A groggy, hoarse and victorious state Rep. Keith Ellison nestled into a chair today in his campaign office as media requests streamed in from across the country for the man who could become the nation’s first Muslim in Congress.
Ellison hugged supporters who slowly trickled in, as campaign manager Dave Colling tried to call in reinforcements to help him handle the eight calls per minute he was receiving at noon. The two hadn’t had time to dissect where they turned out the most votes geographically, but both agreed they won by a bigger margin than they’d hoped.
Ellison received 41 percent of the vote in a three-way race many thought would be won with a percentage in the mid-30s. The candidate will face Republican Alan Fine, Independence candidate Tammy Lee and Green Party member Jay Pond in November.
His campaign gambled on volunteers, direct mail and a massive get-out-the vote effort instead of a higher profile media campaign. Ellison preached peace and inclusion, labor and the environment.
“People are yearning for a vision of our country that includes everyone,” he said. “People are yearning for a vision of our country where we talk it out internationally before we shoot it out.
President Bush espouses what Ellison calls “an ownership” society. “You’re on your own and lots of luck. Government’s not going to help you. If you’re a soldier, we’re not going to help when you get back,” Ellison said.
The 43-year-old Detroit native is in position to become the first black person elected to Congress from Minnesota. Ellison almost never talked about race or religion during the campaign unless asked, but he referred to it when he talked with supporters after the victory.
“We brought together all ages, all colors, all faiths,” he said.
“Let’s be honest, we faced some tough days, but we never got negative,” Ellison continued. “And we proved that you can win an election by going positive and staying positive. We know that negative campaigning has its effects, but it doesn’t enhance our humanity, it does not build bridges, it builds walls.”
Ellison is a two-term legislator from north Minneapolis who won the party endorsement in May. Tuesday he beat back primary challenges from former state DFL Chair Mike Erlandson, Sabo’s longtime chief of staff and his choice of successor, and former state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, who made health care her central issue, and Minneapolis City Council Member Paul Ostrow. Erlandson ran second with 31 percent of the vote; Reichgott Junge ran third with 21 percent.
To make history, Ellison still must win in November, but the Fifth District leans hard to the left.
Ellison stunned the DFL Party convention crowd by winning swiftly. The party’s backing should have made him a strong favorite in the primary in a district that includes Minneapolis and inner-ring suburbs.
But Ellison found himself facing questions about his ties to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in the 1990s, in part because of his work helping organize the Million Man March. After he eased those concerns, he found himself explaining his messy personal affairs—dozens of unpaid parking tickets, a driver’s license suspension, unpaid federal income taxes and campaign finance reports that didn’t get filed.
Erlandson and Reichgott Junge hit the airwaves at the end of the campaign with television and radio commercials. With the exception of one modest radio commercial, Ellison focused on direct-mail efforts to primary voters as well as his grass-roots get-out-the-vote effort and an army of volunteers.
His success hinged on motivating “unlikely” primary voters, including peace activists, gay and lesbian voters and minorities, especially Somalis.
Ellison also hails from the North Side, an area with the lowest voter turnout in Minneapolis.
But he repeatedly said his campaign was about how “everyone counts, everyone matters.” He called himself the peace candidate, drawing subtle and overt connections to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, considered to be the master of DFL grass-roots politics.
“I have the passion of Wellstone and the practicality of Sabo,” Ellison told delegates when he won the party’s endorsement. A criminal defense lawyer by profession and a voracious reader with a gift for speech, Ellison delivered a rollicking acceptance speech at the endorsing convention that had many in the room on their feet and recalling Wellstone’s abilities.
Ellison’s campaign T-shirts were Wellstone green and he sent a mailing to voters featuring a large color picture of Ellison taken with the late senator.
Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale backed Ellison as did influential Wellstone friends, Sam and Sylvia Kaplan, who hosted a well-attended fund-raiser for him. “He’s come a long way. He’s kept himself under control while the attacks have been relentless,” Sam Kaplan said from the Blue Nile on Franklin Avenue where Ellison had his victory party.
Ellison and his wife, Kim, have four children. They moved to the Twin Cities so he could attend the University of Minnesota’s law school.
He was raised Catholic and comfortably middle-class, one of four sons. He converted to Islam while at Wayne State University. In adherence to Muslim law, Ellison doesn’t drink alcohol or eat pork. His wife isn’t a Muslim, but the couple is raising their children in the faith. He attends the Masjid An-Nur mosque led by North Side native, Makram El-Amin.