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.”