U.S. House of representatives will have its first Muslim member in January, when Democrat, Keith Ellison, takes the oath of office, his hand in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. Representing the liberal-leaning Fifth District, he’s also the first black Congressman from Minnesota.
The 43-year old trial lawyer will succeed 28-year veteran, Rep. Martin Sabo, who will retire. He served two terms in the Minnesota house of representatives.
“When I say peace should be the guiding principle of our nation, I’m not only talking about the war in Iraq, foreign policy, but I’m also talking about domestic peace,” Ellison told a crowd that became emblematic of diversity. “We won for the principle that there can be no throwaway people in our society.”
He garnered 56 percent of the vote, defeating Republican Alan Fine, Independence Party’s Tammy Lee and Green Party’s Jay Pond.
He trounced fellow Democrats in the Sept. 12 primary, after surviving a bruising campaign that unearthed his tardiness in paying parking tickets that led to the suspension of his driver’s license, and a nagging accusation of being associated with the Nation of Islam, a controversial group thought to be anti-Semitic. He credits much of that victory to unusual turnout by the African Americans and immigrant groups, mostly Somalis who’re Muslims.
But attacks on his “character” hardly stopped there.
The next day, Republican Alan Fine said that, as a Jew, he was “offended” by Ellison’s candidacy to Congress. Fine continued to mount scathing attacks against Ellison, particularly on Ellison’s connections to what he called “risky individuals.”
Ellison mostly fended those accusations off, but didn’t retaliate back. In his victory speech, Ellison touted his “positive” campaign. “We’re creating a new way of politics,” he told the crowd. “You don’t have to smear to win.”
The Detroit native, who moved to Minnesota in 1989 to study law, is married with four children. He converted to Islam when he was 19.
Asked his priority in Congress, Ellison said he wants to fix healthcare. “The people of the Fifth District gave me their confidence to do something about healthcare, the war in Iraq and education,” he said.
Some Democrats say he’s reminiscent of late Sen. Paul Wellstone in his energy and style. Short and stocky, he sputters like Wellstone. His Muslim faith saturated national and international media since winning the primary.
But for Muslims around the country, he embodies a critical point of access to corridors of powers in a country where Islam is embattled more than ever. Climbing the stage with him as he delivered his victory speech were Mahdi Bray, the executive director of Muslim American Society’s (MAS) Freedom Foundation, and James Yee, former Muslim chaplain at Guantannamo Bay who ascended to national prominent after the Bush administration abruptly dropped espionage charges against him.
“I came here to witness history,” Bray, who’s from Washington D.C. said in an interview. “Ellison will break a barrier in America.”
His comments were echoed by 19-year old Isse Jama of Fridley, who said he feels “vindicated” now that Ellison is elected. “Republicans have tried to portray [Ellison], and Muslims by extension, as fanatics who should be off limits to Congress,” Jama said. He even skipped classes to help Ellison, because “if elected, he’ll be open fresh doors in America.”
Ellison, who’s backed by prominent Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, said he understands the challenge of gluing together such a diversified base.
“I’ll provide them with job opportunities to keep them busy,” he said.