When Keith Ellison and Virgil Goode meet each other on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives these days, they are almost chummy.
“I say, ‘How you doin’, Virgil?’ ” said Ellison. “He says, ‘Doin’ fine, Keith. And yourself?’ ”
Ellison started laughing while we talked.
“I understand ol’ Virgil,” said Ellison. “He’s what you call a panderer. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just the way he does things. If he thinks his constituents want him to behave in a certain way, that’s the way he’s going to behave. He didn’t know me from a can of paint when he said all of that stuff.
“He’s never apologized to me, but that doesn’t matter. Sometimes, people say something, but then they look you in the eye in a way that says, ‘I didn’t mean all that stuff.’ Besides, it’s not within me to carry grudges. Grudges hurt you more than they hurt the other guy.”
Stunning two-year climb
It’s been two years this month since Ellison started his stunning climb from being a young, back-row state legislator to becoming the world’s best-known member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Two years ago, Martin Olav Sabo announced he was retiring after a long, distinguished career. Along with a bunch of other DFL hopefuls, Ellison, well-known only in North Minneapolis, threw his hat in the ring. He beat ’em all for endorsement.
Then, he won again in a bruising DFL primary. And he won again in the general election, becoming the first Muslim elected to Congress. Then, he chose to be sworn into office with his hand on the Quran.
That’s what set Virgil Goode off. The Virginia Republican sent a letter to his constituents: “When I raise my hand to take the oath swearing-in day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. … The Muslim representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters from that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office …”
Now Ellison is preparing to run for his second term, and he’s virtually unopposed in the 5th Congressional District.
Barb White, a North High grad who currently resides in the 3rd District, has announced she will run. But the conservative pastor is given little chance, even by the Republican Party.
“It’s an uphill fight, given the Democratic makeup of Minneapolis,” said Mark Drake, the party’s communications director.
Time for introspection hard to find
For Ellison, there’s been little time for introspection, though he tries to find time most days to write in his journal. He’s filled five journals so far. Filled them with thoughts about the huge amount of international attention that came his way. Filled them with thoughts about his world travels (notably, visits to several Mideast hot spots, including Israel, Syria and Iraq), sometimes with the Bush administration’s State Department. Filled them with thoughts of his family and of daily tragedies back home in Minneapolis and of the little things that make him laugh.
“I told Barack [Obama] that I heard he was stealing my thing about being sworn in on the Quran,” said Ellison, who has endorsed the Illinois senator for president. “He just laughed.” (Some Internet reports to the contrary, Obama is Christian.)
The big frustration of the first term, he said, has been trying to explain why a Congress controlled by the Democrats has been unable to get much done.
“Frustrating to explain to people that we’re not veto-proof,” Ellison said. “It’s frustrating when people say, ‘You haven’t ended the war.’ Well, it’s not that easy. All we can do is work harder and hope we have the president next year.”
Ellison did vow that he will work as hard in the upcoming campaign as he did two years ago.
“We are using this office as a big community organizer,” Ellison said. “We want to change the paradigm in politics. We want to move to a politics of generosity and inclusion. What we have now is a politics of scarcity: ‘There are dangerous people out there, and there’s not enough to go around. The bad guys are coming to get our stuff, and we have to protect it.’ We have to move away from that.”
Dealing with the politics of scarcity
What’s the inspiration for this?
“The story of the loaves and fishes,” Ellison said.
This led to a deep theological discussion.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “That’s my story. I had perfect attendance in Sunday School for several years. You’re a, umm, a Muslim!”
“I happened to spend most of my youth in Catholic schools,” said Ellison, who grew up in a Christian family in Detroit.
“OK, OK, you tell me your view of loaves and fishes,” I said.
Ellison became quite animated in his small office in the Urban League building in north Minneapolis as he began telling the story.
“The disciples come to Jesus and say, ‘We’ve got a problem,’ ” said Ellison. ” ‘All these people are getting hungry and we don’t have anything to feed them. All we have are a few loaves and fishes.’ But it was really a problem of perception. Jesus said, ‘There’s plenty for everyone, and there was. That’s what we have now. There’s enough for shared abundance. We have to move away from being afraid.”
This election is about pushing a progressive movement based on doing a better job of dividing loaves and fishes and not getting hung up on what panderers have to say.
Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.