No one expects John McCain to ask the freshman Democratic Congressman from Minneapolis to show him around the part of the country where McCain will accept the Republican nomination for President. But were the Arizona senator to request a tour, Keith Ellison says that it might begin on the banks of the Mississippi, at the spot where the I-35W bridge collapsed during evening rush hour on August 1, 2007.
“I would touch on the human side first. Thirteen people died on the bridge,” Ellison begins, his voice catching. “One of them was a Somali mom who was carrying a child in her womb and had another child she was leading by the hand. Another was a member of the Teamsters, a guy who drove a truck to bring bread around the local community. Another was a Latin American fellow who was not documented. A very diverse group of people died on the bridge, and that was recognized in the Twin Cities, as was the fact that a very diverse group of people came together to try and restore the bridge. There is a sense of community and the public good here that is very powerful.”
There is also, Ellison explains as he guides a visitor through the Twin Cities, an understanding that government has an essential role in advancing that public good. “The collapse of the bridge got this community focused on the fact that, not only in Minnesota but around the country, we have allowed infrastructure to slide. We have a trillion dollars’ worth of infrastructure needs here in America. That’s why I have introduced an Infrastructure Bank bill to finance these huge projects and to maintain the infrastructure we’ve got.”
Like his late mentor, fellow Minnesotan Paul Wellstone, Keith Ellison is one of those rare political figures who touch on the human side first. Smart and tactically savvy, he recognizes that it is better to begin by showing why action is necessary before getting to the how of public policy. That earns him some dismissals from pundits as a “predictable” liberal–if they get past Ellison’s African-American heritage and Muslim religion. But veteran activist Niel Ritchie says, “Keith’s political skills are remarkable; he recognizes that people want to put him in a box, to stereotype him. He’s too smart, too agile to let himself be pigeonholed.” Despite the burden of coming to Congress as its first Muslim, Ellison maintains a sly sense of humor, a self-deprecating style and a comfort with nuance that allow him to navigate the most treacherous shoals. Indeed, Ellison could teach the presidential candidate he has backed since the start, Barack Obama, a thing or two about dodging the slings and arrows always aimed at upsetters of the status quo.
Obama, famously, is not a Muslim. But that hasn’t stopped critics from suggesting something different. Obama’s campaign has a hard time striking a proper balance, a failing that has sparked some controversies. Ellison has had to gently prod Obama and his aides to get Muslims and Arab-Americans more “fully engaged” in the campaign. “Don’t be afraid,” he counsels. “Understand that the fearmongers are going to do what they want to do. They will try to divide us. Their best card is to make us afraid of each other, to try to promote false division between us based on religion and culture and gender. But if we are willing to face their boogeyman, we’ll find that it’s just a phantom and it’s going to evaporate. Most people are fair-minded. They’re going to do the right thing once the leadership offers them a courageous alternative that makes sense for their lives.”
Ellison has faced the boogeyman. After the 45-year-old lawyer and state legislator won an open House seat (in a campaign in which, he recalls, “one of my opponents sent out over 110,000 pieces of literature basically calling me a terrorist”), Virginia Representative Virgil Goode griped that Ellison was planning to take his ceremonial oath on a Koran. Ellison shamed his detractors by borrowing a Koran from the Library of Congress–the one owned by Thomas Jefferson.
Ellison says he is simply bringing the political mores of Minneapolis and St. Paul to Washington. “In the Twin Cities people don’t think of those demographic identifiers when they think about me. They don’t think of me as ‘the first Muslim Congressman.’ They think of me as a strong Wellstonian liberal who is going to stand up for the working people and is going to stand up for peace,” says Ellison. “My race, my religion, was quite incidental to why I got elected. They didn’t really care about the demographics. They were asking me: Where are you on the war? Where are you on civil rights? Where are you on LGBT rights? Where are you on trade policy? That’s what they wanted to know. And that’s something I’d tell John McCain: he’s going to be nominated in a community that really doesn’t want to hear an appeal based on a candidate’s demographic background. They want to hear about shared power. People in Minneapolis and St. Paul coalesce around ideas and values, not so much around clan and tribe.”
While the old image of the Twin Cities may have been of a grain-belt redoubt where diversity was celebrated by inviting a Swede to the Norwegian side of town, Minneapolis and St. Paul are now home to immigrants from 160 countries, including the largest Hmong, Somali and Liberian communities in the United States, as well as burgeoning Latino communities and one of the largest Native American urban populations in the country. And the region is politically diverse as well. Mavericks from Jesse Ventura to Ralph Nader to Dennis Kucinich have run well in the Twin Cities, where an active Green Party often competes with the Republicans for second place in local elections.
But the dominant political tradition in the region is that of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, whose economic-populist and antiwar values make it perhaps the most progressive local affiliate of the national Democratic Party. It is that tradition Ellison seeks to embody, as did Wellstone.
“Wellstone left an indelible imprint on Minneapolis, Minnesota and the world. But it’s important to understand that Paul Wellstone was very much in line with the tradition of Minnesota politicians,” says Ellison. “Remember, it was in 1948, pre-Brown v. Board of Education, that Hubert Humphrey was calling for this country to end Jim Crow and segregation. Eugene McCarthy was talking about ending the war in Vietnam, taking the message of a very strong antiwar tradition in the Twin Cities to the national stage…. This is a tradition. This is a part of what we do in Minnesota. We can be counted on to make the call for the common good, to call people to their better nature. You know, Paul Wellstone would welcome the Republicans. But he would also insist on exercising his amendment right to call attention to the failure of their philosophy–the philosophy of ‘only worry about yourself,’ ‘the market solves all problems,’ ‘government is bad.’ Paul would be talking about how, over the last eight years, these Republican politicians have tried their ideas and failed. Paul would be talking about how, instead of trying to fix public education, they want you to have a voucher; instead of fixing Social Security, they want our seniors to have private accounts; instead of fixing healthcare, they want you to accept private healthcare accounts. They don’t want to solve the big problems of society; they just want to leave you on your own. Paul would be saying that this approach has failed the nation. But he would also have a positive message, and it would be that we are all better off when we look out for each other. That’s the Twin Cities way. That’s the message John McCain will hear if he gets out of the convention hall.”