By Martiga Lohn
Thursday, September 14, 2006
MINNEAPOLIS, Sept. 13 -- State lawmaker Keith Ellison didn't let questions about his past slow down his campaign to become the first Muslim in Congress.
On Tuesday, voters responded to his liberal message calling for peace, withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and universal health care. He beat three contenders in the Democratic primary in a Minneapolis-area district long dominated by his party.
"You're not on your own," Ellison told supporters at an African restaurant in a speech that had the call-and-response of a revival meeting. "We are with you. We do these things together, y'all, and we don't let nobody break us apart."
Ellison, a 43-year-old criminal defense lawyer who converted to Islam as a college student, overcame questions about late parking tickets, overdue taxes and his past ties to the Nation of Islam. He has since denounced black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan and was endorsed by a Minneapolis Jewish newspaper. He has also pledged to improve his personal recordkeeping.
Ellison courted the liberal wing of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party by comparing himself to the late senator Paul D. Wellstone -- and many voters responded. Others clearly relished the chance to elect a minority to Congress from Minnesota for the first time; Ellison is black.
Somali voters -- many voting for the first time -- appeared energized by Ellison's candidacy. Election official Hashi Abdi said he had to tell several people to leave their Ellison signs outside the polling area.
"A lot of the Muslim community have a lot of sympathy for this guy," Abdi said.
Though Ellison was the party's endorsed candidate, the lure of the safely Democratic seat drew plenty of challengers willing to test him. In the end, though, he handily beat his closest rival, Mike Erlandson, by about 10 percentage points. Erlandson is a former chief of staff to the incumbent, retiring Rep. Martin O. Sabo (D-Minn.), and had Sabo's support.
Ellison will be a heavy favorite in the November election, when he will face Republican Alan Fine and the Independence Party's Tammy Lee. In the 2004 election, about seven in 10 voters backed Sabo and voted for Democratic Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry for president.