“There must be something in the water in Minnesota,” writes Keith Ellison (D-MN) in his new memoir My Country, ’Tis of Thee, “because historically, despite its seemingly homogeneous population, the state has produced some of our more radical political thinkers, and its people have put their prejudices aside to vote for them.” Granted, Ellison was born and raised in Detroit, but the four-term congressman from Minnesota’s Fifth District is boldly following in the footsteps of Humphrey, McCarthy, Mondale and Wellstone.
“Paul Wellstone was my model”; he writes, “my exemplar of an effective politician.” Wellstone “answered to the people and did so with honesty and conviction, and people appreciated that.” Within the context of the do-nothing 113th Congress, Ellison’s reasonability seems downright revolutionary. “When you’re a leader,” Ellison writes, “you cannot ignore parts of your constituency, even if you know they’re not going to vote for you.” There are Republicans in Minneapolis, too—a lesson that countless members of congress have forgotten vis-a-vis their own hometown opposition.
Perhaps most representative of Ellison’s efforts (and of Congressional intractability) is the bipartisan Preserving Homeownership Act of 2012, which Ellison co-introduced with Representatives Gary Peters (D-MI) and John Campbell (R-CA). The bill, which includes a principal-reduction program and which the Republican majority has precluded from passing, is a “win-win proposition that resulted from a moderate Democrat, a progressive Democrat, and a Republican working together to help home owners. When members of Congress talk informally about the things happening in our individual districts, we find that we share many common issues.” Nevertheless, the bill remains a victim of “politics [trumping] common sense,” a non-starter (or half-starter) in a legislature focused on maintaining acrimony across the aisle.
Ellison is a believer in activism, and he believes that so-called “regular folks” can influence their legislators. With Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Ellison is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a position he ran for “to connect working Americans with members of Congress who want to partner with them.” Not only is Ellison eager to work with Republicans, he’s also intent on increasing citizen participation in government (If you stay disgruntled yet sit idle on the sidelines, he believes, then you’re just a complainer.) And participation is crucial. He sees himself (and Congress) as part of a vast ecosystem comprising activists, movements, politicians, and voters. “What’s the matter with Congress?” he asks. “Nothing that wide-awake and active Americans can’t fix.”