Swift-Boating Keith Ellison

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There she was stationed just outside the main doors of the arena-sized sanctuary at Adath Jeshrun Congregation in Minnetonka on the June night the James Carville-Mary Matilin roadshow rolled into town: Ember Reichgott Junge, former assistant majority leader in the Minnesota Senate, talk show host on Air America Radio and, most recently, candidate for statewide office, resplendent in a snow-white pants suit, a large, pastel-colored campaign button pinned to her lapel.

Junge, who hasn’t held office since 2000, is one of four DFLers challenging the party’s endorsed candidate, Keith Ellison, in a primary that – for all practical purposes – will determine who replaces Martin Sabo as representative from the Fifth Congressional District; she is also the only of Ellison’s challengers who stands much of a chance of winning.

Still, it is an uphill battle, and what better place to court votes and contributions than with this well-heeled crowd, almost universally composed of people who think of themselves as liberal? No wonder Junge spent the pre-performance interlude pumping hands, hugging old acquaintances, and holding impromptu, _sotto voce_ conferences with people who stopped to say hello.

The crowd was also, not surprisingly, largely Jewish; in the past few weeks, Junge’s chances have taken an upward turn by revelations that Ellison, a Muslim and, before his election to the Minnesota House, highly vocal black activist attorney, had past ties with the Nation of Islam. Those ties have rapidly escalated into the basis for a full-scale Swift-Boating of Ellison, a no-holds-barred character assassination tarring him with every loony Louis Farrakhan pronouncement ever made in a relentless smear campaign led by our own far-right blog, The Powerline, whose 14-part series entitled “Who is Keith Ellison?” features inscrutable headlines like this one posted June 27: “What’s so funny about peace, love, and cop-killers?” above an entry which implies that Ellison’s support for Sara Jane Olsen – this was before her conviction – was tantamount to cheering on home-grown terrorists blowing up squad cars.

The Swift-Boating has also received a timely assist from the _Strib’s_ hapless (in a journalistic sense) Katherine Kersten who believes that Ellison must come clean about his past in a way that George “AWOL” Bush and Karl “Plame Affair” Rove apparently do not. Even though Ellison himself has not been accused of making comments that could be construed as anti-Jewish, he’s been in proximity to people who have, though not necessarily in his presence, which is more than enough to smear him in the same way that the old photo of John Kerry seated in a crowd listening to a speech by Jane Fonda was used to hang Kerry in 2004.

Whether these tactics will succeed remains to be seen. I have faith that the Jewish community in the Fifth will see through such crude attempts at manipulation. Ultimately things may even redound to Ellison’s benefit by energizing black voters. After all, if Clarence Thomas – another darling of the Katherine Kerstens of this world – could falsely claim to be the victim of a “high tech lynching,” Ellison can, much more credibly, argue that he is the victim of a high-tech cyberspace lynching.

Reflecting on the nasty turn this campaign has taken, a friend of mine observed that Ellison may not be ready for Prime Time. Maybe so. But among the DFL hopefuls in the Fifth, only Mike Erlandson has any substantial national political chops and after his very public tantrum at the district convention it’s hard to imagine the kind of people who show up to vote in a primary – pretty much hard-core party activists and no one else– casting their ballots for him. And besides, if Ellison if is to be held accountable for his past mistakes and misassociations, shouldn’t the same be true for his opponents? After all, it was Junge who cast the deciding vote in favor of the $400 million state giveaway to Northwest Airlines in the waning days of 1991 – a Christmas gift that refuses to keep on giving. To me that certainly qualifies as a colossal misjudgment.

If Ellison is smart, he’ll jettison his current course of trying to explain away and apologize for who he has been and instead boldly embrace his past. He was a black activist. Anyone unable to see how the Nation of Islam fits into the whole sorry tale of race relations in this country, how an organization of its nature just might hold an appeal to a people that was despised, persecuted, and oppressed for some 400-odd years – and that still hasn’t achieved full equality – anyone who pretends that standing on a podium with some Nation of Islam bigwig is the moral equivalent of Bush or McCain paying obeisance at Bob Jones University, has a blindspot big enough to drive the Wellstone bus through.

Yes, this primary election has turned into a referendum on tolerance and racism, but the crux of the matter is not whether Ellison is anti-Semitic or won’t prove sufficiently subservient to the Israel Lobby, but whether it is possible – whether it ever will _be_ possible in a national environment poisoned by the neo-fascist spinning of the War on Terror – for an individual who is not only black (bad enough) but a _Muslim_ as well to be elected anywhere in the United States, even in a district as progressive and anti-war as the Fifth. That’s how Ellison should take the battle to the bloggers and whisper-campaigners. Make them defend their open-mindedness and tolerance rather trying to prove his own. Make his opponents publicly declare whether their allegiance lies with progressive values or with the superannuated Young Republicans over at The Powerline.

So – don’t flee from the approaching Swift Boat, Keith. Climb on board. Turn the guns on your attackers. Begin firing back.