Overcoming concerns about his past association with the Nation of Islam, Democratic front-runner Keith Ellison prevailed Tuesday in a crowded Minneapolis primary to put himself in a strong position to become the first Muslim member of Congress.
Speaking via telephone the morning after his victory, the newly minted Democratic nominee in Minnesota’s fifth district told the Forward that he “rejects antisemitism 100%.”
“I’m a very strong supporter of Israel, and I believe that Israel has a right to defend itself,” said Ellison, currently a state representative. “I believe in a two-state solution.”
Given the district’s overwhelmingly Democratic tilt, Ellison is expected to win handily over Alan Fine, a Jewish Republican, in November’s general election. The Democratic incumbent, Rep. Martin Sabo, is retiring after 28 years in office.
While Ellison, 42, has the support of several prominent members of the Minneapolis Jewish community — including fellow State Rep. Frank Hornstein and Mordecai Specktor, publisher of the local Jewish newspaper the American Jewish World — he has been dogged in recent months by reports that he once supported Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader frequently accused of antisemitism.
Ellison insists that all he did was help organize a local delegation to the 1995 Million Man March. He has acknowledged being slow to recognize Farrakhan’s antisemitism. His detractors, who assert that he was involved with the group later than 1995, are particularly troubled by two articles — one defending Farrakhan, and one calling for a black state — that he wrote in 1990 as Minnesota law student Keith E. Hakim.
More recently, Ellison has found himself responding to revelations that his driver’s license had been suspended for nonpayment of parking tickets, that he has been fined for election filing violations and that he was plagued by tax problems that resulted in liens being placed on his house. He also has come under fire for attending a fundraiser, organized in the Minneapolis Muslim community in August, which was attended by Nihad Awad, co-founder and executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR has been criticized in the Jewish community and other circles for allegedly sympathizing with Hamas.
“Some Muslim businessmen pulled together a fundraiser,” Ellison told the Forward. “They made all the arrangements, and they made all the invitations. That’s it. There’s an individual person, not a group, who came,” he said of Awad. When asked whether he planned to return a donation made by CAIR to his campaign in July, Ellison responded: “At this point, that has not even been asked for or called for. That hasn’t even come up as the way to handle it.”