During the August recess, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., chatted with Journal contributor Brady Averill and reflected on his first months in Congress and life back in Minneapolis. Ellison won a two-year term in the U.S. House in November, and quickly captured world attention for being the first Muslim elected to Congress.
Southwest Journal: Shortly after the (bridge collapse), you introduced legislation that would establish a national commission on infrastructure. Do you think it will prevent similar incidents from happening? Will it take more than a commission?
Rep. Keith Ellison: Well, it’ll take more than a commission, but, you know, in order to address our infrastructure needs, which are in the trillions of dollars, we would need to get a very clear assessment of where we stand. What is our current position and profile as related to those bridges, dams, levies — all these critical infrastructure needs that we have in this country? The fact is — over the last number of years — these issues and other important things have been neglected, so we need a strong and clear and accurate inventory of what our needs are, and then some kind of rating into what needs attention sooner, like some kind of triage ranking.
SWJ: You participated in a high-profile trip this spring to the Mideast, traveled to Iraq and recently got back from Israel. What have you learned from your travels?
Ellison: That the United States has to be engaged in the peace process, that the parties … need help to come to a resolution … I’ve learned that this is all a very complicated situation and simple solutions are just not going to work. I’ve learned that we’ve got to look at the Mideast as a region and not separate little parts. I’ve also learned that the Mideast has, and I’m sure now has, the potential to be one of the great areas of the world. And without conflict, it certainly would be …
SWJ: Part of your campaign was to help bring an end to the war in Iraq. Do you think you’re any closer to achieving that?
Ellison: Yeah, I think that we’re closer, but we’re not close enough. The war still goes on and until the United States gets out of Iraq, I’m not going to be happy. We opposed the surge … that was the right thing to do. I voted for deadlines and benchmarks in the context of the appropriation bill. And then I’ve been … a consistent voice to try to hold this administration accountable. … I do think the work that we’ve done has helped to galvanize the American public’s thinking that we need to have an exit out of Iraq, and that we have helped to bring people to the idea that a responsible but quick withdrawal of the military mission is the right thing to do. And let me just say this real clearly: the war is over. The war was over when President Bush stood on that aircraft carrier and said, ‘Mission Accomplished…’ We’ve occupied Iraq longer than it took to complete World War II. And so we’ve been there for quite a long time, and a lot of mistakes have been made. But it’s clear to me that the way to try to stabilize Iraq is through reconstruction and reconciliation. Reconciliation means that we’re going to have to include Iran and Syria and other nations in the region to help bring some real reconciliation. … Military action is not going to be the thing that brings stability to Iraq.
SWJ: What are the biggest issues your district faces, and what are you doing about them?
Ellison: I think the biggest issue facing us is probably health care. And one of the things we’re doing is we’re going to have a community forum on Sept. 23 in Columbia Heights to talk about that. Congressman John Conyers, who is the chief author of H.R. 676 (United States Health Insurance Act), is going to be there to talk about it. I’ve been consistent in terms of speaking up for the need of universal single-payer healthcare
Another key issue is education, of course. And I do expect that there’s going to be some real reform of No Child Left Behind. … I’ve been active with (House Education and Labor Committee) Chairman George Miller on the issue of reform of No Child Left
There’s no shortage of issues that I’ve been working on. We’ve been working on all kinds of stuff — increasing the minimum wage … and then also credit justice issues, such as universal default. And also I’ve organized an official field meeting of the Financial Services Committee to talk about predatory lending.
SWJ: How has your life changed as a U.S. Congressman?
Ellison: Instead of being home every night, I’m only home about three nights a week. It makes it necessary for me to find new ways to communicate with family. You have to be more deliberate. You have to be more purposeful about it.
Contributing writer Brady Averill lives in East Harriet. She covered the Minnesota Congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., for the Star Tribune from May 2006–May 2007.