On Nov. 7, 2006, Minnesota elected two new members of Congress who are polar opposites. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Keith Ellison are about as far apart in nearly every demographic and political category as you can get.
Polarization, of course, isn’t new in Minnesota. Observers like to recall when we had the late Paul Wellstone and Rod Grams as senators at the same time. But in the case of Ellison and Bachmann, the differences are so stark that it’s surprising so few have noticed.
This year Minnesota’s Senate election is a tie. But if in the end Al Franken is the new senator, he could take a few tips from Ellison on turning controversy into calm when representing Minnesota in Washington.
Consider the case of Ellison and Bachmann: The spotlight this past year hasn’t fallen on Ellison, who was portrayed as extreme during the 2006 election. Instead, national media attention has focused on Bachmann’s statements, making her the more polarizing of the two. (We don’t need to replay the Bachmann missteps; I’ve done that before.)
The politically significant accomplishment for Ellison that deserves notice is the earnest, nose-down approach he has taken in his duties in Washington and Minnesota. Not a lot of flash and very little controversy. It’s what most people like to see in their politicians.
During the intense primary campaign of 2006, some DFLers threw everything at Ellison in an attempt to derail his campaign. It didn’t work. Ellison took the shots and kept charging ahead. In 2008, the GOP and some so-called DFLers did the same to Franken. But he forged ahead.
After the primary, Ellison faced what seemed to be a legitimate challenge from the Independence Party. But when it was all over, the fact that milk-white Minnesota elected the first Muslim to Congress, who was also African-American, became an immediate national story. If Franken becomes senator, he also may be the character-type Minnesotans have been known to elect.
Since his election, Ellison has had a low profile. And when he said something that was less than popular in his district, he quickly offered an effective explanation. When he took a personal trip required by his faith earlier this summer to the Hajj, it barely made the news. Two years earlier, it might have been a front page story. His colleagues think enough of him and his work on foreclosure issues to award him a prized seat on the Financial Services Committee.
A simple Google search shows Ellison has had as much press as other members of Minnesota’s House delegation, except Jim Oberstar and Colin Peterson, who are committee chairs. And unlike Bachmann, Ellison has had few public snafus or controversial statements since elected.
So why hasn’t Ellison been subjected to the type of attacks he faced in his campaign? Because he appears to just be doing his job. He hasn’t sought the spotlight. It also didn’t hurt that he didn’t have significant opposition in his re-election campaign. (Bachmann, on the other hand, had a close race with El Tinklenberg.)
Ellison deserves credit: He was being watched closely by Democrats in his first term. In a safe seat, people wondered if there might be an opening with a major Ellison mistake. There wasn’t. Instead, he continued his mostly authentic style of saying what he believed, representing the people who elected him (liberal DFLers) and not making too much noise.
Franken, too, will be watched — likely even more closely than Ellison. He’ll also continue to be the target of partisan attacks on radio and in blogs. But if he goes to Washington, he might want to watch Ellison.
Ellison’s done some things that Franken could take note of: Keep your head down and get to work.