Keith Ellison has made American political history. As the victorious Democrat in November's mid-term elections for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ellison is the first African American Congressman from the Midwestern state of Minnesota and the first Muslim legislator ever elected to Capitol Hill. It was, however, neither race nor religion but social issues that were the focus of his successful run for Congress.
Throughout his months-long campaign -- first to win his party's nomination and then to beat his Republican and Independent opponents -- Keith Ellison, 43, has taken a clear stand on issues of urgent importance to average voters.
"The first issue has got to be peace," Ellison says. "We believe that peace should be the guiding principal of our country and that the United States should not be in Iraq at this time. Secondly, we believe in health care for all."
His main concern, says the newly-elected Congressman, is the middle class. "The middle class is in a very difficult situation and we need some real change for them. 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." The Minnesota lawmaker adds that 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 run for Congress was endorsed by some prominent Democrats, including former vice-president Walter Mondale and Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak. Ellison says his campaign also won the support of many local organizations and ethnic groups. "I have a lot of support among labor unions, environmental organizations. We have support from a lot of young people and students, the Asian community, Latino community, African American community, people of color generally. Many Muslim organizations 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 stressed during the campaign that he was not running as the "Muslim candidate" for Congress but as an American trying to make his country better. But he hopes his victory on Tuesday sends a strong, clear message.
"I do hope 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. During the campaign, Ellison denounced Farrakhan and brought his finances up to date. "Whenever you try to make change," Ellison explains, "some people are going to feel very threatened and attack you. So, I expected this would happen."
Ellison's election victory and his new status as the first Muslim legislator in the U.S. Congress are not all that surprising, says Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. Jacobs cites the changing political and social landscape of his home state. "It's very interesting that Minnesota would be the first state to send a Muslim to Congress," says Jacobs. "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, says Jacobs, is that Minnesota has a long tradition, stretching back to former Senators and U.S. Vice-Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Water Mondale, of supporting civil rights and including African-Americans and others of color in the American political process.