After a year in Congress, Ellison proves critics wrong

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In a few days Rep. Keith Ellison is heading to Norway, the land of the Nobel Peace Prize, to study peace and justice. The six-day tour will be his fifth official trip overseas since he was elected as the nation’s first Muslim and Minnesota’s first black in Congress.

Not so bad for a rookie, who commenced his term with overwhelming bad publicity for choosing Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an as the holy book he wanted to use during his unofficial swearing-in ceremony.

Minnesota Monitor Editor’s note: As we count down the final days of 2007, we look back at some of the most interesting or important stories of the past year. Here’s the fourth in this ongoing series.

And that’s not all: Critics questioned Ellison’s patriotism, challenged his faith and predicted a grim tenure for the north Minneapolis legislator. Now, ending his first year, he’s proven his critics wrong, with a record as one of Congress’ most solid — and least divisive — members.

Indeed, the Minneapolis Democrat is in high demand: The State Department and the Pentagon used him to showcase America’s religious diversity, and the speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., drafted him to join her highly publicized Middle East trip over the summer.

What explains Ellison’s winning streak, hurdles notwithstanding, is his mantra. “Peace should be the guiding principle of our nation,” as he told me earlier this year.

Though unabashedly liberal — some say Dennis Kucinich liberal — Ellison managed to vote pragmatically on more than one occasion. He took heat from many of his constituents for voting in favor of a bill in Congress that funded the war in Iraq, despite his fierce opposition to it.

To keep those same far-left constituencies happy, he signed on to a long-shot impeachment effort against Vice President Dick Cheney over the misuse of executive power.

Ellison’s imperfect moment came in July, when he wrongfully compared the Bush administration’s reaction to the terrorist acts of 9/11 to the Reichstag fire, which Nazis used to suspend civil liberties in Germany.

There’s little dispute that the Bush clique rolled back some basic civil rights, but to invoke the Nazi-era incident was, by Ellison’s admission, a critical lapse in judgment.

That said, Ellison was at the receiving end of a Nazi comparison: Conservative pundit Dennis Prager, who led the chorus against Ellison’s decision to use the Qur’an, compared Islam’s holy book to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” or the “Nazi Bible.”

Prager and others unsuccessfully attempted to portray Ellison as an anti-Semite, whose alleged “connections” to the Nation of Islam disqualify him from serving in Congress. By visiting Israel twice — and demonstrating his unwavering support for Israel’s right to exist peacefully — and by joining the congressional Anti-Semitism Task Force, Ellison proved those critics plentifully wrong.

He was even asked to “prove to me that you are not working with our enemies” by CNN’s Glenn Beck. Ellison kept his moral compass in the right direction and disarmed Beck’s outrageous question with a gentle smile.

Even members of Congress took jabs at him. First, it was Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., who erroneously suggested that Ellison’s election was due to burgeoning illegal immigration.

Ellison’s response? A handshake in the chamber of the House and a pledge to sit down for a coffee, as Ellison said, “to talk it out.”

Then it was Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho. Just groomed as the leader of the freshman class of the congressional Republicans, he said in August that the Founding Fathers didn’t envision a Muslim in Congress.

Ellison sat down with Sali, presumably to “talk it out,” and the two had a “very amicable conversation,” Sali’s spokesman told me. Rick Jauert, Ellison’s spokesman, wasn’t aware of such a conversation, but he e-mailed me this statement: “It would be in keeping with [Ellison’s] approach to previous inappropriate statements made by a member for [him] to react amicably.”

Like many residents in the Fifth Congressional District, I would want Ellison to continue representing me in Washington, not because of the God he worships or the color of his skin – both of which I share – but because of what he has done for the citizens of the district, the state and the nation as a whole.