Muslim Keith Ellison Seeks House Seat
Thursday, June 29, 2006; 4:15 AM
MINNEAPOLIS -- Keith Ellison is hoping that this city of mostly white Christians is ready to make a black Muslim its next congressman.
Ellison, a state representative and criminal defense lawyer, is the state-party endorsed Democratic candidate in the liberal-leaning 5th Congressional District. That makes him the favorite in his quest to become the first Muslim member of Congress.
But Ellison is dogged by questions about his faith, particularly after disclosures about his past associations with the Nation of Islam, a group led by Louis Farrakhan.
While Ellison has since denounced Farrakhan, Jewish leaders say the candidate's ties to the organization remain an issue.
"For Jews, there's no ambiguity when it comes to the Nation of Islam," said Stephen Silberfarb, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. "It's a group that hates the Jewish people."
Around 1990, Ellison _ then a University of Minnesota law student known as Keith E. Hakim _ wrote several columns in the student newspaper that are getting a second look.
One column defended Farrakhan against charges of anti-Semitism; a second suggested the creation of a state for black residents. In 1995, Ellison helped organize a delegation to Farrakhan's Million Man March in Washington.
Ellison, 42, said he was never an enrolled member of the Nation of Islam. He got involved to help improve the lives of black men, he said, and did not fully grasp concerns about Farrakhan's anti-Semitism until after the 1995 march.
"There are legitimate concerns in the Jewish community. That's why I'm happy to answer them," Ellison said. But, he added, "I do also think there are people out there who are fear-mongering, who are trying to scare the Jewish community and manipulate this issue."
Last month, party delegates at the state convention endorsed Ellison to succeed Rep. Martin Sabo, who is retiring after nearly three decades in Congress. It is a typical practice in Minnesota even with a primary months away.
The district, which includes Minneapolis and most of its first-ring suburbs, is about the closest thing to a Democratic certainty: Democrat John Kerry outpolled President Bush 71 percent to 28 percent in 2004.
For Democratic candidates, the tougher race is the Sept. 12 primary. Ellison is facing three well-known Democrats, including Mike Erlandson, a former state party chairman and longtime top aide to Sabo who was supposed to be the retiring congressman's anointed successor.