By Jamal Abdulahi
Rep. Ellison recently published a memoir. “MY COUNTRY, ’TIS OF THEE” takes the reader through young Keith Ellison growing up in Detroit, coming to Minnesota for law school, and establishing roots until he became a Congressman in 2006.
After brief discussion of growing up in Detroit, a law career, and two terms in the Minnesota House, Ellison delves into the 2006 DFL primary for the U.S. House. Ellison lists many parallel examples from American political history-with its share of racial tensions-for the big issues congress is facing.
The book touches on political contributions by famous civil rights leaders like President Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, but well-deserved respect is also paid to less celebrated, but equally significant, leaders such as Adam Clayton Powell and Fannie Lou Hamer.
The book also discusses bills Ellison sponsored as member of the Financial Services Committee. Among these are a bill to reduce predatory lending in mortgages and one prohibiting credit card companies gouging consumers through universal defaults.
One of the interesting details in the book is how Ellison embraced Islam and ended up divulging his Catholic mother. Ellison discovered Islam after following a calculus studying buddy in college to Friday prayer. Ellison’s mother learned about the new faith after he refused to eat ham at family dinner.
The 2006 DFL primary to replace retiring Martin Sabo was a test of character. It was less than five years after September 11th. Ellison’s race and religion came to the forefront upon securing party endorsement. It was the first time he was publically attacked for being Muslim and he was unprepared for it.
Typically, an endorsement in party stronghold like Minneapolis is a catapult to November victory. The revelation of unpaid traffic tickets and property taxes caused Ellison’s polling numbers to fall. The campaign pollster made it clear that Ellison was going to lose unless he found 10,000 new voters.
As a volunteer, I had no doubt the vast majority of these voters must be Somalis, the most recent in the new American communities. I met with Ellison while he feverishly worked to push back deluge of political attacks revolving around his race and religion not his politics. I knew winning was the best way to help ensure politics in America was not about race and religion but about ideas on how to solve problems facing communities.
I made sure everyone within my reach in the 5th Congressional District knew about Ellison’s ideas, not only his race and religion. Then I took the day off from work on election-day. I visited operational centers in North, East and Cedar Riverside neighborhoods of Minneapolis to make sure volunteers had what they needed to ensure very possible Ellison voter voted.
I drove Ellinor to a polling station at a VFW post in Uptown Minneapolis. Ellinor was 77 years old retired teacher. She wanted to vote for Ellison because he promised to help fix the “Donut Hole” in Medicare.
Many more stood with Ellison because they felt he was unfairly being attacked for his faith and heritage. The Somali community in particular saw itself in Ellison. The feeling of unfair treatment is everyday experience for Somalis.
The book is short on details of Somali community’s contribution of Ellison prevailing in the 2006 primary. It briefly describes a visit to a Somali mall where Ellison joined prayer services and engaged few handshakes on his way to the victory celebration at the Blue Nile Restaurant. Some leaders in the community have expressed disappointment with the book in this regard.
Ironically, Ellison’s involvement of the divisive and violent politics of Somalia damaged his standing in the Somali community. Ellison was condemned in large Minneapolis gathering for his visit to Mogadishu. Some felt he was taking sides in Somalia conflict.
Disenchantment with Ellison has been linked to Minnesota’s GOP finding some receptive ears in the Somali community. Minnesota GOP recently moved its headquarters to Minneapolis and held open house targeting the Somali community. Party leaders including former House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Health Policy and Finance Subcommittee Chairman Jim Abeler have been spending significant time developing rapport.
Some community leaders have encouraged Ellison to scale back involvement of Somalia politics and instead work with the community on consequential issues within the district and to continue championing humanitarian efforts. Ellison seems to be heeding this advice with approval of a bill he sponsored to improve remittances to Somalia intended for vulnerable family members.
Ellison expresses contrition in the book for calling Sean Hannity of Fox News a yellow journalist after Hannity grossly mischaracterized the Affordable Care.
Ellison provides lengthy explanation of his effort to separate faith and political views. Throughout the book, he repeats that he is not an Islamic scholar and no faith leader. That he never gave a Friday sermon or led a prayer. Ellison declares “I am, however, a secular leader.”
Yet the book recounts fondly the support the Muslim community showered on Ellison. It details stories of American Muslims unfairly treated by their fellow Americans and at times their own government. Ellison accurately faults President Obama for not visiting a Mosque while in office for a fear of being called a Muslim.
Ellison discusses how some members of the Jewish community in his district misconstrued the NO vote of HR 1905 which prohibited government employees contacting anyone with associated with the Iranian government. Ellison justified the NO vote by reiterating his believe of less isolation and more engagement in pursuit of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
It’s an interesting and tactful attempt to manage multiple constituencies simultaneously. It certainly indicates a growing leader with a lot of potential in the progressive wing of his party.
Jamal Abdulahi is an independent political analyst based in Minnesota. He volunteered Keith Ellison for House campaign in the 2006 primary. Follow @fuguni.
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