State Rep. Keith Ellison swept to a surprisingly easy victory Saturday at the DFL’s Fifth Congressional District endorsing convention, but he will have to fend off two well-funded opponents in a September primary before he can lay claim to the seat held for the past 28 years by retiring Congressman Martin Sabo.
Should he survive the primary, Ellison, a two-term representative from North Minneapolis, would be heavily favored in November to become the first African American sent to Congress from Minnesota. He would also become the first Muslim ever elected to Congress.
In Saturday’s contest, Ellison outpolled a crowded field on the first ballot with 36.8 percent of the delegates. Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman garnered 18.3 percent, university professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer had 15.1 percent, and longtime Sabo aide Mike Erlandson had 14.6 percent. Attorney Jorge Saavedra (8.7 percent) and Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff (6.4 percent) did not reach the 10 percent threshold and withdrew.
Earlier in the day, businesswoman Anne Knapp, peace activist Erik Thompson, Minneapolis City Council Member Paul Ostrow, and former State Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge withdrew from the endorsement contest. Another candidate, Minneapolis Park Board Commissioner Jon Olson, was not nominated. Knapp threw her support behind Saavedra; Ostrow and Reichgott Junge announced that they would run in the September primary. Olson is also expected to run in the primary.
But it was Erlandson’s statement, made at the end of his speech to delegates prior to the first ballot, that caused the biggest stir of the day. Candidates were asked to declare at the beginning of their speech whether they would abide by the endorsement, but Erlandson ignored the question–and taunting by some delegates. At the conclusion of his remarks, he said, “Politics is a gut check. I look forward to seeing you all in September.”
The statement was greeted by a chorus of boos, and Erlandson withdrew before the second ballot.
Despite rumors that the Erlandson campaign would work to block an endorsement, his delegates–and those of Schiff and Saavedra–scattered fairly equally between Ellison and Dorfman on the second ballot. Ellison polled 48.8 percent, Dorfman 35.3 percent, and Nelson-Pallmeyer remained in third with 15.3 percent.
And with the third ballot results showing her losing support, Dorfman conceded. “This has been a spirited debate,” she told the convention. “We talked about real issues that matter to real people. That’s how elections should be run.”
Then Nelson-Pallmeyer, challenging the party to “embrace a movement-based politics,” threw his support behind Ellison–with a warning. “Over the years, I have seen Keith in the streets and that’s where I want to see him in the future,” he said. “If I don’t see him in the streets, we’re going to put 500 people in his office.”
State Rep. Margaret Anderson-Kelliher called for a unanimous endorsement, the delegates roared their approval, and Ellison, family in tow, gratefully acknowledged their support. “Words are just inadequate at this moment,” he said, before applauding his opponents and calling for party unity.
“We’ve got to unify,” he said. “We’ve got to come together as suburb and city, come together as straight and gay, come together as black and white.”
In an interview, Ellison praised his campaign organization and said he “would be tough to beat” in a primary. Asked about Erlandson’s controversial decision to ignore the endorsement, he said the former Sabo aide was “a friend of mine” who was obviously disappointed by the result of the endorsement battle. “Give him some time and we’ll see what he wants to do,” he said.
Erlandson, who on Friday was endorsed by Sabo, is believed to have raised as much as $250,000 for the primary contest. Reichgott Junge said Saturday that she has raised $80,000.
Besides Erlandson and Reichgott Junge, Ellison will battle Ostrow and Olson in the September primary. The winner will be heavily favored in the November general election against Republican Alan Fine, Independence Party endorsee Tammy Lee, and the Green Party’s Jay Pond.