First of two articles.
Video of Rep. Ellison and Rep. Brian Baird’s trip to Gaza and Sderot.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Earlier this year, Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress and Minnesota’s first African-American representative, walked out onto the steps of the Minnesota Capitol to address a pro-Palestinian rally.
The January sun shone bright on the huddled men and women, but offered little warmth. They sagged under heavy jackets and scarves with flags and homemade signs hoisted overhead, waiting for the Democrat from Minneapolis to speak.
Ellison, who is 45, looks about 10 years younger with a rounded face, close-cropped hair, and a quick smile. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and favors bold fashion accents, but on this day, he appeared subdued, draped in a heavy brown overcoat and matching newsboy cap.
Minneapolis native Tamir Khalil, 25, whose brother worked for Ellison’s campaign, introduced the congressman.
“I am not here to condemn anyone,” Ellison said, referring partially to Israel for its then-recent rocket attacks on Gaza.
Cries from the crowd of several hundred, many with family members in Gaza, filled his pause.
“Why not?” someone yelled. Others began booing.
“I am here,” said Ellison, flanked by a police officer.
“I am here,” he repeated above the growing sounds from the crowd.
“I am here,” he said louder because of noise.
“I am here,” he said, again trying to get his voice heard.
“Hey, if you will not let me speak, then I will leave,” Ellison said.
At this point Khalil grabbed the microphone from Ellison.
“Guys, please,” he said. “We are going to end this in the wrong way and this is a problem. We cannot have our voices heard if we’re all screaming at once… We are never going to get anything accomplished this way.”
Ellison took the mike back.
“I am going to make my comments and then I am going to leave,” said Ellison, above a rising chorus of boos. “I want to tell everybody listening to me that this is a moment where if we band together, if we band together and if we stay consistent and if we embrace humanity, we can make real change.”
The booing didn’t stop.
Days later, as though the rally had never occurred, Ellison drew criticism from the other end of the spectrum when he broke with his party — and to a large extent the rest of Congress — by voting “present” on a resolution that reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself.
At the time, Ellison said, “For the U.S. Congress to simply reiterate its statement that Israel has a right to defend itself, to me misses the critical issue before the world at this moment, which is the humanitarian crisis [in Gaza].”
(Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and 20 other House members also voted “present” on the measure, which passed 390-5 with 16 not voting.)
This time, the outcries of protest were not as audible. The measure was never in any real danger of failing. But, Internet rumblings and ruminations about what these outliers could mean, if anything, for the future support of Israel, continued for days.
The conservative blog PowerLine, for instance, published an article about comments Ellison made to the TV network Al Jazeera before the vote, explaining his views on the resolution and his stance on the worsening situation in Gaza, under the headline “Keith Ellison Shills For Hamas.”
In the interview, Ellison denounced the situation in Gaza as well as in the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, which had suffered widespread destruction from Palestinian rockets.
He said, “I do hope the Democratic leadership looks at this thing [the resolution] carefully and looks at this thing for the long term and understands that just declaring, ‘We support Israel,’ or for that matter, ‘We support the Palestinians,’ is no solution.'”
Since Ellison arrived in Congress in 2007, taking his oath of office on the Koran amid still simmering suspicions over his former ties to the Nation of Islam — a group of mostly black Muslims led by Louis Farrakhan, who has called Judaism a gutter religion — his actions have been watched, interpreted, and, at times, lauded or criticized, unlike almost any other congressional freshman.
“When Keith Ellison first ran for Congress, there was an unease that he might not be ready for prime time,” said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.
Reports surfaced that Ellison, who converted to Islam as a 19-year-old student at Wayne State University in Detroit, had written student newspaper articles under the name of Keith Hakim that defended Farrakhan against accusations of anti-Semitism. Although Ellison denied that he had ever joined the Nation of Islam, he acknowledged that he had worked with the group to organize Minnesotans for Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March in Washington.
In a letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council in Minneapolis written during the campaign, Ellison apologized for failing to “adequately scrutinize the positions” of Farrakhan and other Nation of Islam leaders. “They were and are anti-Semitic, and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did,” Ellison wrote.
“Then, when he was elected,” Jacobs continued. “There was a kind of race to use him, frankly, on the right and left as a symbol of what each ideological camp wanted to see.”
Jacobs remembered bringing this issue up to Ellison before the former lawyer, who is married with four children, moved to Washington, D.C.
“I said, ‘Keith, people are going to be looking for ways to define you,'” Jacobs said. “He nodded and said, ‘I understand that.'”
From that time on, whether you agree with the decisions he has made or not, Ellison has attempted to navigate the national political arena and Middle East policy issues with the painful care of a man trying to cross a minefield while ducking shots from both sides.
“Keith Ellison, himself, has been very cautious to make sure that he defines his role in Washington and Congress and that he not allow himself to be pushed into positions that would embarrass him or diminish him,” said Jacobs. “And, I think that caution is actually a sign of maturity, and a reassuring symbol to members of Congress.”
Among other things, Ellison has used his visibility as the first Muslim member of Congress to reach out to both the Muslim and Jewish world through trips abroad and speaking engagements and meetings at home.
Since 2007, he has journeyed to Israel and Saudi Arabia three times, Iraq and the Palestinian territories twice, and Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Guantanamo Bay, among other places.
Most recently, Ellison traveled to Saudi Arabia last week on a trade mission with the Minnesota Trade Office and 11 Minnesota companies.
It was the first time that any member of Congress had led a state mission to Saudi Arabia, according to Ellison.
“When you hear the president say that we need a new way forward with the Muslim world… it is important for us as Americans to reach out,” Ellison said. “And given that Saudi Arabia is the most important political and economic power in the Muslim world, why not reach out there?”
In the past, both the Bush administration and Democratic Congressional leadership have also taken advantage of Ellison’s unique background.
The Bush administration sent Karen Hughes, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, to Ellison to discuss Middle East affairs, according to Ellison’s office.
At the same time, the State Department repeatedly reached out to the congressman to talk about democracy and making bridges to the Muslim world.
“At one point, when the State Department’s information service called me the third time, I just said, ‘Look, we don’t really agree with you on anything,'” said Ellison spokesman Rick Jauert. “She just laughed and said, ‘It’s not really about that, it is about the fact that for millions of Muslims in the world he is the face of Democracy.'”
Likewise, when House speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., traveled to Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Portugal in April of 2007 with a handful of senior members of Congress, she also invited Ellison, who had only been in office for a few months.
This year, Ellison added to his foreign affairs credentials by nabbing a spot on the Middle East Subcommittee on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. With that position, and the Obama administration’s recent attempts to reach out and engage with the Muslim world, Ellison is now emerging as one of the U.S. government’s main assets for shaping diplomacy and potentially future policy decisions in the Middle East, according to Jacobs.
“He is a kind of face for the U.S. government,” said Jacobs. “Since he was elected to Congress, he has been one of the most visible members of Congress in his outreach to the Muslim world, which is extraordinary given the fact that he has just arrived.”
At the same time that Ellison’s climb might be unusual for a junior member of Congress, he is still far from a household name outside of Minnesota and in certain communities abroad, according to Jonathan Schanzer, deputy director of the Jewish Policy Center, a conservative-leaning think tank.
“There is no postage stamp of the guy yet,” said Schanzer. “He has the same opportunities afforded to him as every other member of Congress and the same potential dangers moving forward.”
Friday: Battles loom on the horizon.
Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.