When a person announces they will be a candidate for public office, one of the standard reactions from the media or political rivals is to examine their record for any past newsworthy statements or conduct.
During the presidential campaign, of course, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent a considerable amount of time reacting to statements and actions they made decades earlier. And President-Elect Trump continues to be reminded on nearly a daily basis about how his current statements and actions conflict with previous statements.
All of which brings us to Keith Ellison. Days after Election Day, the Minnesota congressman was mentioned as a possible a candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee. And even before Ellison formally announced his candidacy, there were numerous stories which dredged up things written and said by Ellison as far back as 1989 — 27 years ago.
Back then, Ellison was a law student at the University of Minnesota, writing articles under the name “Keith E. Hakim.” And for many Minnesotans, the articles were not news. When Ellison first ran for Congress in 2006, those writings were widely examined by the media, and were a source of considerable debate during the campaign.
That’s as it should be: voters decide the fate of candidates, not unlike jurors determining the outcome of a trial. And like jurors, it is the responsibility of voters to make a determination based on the information they are provided.
And in Ellison’s case, it’s pretty clear what his constituents’ decision has been. Fifth Congressional District voters have elected him to represent them in Congress for ten years, and he’s consistently rolled up huge vote totals in those victories.
Given all that, is it fair that Ellison is being forced to explain stuff he said so long ago, all over again?
I’d argue that it is. While the voters in his district have made their decision about the relevancy of the material, he’s now running for a different office, one in which his past statements and behavior are set to be examined by a new group of voters. In other words, he’s facing a new jury.
For Ellison’s political opponents, of course, the moment has offered another opportunity to bring up his past involvement with the Nation of Islam. And, just as he did a decade ago, Ellison has been forced to explain the reasoning for his involvement and his decision to disassociate himself with the group.
But the moment has also given Ellison and his supporters an opportunity to offer more context and perspective on his words and actions back then, one that he did not have when he first faced questions about the issue. More importantly, a decade in Congress has provided Ellison with ample opportunity to balance any questions about his writings with his actual record.
And whether Ellison wins or loses his bid to become DNC chair, once the election is over, the opposition research file on him will again be placed on a shelf, soon to be forgotten by all but his most zealous supporters and committed adversaries.
At least until he runs for another office.