C., office. Although those offices aren't fully functioning yet, either - staff members aren't yet receiving e-mails, for example - Communications Director Rick Jauert said the office received about 75 phone calls from district constituents alone in the last week of January. One of the main issues constituents have called about is their opposition to the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq, Jauert said. He said the office is still receiving a huge number of press calls from all around the world, but the congressman is trying to keep his focus on constituents in his district. Jauert, who has worked on Capitol Hill for other Minnesota representatives including Congresswoman Betty McCollum, Congressman Bruce Vento and Congressman Gerry Sikorski, said the amount of attention and the number of calls Ellison has received is something he hasn't seen before.

&#8220I've been here for 25 years, and I've never seen anything like this,” Jauert said.

Although Ellison's overbooked schedule and attempt to be out in the district as much as possible when in Minnesota has prevented him from spending much time in his office in the Urban League building, he has a small office there adorned with large, colorful letters hanging on the wall that spell &#8220peace,” a central message of his campaign. The search is currently underway for a permanent district office space, for which the Minneapolis Urban League building is still a strong contender. Elliott said the North Side location is good because it is easily accessible from Downtown, can be reached via bus routes from all over the city and has free parking. Draw a diagonal line through the Fifth Congressional District - which includes Minneapolis and 12 inner-ring suburbs - and the Urban League building is near the center, Elliott said. It was also where Ellison's law office used to be, which made it accessible immediately.

&#8220It was a place that was available to us so that he could have the doors open the day he was sworn in,” Elliott said.

Reach Kari VanDerVeen at kvanderveen@mnpubs.com or 436-4373.