Profile of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the First Muslim Elected to Congress

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009

Keith Ellison is what he is -- the first Muslim elected to Congress, the first African American to represent Minnesota -- while trying not to be too much of what he is. But not too little, either.

Quietly devout, he unrolls his prayer rug in the privacy of his office in the Longworth House Office Building, facing the corner beyond which lies Mecca -- but that is still too Muslim for some.

Antiwar, he once voted for an Iraq war-funding bill because it had a timetable for withdrawal -- but that was not dovish enough for some protesters who subsequently held a sit-in at his Minneapolis office.

More than two years after he came to Washington, the idea of Keith Ellison, the symbol of Keith Ellison, remains potently useful to various agendas. President Obama seized on it last month, during his address from Cairo University to the world Muslim community. In the president's list of examples of how "Islam has always been a part of America's story," he alluded to Ellison, though not by name. Ellison's name may be the least important part of his identity. Obama said: "When the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers -- Thomas Jefferson -- kept in his personal library."

Without trying too hard, just by being who he is, Ellison has multiple publics. To Arabs overseas, he is evidence that Americans can embrace Islam. To Muslim Americans, he is a role model for political engagement.

To the voters in the urban liberal Minneapolis precincts who actually elect him, well, they seem to like his politics, which he sums up as peace, working-class prosperity, environmental sustainability, civil rights. He won 71 percent of the ballots cast in November for his election to a second term. His district is about 77 percent white, 13 percent black, 5 percent Asian, with Muslims making up an estimated 3 percent. Members of labor unions and people who have Arab surnames are among his more reliable campaign contributors.

His identity is the sum and distillation of all this -- as subtly constructed as a three-cushion bank shot, a high-wire act in which wobbles to the left or right might be forgiven, but overcompensation in any direction is fatal.

At 45, he's crossed treacherous canyons on that high wire. What's his secret? A legion of puzzled, disoriented, frightened, ambitious people in the new America could use some of his moves.

"I'm an African American Muslim, and how do I get elected by mostly Lutheran whites in my district?" Ellison rephrases the question.

Yes, exactly.

The full answer is the story of his life.

The short answer is delivered with a no-big-deal shrug. "I don't really have any calculated plan," he says. "I'm just doing me."


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