Star Tribune: ELLISON: A few bumps, but no major controversies


Flashing cameras from around the world illuminated Keith Ellison last January as he stood in a packed drawing room in the Capitol, taking the oath of office on Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.

The Minneapolis Democrat became the first Muslim in Congress that day, a symbol of religious tolerance in a nation fighting a globally unpopular war in the heart of the post-9/11 Islamic world.

A year later, the big shock is that there’s been no big shock — only a few tremors.

“The sky is still up in the air, the sun is still at the center of the solar system, and the Earth is revolving around it,” Ellison said. “The whole religion thing, it’s nowhere near as scary as people thought it would be.”

The biggest rumble so far: Ellison’s remarks to a Twin Cities atheist group in July comparing the Bush administration’s response to Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to the Hitler-era Reichstag fire, which the Nazis used to justify seizing vast new powers.

The Anti-Defamation League and Ellison’s conservative critics raised a furor over the comparison. Ellison’s defenders saw it as valid comment on what they consider an assault on human rights: secret prisons, warrantless wiretaps, waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay.

For the former street activist, it was part of a yearlong lesson in Washington hardball politics. “The activist in me wants to tell the unbridled truth,” he said, “But the politician in me is about outcomes.”

The aftershock was short-lived. Ellison, whose former infatuation with the Nation of Islam made ready fodder for campaign controversy, seems to have laid the religion issue to rest after a year in Congress.

He declined to take the bait in the face of two apparent provocations to his faith: Once, when Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., cited the election of the Detroit native as a reason for immigration reform, and a second time when CNN’s Glenn Beck challenged him to “prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”

“There was a lot of speculation about what the first Muslim-American congressman would do,” said Ahmed Rehab of the Council on American Islamic Relations, whose support was a flash point in last year’s campaign. “Instead, what we saw was a man whose voting, political activism and moral compass were rooted in the principles on which he campaigned.”

True to his campaign pledges, Ellison has been an ardent foe of the war in Iraq, made civil rights a hallmark of his legislative agenda, and championed the cause of low-income homeowners in an urban district hard hit by foreclosures. He scored a 96 percent record of voting with his Democratic majority.

“Ellison has performed how people expected him to perform,” said Mark Drake, a spokesman for the Minnesota Republican Party, which is generally not competitive in the Fifth Congressional District.

To Ellison’s conservative critics, the Reischstag episode was par for the course. “It speaks to how far out of the mainstream he is,” Drake said.

Boosting the U.S. image

But in Ellison’s heavily DFL district, the biggest eyebrow-raiser of the year may have been the mildly positive remarks he made about his trip to Iraq in July, when he talked of Sunni sheiks working cooperatively with U.S. soldiers.

The trip came at the behest of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Whatever his differences with the administration, Ellison has been glad to help tell his story in the Middle East, where he has been employed by Condoleezza Rice’s State Department and others to help boost America’s image.

Ellison also gained national attention for his support of Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman for the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera, held for five years in the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Ellison championed Democratic efforts to investigate former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ Justice Department, including the circumstances surrounding the nomination of Rachel Paulose as U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota. Paulose announced last month that she would be resigning in order to take a Justice Department staff job in January.

Wherever Ellison is positioned on the political spectrum, he faces no declared opponent in one of the nation’s safest Democratic seats.

“He’s served in Congress as a pragmatist,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Paul Ostrow, who supported Ellison last year after challenging him for the DFL endorsement. “He certainly seems to have won the respect of his colleagues from Minnesota.”

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