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Minnesota African American Could Be First Muslim in US Congress


Keith Ellison, a Democratic Congressional candidate from Minneapolis, is poised to make history. A victory in the general election could bring the first African American Congressman from Minnesota to the House of Representatives and the first Muslim legislator to Capitol Hill. But, the issues of race and religion are not the focus of his campaign, Ellison's main concern is social justice.

As a Democratic candidate for the United States Congress, Keith Ellison, 43, takes a clear stand on the issues that concern average voters.

"The first issue has got to be peace," he says. "We believe that peace should be the guiding principal of our country and that the United States should not be in Iraq this time. Secondly, we believe in health care for all."

His main concern, he says, is the middle class.

"The middle class is in a very difficult situation and we need some real change for them," he says. "As we see the middle class incomes stagnate or go down, we're seeing increasing tuition, and increasing students' debts, and a college education is becoming beyond the reach of the average middle class family. We also need for middle class families to have a real alternative in terms of oil dependency. We need to be able to get around and travel without being dependent upon oil that fluctuates so wildly and unexpectedly."

He favors changing the tax code to provide what he calls economic justice for the middle class.

Ellison is no stranger to changing economic and social policy. He is a two-term legislator in the Minnesota House of Representatives and has also served on the Minneapolis City Council. His candidacy for Congress has been endorsed by some prominent Democrats, including former Vice President Walter Mondale and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Ellison also won the support of many local organizations and ethnic groups.

"I have a lot of support among labor unions, environmental organizations," he says. "We have support from a lot of young people and students, from the Asian community, Latino community, African American community, people of color generally. Many Muslim organization have stepped forward to help the campaign."

Keith Ellison converted to Islam more than two decades ago, as a college student. Although he follows Islamic law in his personal life, Ellison stresses that he's not the 'Muslim candidate' for Congress.

"I'm not running as a Muslim," he says. "I'm running as an American, as a person that's trying to help our country be better. But I do hope that if we win, inshallah (God Willing), in November, that it will signal to Muslims that we should engage in the American political system. It will signal to people who are not Muslims that Muslims have a lot to offer to the United States and the improvement of our country."

After Ellison was endorsed by Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party last May, reports surfaced of overdue parking tickets, late campaign finance reports and unpaid taxes. The candidate also faced questions about his past ties with the Nation of Islam, a controversial black Muslim group. Its leader, Louis Farrakhan, has been reviled by some critics for his anti-Jewish comments. But Ellison has denounced Farrakhan and brought his finances up to date.

"Whenever you try to make change, some people are going to feel very threatened and attack you," he says. "So, I expected this would happen."

In November, Keith Ellison will face Independent candidate Tammy Lee, Green party member Jay Pond and Republican Alan Fine, who attacked Ellison for accepting donations from an Islamic group. That charge doesn't worry the candidate.

"I don't know, I think any campaign has its challenges," he says. "There are a lot of people who don't make decisions based on other people's religion. There is a lot of religious tolerance in this Congressional district of Minnesota. After all, we won the primary, so however many people would have an objection, there are many more people who don't."

Lawrence Jacobs is Director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. "In the contest between Democrat Ellison and Republican Fine, Ellison has a huge advantage," he says, adding Ellison's chances for winning the election and becoming the first Muslim in the U.S. Congress are high.

"It's very interesting that Minnesota would be the first state to send a Muslim to Congress," he says. "I think many Americans think of Minnesota as a state that's overwhelmingly dominated by whites, but Minnesota has changed in rapid and dramatic ways. It's seen a large influx of Somalis and immigrants from Asia, particularly Cambodia, and it turns out that you have this population of a cohesive active Somali community that's ready to support a Muslim and work with African Americans and white liberals in putting together a coalition. The other key factor is that Minnesota has a long tradition, stretching back to Hubert Humphrey and Water Mondale, in supporting civil rights and the inclusion of African-Americans and others of color in the political process."

With all these factors in his favor, Keith Ellison still has a lot of campaigning to do before he can make history with a victory on November 7.

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