It snowed. They came.
The lines formed. They waited.
It was a chance to meet face to face with 5th District Congressman Keith Ellison on any topic. They grabbed the opportunity.
Some brought full-color documents to share, to lobby. Some held simpler printouts of emails with their talking points. Others boldly handed over résumés, seeking work.
Six days after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot and wounded at her “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson, Ellison staged an anything-goes gathering Friday night at the Midtown Global Market in south Minneapolis. He said he did it to honor her and her constituents.
Ellison’s first major public appearance since the supermarket shooting in Arizona was discreetly monitored by four or five clusters of Minneapolis police officers. In his opening remarks at the market’s central commons, Ellison thanked them.
Later, a half dozen or so police officers stood in distant eyeshot of Ellison’s table in a corner of the market, a table at which groups of a half-dozen citizens were brought in succession to tell him their stories, their needs, their concerns. They shook his hands. They sat next to him or across the narrow table from him. Some hugged him.
Staff hovered around, recording details of issues. Constituents with personal issues with federal agencies – such as immigration or Social Security concerns – were referred to Ellison’s constituent services director Mike Siebenaler, who would negotiate the system for them as best he could.
In all, about 100 citizens gathered to meet Ellison or sign get-well or condolence cards for the victims and families of the Arizona victims. More than 50 of those folks got a chance to sit and chat with Ellison.
Earlier in the day, 1st District Rep. Tim Walz held a similar “Congress on Your Corner” session in Mankato, also meeting with more than 100 constituents.
No one we talked to expressed concern about their safety on this quintessentially wintry Minnesota January night on which the diversity and democracy of the 5th Congressional District were apparent amid the food stands and arts and crafts stalls within the sprawling indoor market.
“I just wanted to come and show my support for my congressman,” said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who was there as a citizen and not a celebrity. “I wanted to show we have a community that believes in peaceful dialogue.”
Homage to Giffords
According to his staff, Ellison conducts about 35 “roundtables” a year with specific groups about specific topics — union leaders, teachers, artists — and another dozen or so larger community gatherings in churches or schools. Most, too, are topic specific — housing, veterans affairs, seniors issues.
But Giffords “Congress on Your Corner” concept was built around the simple notion that any citizen could bring any matter to her, and that’s what Ellison did last night for two hours, going a bit over time; he was scheduled to complete his conversations at 7 p.m.
Before long, it became clear that average citizens know how to filibuster just as well as professional politicians. Keeping them to a limit of a few minutes each was impossible.
The night began soon after 5 p.m. with a gathering of religious leaders offering prayers and thoughts in the Global Market’s central dining area. This is not a joke, but a rabbi, a preacher, an imam, a Hindu leader and an American Indian holy man walked into the Global Market … all to bless the event.
Soon, moving from the common area to the space where the meetings were to be staged, Ellison was stopped by a gaggle of journalists and cameras.
“We told our staff to be on the alert … But I don’t have any fears tonight about safety,” he told the media group as constituents looked on. “We cannot withdraw from the public square.”
Yes, he had received threats in the past. Yes, it was a time to discuss some restrictions on gun purchases, especially high-capacity magazines with more than 30 shots. (Ellison acknowledged he keeps a shotgun in his home.) Yes, it was time to scrutinize limits on gun purchases for those citizens with a history of mental health issues.
“Shouldn’t there be some greater inquiry as to whether or not he’s mentally fit to handle such a weapon?” Ellison asked of a person like the Arizona suspect Jared Lee Loughner.
Behind him, citizens lined up. Among them, one couldn’t be ignored.
She was Stacia Schirber. She is 9 years old, just like Christina Taylor Green, the girl killed last Saturday in Tucson. With a colorful winter cap on her head and a Minnesota Vikings T-shirt on her third-grade torso, Stacia accompanied her father, Ben Schirber. She was the only 9-year-old there.
“I’m a big fan of Congressman Ellison’s,” Ben Schirber said. He wanted to bring Stacia to meet her representative. No, Stacia said, they hadn’t talked much about the shooting at school. Yes, she had gone to church to pray for the little girl. Yep, her family had chatted about the Tucson incident a little bit. Sure, she would get Ellison’s autograph.
For the father, it was a chance to express his concerns about improving Minnesota’s mental health system, one that he said was a national leader but could use some “tweaks.” Ben Schirber himself had battled mental illness four years ago. “It’s not pretty,” he said.
As they waited their turn, others had Ellison’s ear on such things as the plight of Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, incarcerated for leaking documents to WikiLeaks. And the need to push for single payer health care was raised. And a community center in the Phillips neighborhood needs funds for a swimming pool. Could he help?
Someone wanted Ellison to sign, on the spot, a pledge to prosecute violators of federal banking regulations. “I’m not a prosecutor,” Ellison said, sympathetic, but not ready to put his signature on a petition. Why, another wondered, was his house’s value going down while his property taxes were going up?
Ellison listened. He asked questions. “What’s your advice?” he asked a nurse who spoke of end-of-life care.
His aide, Darlynn Benjamin, took names and numbers and any documents of the citizens, including the neatly typed résumé of Claire Nash, a 22-year-old constituent and recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She told Ellison she is fluent in Arabic and Pashtun, the language of southeastern Afghanistan. She wondered if there were jobs in Washington.
Ellison took her vitae and handed it to Benjamin. After all, isn’t Congress supposed to solve unemployment?
His nervous staff, wanting to move people along quickly, kept looking at their watches and the line of anxious citizen-voters. Soon, Benjamin started timing the exchanges on her iPhone so that no one dominated.
Finally, the Schirbers got their turn. Stacia was shy but asked for the autograph. Ellison asked her about life at Emerson Spanish Emersion School. Ben Schirber made his pitch to improve Minnesota’s mental health system, perhaps training emergency responders better when they confront a mentally ill person. Ellison urged Schirber to contact him with “new ideas.” Schirber pledged to ponder the necessary tweaks.
On this night, at this little corner of the United States, a member of Congress was allowed to do his job. Democracy happened just fine. As the snow fell, Ben Schirmer and his 9-year-old daughter walked home safely.