If State Representative Keith Ellison’s current bid to replace outgoing Martin Sabo in the U.S. House of Representatives is successful, it would make him the first African American to represent Minnesota in Congress, as well as the first Muslim from any state.
Ellison, a North Minneapolis attorney and member of Minnesota’s House of Representatives, emerged as the frontrunner in a crowded field of candidates to cinch the DFL endorsement in May. Ellison still must win the DFL primary in September, where he will face challengers Ember Reichgott Junge, Paul Ostrow and Mike Erlandson.
In the Minnesota legislature, Ellison established for himself a reputation as a formidable orator and a passionate advocate for the causes he championed. It has been suggested by some that Ellison has the potential to go to Washington and become “the next Paul Wellstone.”
Although Ellison has assembled a strong campaign team and appears to want to run an issue-oriented campaign, he does have his critics and detractors and has been forced to deal with what he considers to be petty side issues.
Ellison shared with us his reasons for running for Congress, his record as a State Representative, his views on the Bush administration, and other topics.
Why he’s running
“The reason I’m running for office is because I want to make peace and justice the guiding principles of our country, because I think that if we have peace we can divert all the resources being devoted into this war into things that human beings actually need.
“If we have peace, we can have better relations with other countries around the world. If we operate on the basis of peace, we can credibly promote peace in other parts of the world.
“I’m very concerned about how the Bush administration seems to see war as the guiding principle of our nation and always look to military action as the first option.
“The second reason I’m running is that I believe that we should have universal health coverage in our country. Everybody should be able to go to the doctor — at this point we have 46 million Americans who see the emergency room as their healthcare plan.
“This is ridiculous in the wealthiest country in the world. If other industrialized countries like Canada and the European Union can cover everybody, we ought to be able to cover everybody, too.
“Third, I think we have to move very deliberately and quickly towards a renewable future. We need to invest heavily in clean energy and renewable fuels. We need to invest heavily in hybrid vehicles and in mass transit so that we can move people and not cars.
“Fourth, I think that we need to really look at the expansion of executive authority. The Bush administration, based on the fear associated with 9/11, has essentially manipulated the country to the point where he controls us through fear and has thereby expanded his authority.
“I think the executive branch at this point is almost an imperial presidency. He says that he can torture people if he wants to; he says that he can spy on people if he wants to; and he has now forced through a law that says that they can look at our library records and the books we purchase from bookstores…
“The very basis of privacy is threatened in our country.
“Another reason I’m running is I want to stand against the ‘wedges.’ The Bush administration told us last year that the problem with our country is the gay and lesbian community, and that barring them from the institution of marriage is the number-one issue. This year they’re telling us the immigrants are the problem, and then most recently they’re telling us that gay marriage is the problem all over again.
“So they keep on manipulating the population through these wedge issues, and I think it’s important for people to stand up against those wedge issues as I have done and will continue to do.
“That’s why I’m running, and that’s what my agenda’s all about.”
His Minnesota House record
“As you know, the Democrats have been in the minority in the House. And despite the challenge of being a member of the minority, I’ve still been able to pass bills to protect our children from lead poisoning, from being exposed to mercury. I’ve been able to pass bills on election integrity to protect the vote, to be a co-author on bills to expand transit like the Northstar commuter rail.
“I’ve introduced more bills than any [other] Democrat, and I’m only behind about three Republicans who are all committee chairs.
“I’ve always been an independent voice for the environment, for children, for our seniors, for transit, for the right to vote, to make sure that we have good reentry services for people who leave prison and try to stay straight; all these are things I’ve been working on and been consistent about.”
“Martin Sabo was a great legislator, and I hope to be able to be as effective as he was in Congress. I hope to be able to bring people together the way he did, to fight for basic economic justice issues like Social Security as he did, and maintain that legacy.
“I just want to say that this election presents us all with a choice: an ‘ownership society’ — in other words, an ‘on-your-own society’ — or a society in which we’re all in this together [and] we have shared responsibility and shared benefits.
“I choose the shared society, the society where we all believe that everybody counts and everybody matters. I’m running on that platform, and quite frankly, people who try to distract us from that platform are simply enemies of that platform. “
“Over the last four years, my religion has not come up as an issue. Now it seems to be all certain people want to talk about when, in fact, I’ve been consistent in making sure that my faith shows through my behavior and in how I try to treat other people well.
“I’ve never worn it on my sleeve or made it an issue for other people. Now it seems to be something people want to talk about on a regular basis, but it simply doesn’t matter.
“I also want to say that I am a curious person. I have looked into the issues — I haven’t just taken people’s word for it. I’ve gone to lectures and I’ve spoken out on issues that I care about, but always with the idea that civil and human rights are the most important things in our country.
“The idea that everybody has a voice, that people should be treated fairly and equally, that’s been a guiding principle of my life. I’ve always, always stood by that.”