As Republicans press their campaign to discredit Minnesota lawmaker Keith Ellison over his past ties to the Nation of Islam, some Jewish Democrats are emerging as leading backers of his bid to become the first Muslim member of Congress.
“Keith has recognized his past mistakes and renounced his brief association with the Nation of Islam,” wrote Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, in a press statement released September 21. “It is only the GOP attack machine who seems intent on not moving on.”
The release — issued in response to recent criticism from Ellison’s opponent, Republican Alan Fine, as well as from state GOP party leaders — puts the national Jewish group at the forefront of Ellison’s defense.
Ellison and Fine are competing for the seat of Democratic Rep. Martin Sabo, who is retiring after 28 years in office.
While the legislator has been viewed as a virtual shoo-in for election from the state’s overwhelmingly liberal fifth district since his September 12 primary win, local Jewish Democrats remain divided over his candidacy, while other key Democrats appear to be ducking a fight.
Ellison — a 42-year-old defense lawyer said to resemble television personality Bryant Gumbel in appearance and late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone in progressive fervor — has built a reputation as one of the state’s most effective legislators during his four years in Minnesota’s statehouse. During that time, he also gained a reputation as a friend of the Jewish community and developed a close relationship with a Jewish lawmaker, Democratic State Rep. Frank Hornstein. Ellison has said publicly that he supports Israel’s right to defend itself and a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis.
Still, Ellison’s past involvements have given the state’s Republicans, who have themselves aggressively reached out to the state’s Jews in recent years, a choice sound bite for election season.
“Ellison’s viewpoints are being used as an example of where the Democratic Party in Minnesota is going,” said Ron Carey, chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, in an interview with the Forward. The Democratic Party “is no longer the party of Humphrey, but the party of Ellison.” Further reinforcing the notion that Republicans are drawing attention to Ellison in part to bolster their candidates in the state’s tight gubernatorial and senate races, Carey described Fine’s chance of scoring an upset in the fifth district as a long shot.
Republicans have also attacked Ellison for accepting money from, and attending a fundraiser with, Nihad Awad, co-founder and executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that has been criticized in the Jewish community and other circles for allegedly supporting Hamas.
Despite his front-runner status, Ellison is clearly at pains to burnish his Jewish bone fides: Earlier this week, a “Shana Tova” message was prominently displayed at the top of his Web site, without a similar greeting for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. In addition, endorsements from the NJDC and the local Jewish newspaper were also featured at the top of the home page.
Still, state Democrats seem to be holding Ellison at arm’s length, both because of his liberal positions and the questions about his past. The state party’s most prominent November hopefuls — U.S. Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar and Attorney General Mike Hatch, who is running for governor — have not campaigned with him, and have not issued statements of endorsement, although in response to a question from a reporter, Klobuchar said that she supported Ellison.
Calls from the Forward were not returned by either candidate. After listening to the nature of the inquiry, a volunteer answering phones in Hatch’s office said, “Boy, I won’t touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
According to one political observer, the state candidates’ distancing of themselves is unusual.
“I’ve never seen this in modern Minnesotan political history,” said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Normally, the candidates “would be appearing with each other; they would be talking each other up.”
Beyond the political implications of backing a candidate like Ellison, his backers and detractors seem philosophically at odds over how much scrutiny the past deserves and what weight it should have in comparison to current statements.
In a letter sent last May to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, Ellison wrote that he had been involved with the Nation of Islam when helping to organize the 1995 Million Man March, and that he had “wrongly dismissed concerns” that leaders Louis Farrakhan and Khalid Abdul Muhammad were antisemitic. “They were and are antisemitic, and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did,” Ellison wrote.
According to an account in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, in the lead up to the Million Man March Ellison made a fundraising pitch at a gathering that featured Khalid Abdul Muhammad.
In interviews with the Forward, Ellison’s supporters seemed disinclined to look into the details of his past.
“We evaluate candidates based on their legislative record and their statements. Under [those] criteria, Keith Ellison is an exceptional candidate,” Forman told the Forward. “Given this person’s statements and given how we treat other candidates, the only reason I can give for someone saying they want to criticize him now seems to be his religion.”
In contrast, Ellison’s critics — foremost among them conservative bloggers — have argued that the legislator’s involvement with the Nation of Islam has been far more extensive than he has acknowledged.
They point to press accounts that list him as an affiliate as late as 1998, when he first ran for office, and to two op-eds that he authored as a University of Minnesota law student in 1989 and 1990.
Written under the name Keith E. Hakim, one column defended Farrakhan and included Israel on a list of the world’s “colonial masters and slavers,” while the other argued for the creation of a black state, the abolition of affirmative action and the granting of government reparations to blacks.
“Punitive damages would be assessed against the descendants of slaveholders, Ku Kluxers, slumlords, redliners and all parties who caused black men to die in wars to advance U.S. interests,” Elllison wrote. “Hopefully, poor whites and whites who fought white supremacy would pay the least, but, of course, this wouldn’t be my concern.”
The resurfacing of Ellison’s past has split Jewish Democrats in hisdistrict. While the lawmaker has been endorsed by the local Jewish newspaper and received the blessing of several prominent Jewish donors, others, including former Democratic staffer Alan Einisman, say that they feel they have no one to vote for.
“I would say I am one of a number of very concerned Democrats in the fifth district right now,” said Einisman, 35, who worked for the late senator Wellstone and for President Bill Clinton during the 1990s. ”Even if [Ellison is] to be believed [about the length of his affiliation with the Nation of Islam], 18 months and he didn’t know where the organization stood on these issues? Well, that’s a crock. I can’t tell you for certain that I trust what he says right now.”
On Tuesday, Ellison spoke with the Forward for nearly an hour about his past — in some cases, repeating prior statements to the media, and in others, shading his beliefs with new subtleties.
When asked if he believed Farrakhan to be antisemitic, he said: “I would say that he has made antisemitic statements that I have never heard him apologize for. A reasonable person could come to the conclusion that he was that.”
Ellison said that his own perspective had matured over the years.
“There have been times in my life when I would hear people talk about the oppression of other people, and I didn’t think it was as serious as 250 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow,” Ellison said. “And now I’m at the point of view where you really don’t compare pain or oppression, you just confront it wherever you find it.”
Ellison said he had no misgivings about organizing for the Million Man March.
When asked if he regretted not having spoken up in response to comments made by Khalid Abdul Muhammad at the pre-march fundraising event, Ellison asked if this reporter had ever been silent in the face of a bigoted comment.
“That was one of those times,” Ellison said. “The person said some things that I disagreed with, but I didn’t say anything and I should have. But I don’t know how it got to be my responsibility only to say anything.”
Ellison also addressed the reason that he did not seek a correction when two Minneapolis papers — the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press — described him, respectively, as “a supporter of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam” and “a member of the Nation of Islam” in the spring of 1998, when he first ran for office and long after he has said his involvement with the Nation of Islam had ended.
“No one really cares in the black community about this issue, to be honest,” Ellison said. “So there would be no reason for me, in the context of the black community, to make a clear distinction, because people aren’t going to hold it against you.”