Press reports on the primary victory of Minnesota Democratic U.S. House candidate Keith Ellison make note of the fact that he is now likely to become the first Muslim elected to Congress. But Ellison is also likely to become one of the most left-leaning members of the next House.
The Ellison victory was one of several for anti-war Democrats seeking open seats. Others came in in New York, where City Council member Yvette Clarke won a fierce fight for a Brooklyn seat once held by Shirley Chisholm, and in Maryland, where John Sarbanes, the son of retiring Senator Paul Sarbanes, led in a crowded House race. In Maryland’s highest-profile race, however, former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, who was outspoken in his opposition to the war, lost to the decidely more cautious Representative Ben Cardin by a 46-38 margin.
In another Maryland race, activist Donna Edwards was in a virtual tie this morning with Representative Al Wynn, with a substantial number of votes still to be counted. During the campaign Edwards billed Wynn “the Joe Lieberman of Maryland” because of the Democratic incumbent’s many votes in favor of Bush administration initiatives.
If Edwards pulls out a victory, it will be a very big deal.
But Ellison’s win is nothing to sneeze at.
What the Minnesota Democrat did right is instructive.
Running against a crowded field for the nomination to replace retiring Representative Martin Sabo, Ellison distinguished himself as a passionate progressive who, in the words of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, mounted a campaign that was “reminiscent of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.”
Ellison featured a photo of himself with Wellstone, the late senator from Minnesota who has become a national progressive icon, in his campaign mailings. He even borrowed the color green, which was used in Wellstone’s three Senate campaigns, as the background for “Ellison for Congress” signs and shirts.
It was Ellison’s outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq — which Wellstone also opposed in a critical Senate vote shortly before his death in a 2002 plane crash — that helped him to win the pre-primary endorsenment of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, and the enthusiastic support of grassroots activists during a fast-paced campaign that began only after Sabo unexpectedly announced in March that he would not seek a new term.
“Nearly 2,600 Americans have been killed since the war began on March 19, 2003, and an the estimated 15,800 have been wounded. President Bush recently admitted to 30,000 Iraqi dead, but other estimates put the toll as high as 100,000,” argued Ellison. “It is time to admit this war was a terrible mistake and bring our troops home as soon as possible.”
The DFL candidate’s supporters distributed “Bring Our Troops Home Now” literature throughout the Minneapolis-based district prior to the primary. In the leaflets, Ellison complained that Democrats had “allowed the Republicans to control the dialogue,” and promised to “advocate for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq!”
Ellison’s leading primary opponents took softer stands on the war issue, just as they did on domestic policy concerns. That allowed Ellison, a state representative, to stand out as not just as a Muslim but as a serious challenger to the status quo on health care — he’s a supporter of single-payer universal coverage — and a host of other issues.
Ellison also departed from the political norm by targeting what his campaign referred to as “unlikely” primary voters, placing special emphasis on drawing people of color, gays and lesbians and war foes to the polls. In particular, the Ellison campaign focused on getting members of the burgeoning Somali community to vote — a project to which Wellstone also devoted a great deal of time.
The ideas and the strategies worked. On a primary day that saw mixed results for anti-war candidates, Ellison easily beat a former DFL party chair backed by Sabo, a well-known former state senator and a member of the Minneapolis city council.
Ellison should have an even easier time in November in the overwhelmingly Democratic district. That puts Ellison, a convert to Islam, on track to become the first Muslim member of the Congress and the first African-American representative from Minnesota. It also suggests that Congress well hear an important new progressive voice come January.