- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2006

The 5th Congressional District in Minnesota (Minneapolis) has been a safe Democratic seat since 1963. Martin Sabo has held the seat since 1979. This year, Mr. Sabo unexpectedly announced his retirement only weeks before the Democrats (in Minnesota, the party is called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL) were expected to endorse him. The contest is a test case for Howard Dean’s plans for the Democratic Party.

Mr. Sabo’s retirement set off a frenzied campaign that saw more than 10 candidates scramble to win the usually decisive party convention nod. Mr. Sabo’s longtime chief of staff, Mike Erlandson, entered the race, as did state legislator Keith Ellison, a black Muslim. Also announcing her candidacy was Ember Reichgott-Junge, a former state senator, and, most recently, a talk-show host. Several other DFL candidates ran for the endorsement, including Minneapolis City Councilman Paul Ostrow.

With an aggressive and populist campaign, Mr. Ellison, an intelligent and articulate lawyer, won endorsement from the overwhelmingly populist DFL convention of about 200 delegates who had been chosen in precinct caucuses by about 1 percent of eligible DFL voters in the district.

Although DFL endorsement is usually tantamount to nomination in this very liberal district, and DFL nomination is, in turn, tantamount to election, Mr. Ellison — who is almost totally unknown outside his district — was not (because of the short time between Mr. Sabo’s retirement and the convention) vetted thoroughly. A number of controversies about his past quickly surfaced. Mr Ostrow and Mrs. Reichgott-Junge had announced prior to the convention that they would go directly to the primary. Mr. Erlandson, in a surprise speech before the convention (for which he was booed) announced that he, too, would go to the primary.

Conservative blogs quickly dominated the media coverage of the Minnesota race, revealing numerous ethical and legal problems in Mr. Ellison’s past. Two blogs in particular (Minnesota Democrats Exposed, a partisan Republican blog run entirely by a part-time consultant to the GOP state party and former oppositional researcher for the GOP, and Power Line, a Minnesota-based conservative blog that jumped into national prominence with its major role in exposing Dan Rather during the 2004 presidential campaign) began posting carefully researched accounts of Mr. Ellison’s early role as a spokesman for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and a large number of documented non-payments of traffic and parking tickets. The violations included two driver’s license suspensions arising from the non-payment of these fines. Other documents revealed that Mr. Ellison had committed a number of election filing violations and received fines, which he did not pay. He had tax return problems for a number of years (resulting in liens on his house), and numerous violations cited by housing inspectors on his property, and which also were not paid.

Mr. Ellison did not deny any of these, but was quoted in the Minneapolis daily newspaper as saying he had not had time to deal with them because his life was “on a fast track.” He stated that he had currently taken care of these past tax and violation debts, and that these problems were behind him. He also went directly to the local Jewish community and renounced his earlier role as a Farrakhan spokesman, admitting that he now saw his group as anti-Semitic, although more controversies have since emerged about his ties to some other anti-Israel individuals.

With Mr. Erlandson, Mrs. Reichgott-Junge and Mr. Ostrow, all experienced elected officials in the race, it soon became clear that party endorsement in 2006 was not tantamount to nomination.

In the weeks leading up to the Sept. 12 primary, Mrs. Reichgott-Junge emerged as the leading campaign fund-raiser, with Mr. Erlandson second, Mr. Ellison third and Mr. Ostrow a distant fourth.

Mr. Ostrow, with the smallest political base of the four, was the most outspoken after the primary. But in spite of enlisting an energetic and capable young staff, following the controversial resignation of his campaign manager, he is thought to remain a distant fourth in the field, unlikely to receive more than 5 percent of the vote. Although there are no public polls, some unconfirmed internal polls reputedly show Mr. Ellison in the lead with Mr. Erlandson and Mrs. Reichgott-Junge very close behind. About 15 percent to 20 percent of likely voters are reportedly undecided, and that’s a relatively large number considering primary day is just around the corner.

All candidates are sending out mailings to their targeted voters. A recent Erlandson mailing was the most hard-hitting of the campaign, stressing that he is the most prepared and experienced candidate for the job and suggesting that Mr. Ellison considers himself above the law and that he is not qualified to make laws. In the same piece, Mr. Erlandson contrasts his liberal credentials with Mrs. Reichgott-Junge’s, who he says contends he is more conservative and thus out of touch with the district’s voters. Mr. Ellison says he will not attack his opponents. Meanwhile, Mrs. Reichgott-Junge is using her large media buy to air a positive message about her record and views on issues. She and her campaign staff are adamant about not attacking her competitors in this race.

Mr. Ellison’s base is with black and minority voters, about 9 percent of the district, and with populist and antiwar DFLers. The latter dominate party conventions, but their numbers have not been as significant in previous primary elections. However, the Wellstone Alliance activists, who were mobilized for the elections of the late U.S. senator, have organized for the Ellison campaign and are expected to turn out large numbers of peace activists and more radical DFLers.

Mr. Erlandson’s base is with senior citizens, blue-collar workers and those who live in the north and south suburbs of Minneapolis in the district. He also has been strongly endorsed by outgoing U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, for whom he has worked for 19 years, 14 of which he has served as chief of staff in Washington. Mr. Erlandson also served two recent terms as chairman of the state DFL party.

Mrs. Reichgott-Junge has her base with women voters and with those who live in the more affluent western suburbs of Minneapolis. A large Jewish population lives there as well.

Mr. Ostrow’s smaller base is in his city ward, and among some suburban blue-collar voters.

A serious scenario for a victory for Messrs. Ellison and Erlandson or Mrs. Reichgott-Junge could be made in the waning days. On paper, Mr. Ellison still has the advantage of the DFL endorsement, activist support and the formidable Wellstone Alliance GOTV effort.

Mr. Erlandson just received a strong endorsement by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the largest newspaper in the state, and this could help significantly with the large number of undecided voters. His hard-hitting closing effort, backed by sophisticated and experienced local GOTV campaign, could put him into the lead on Sept. 12. Approximately 60 percent of primary voters will be senior citizens, with whom Mr. Erlandson is strong and who reliably vote in primaries. On the other hand, almost 60 percent of likely primary voters will be women, and that should help Mrs. Reichgott-Junge, whose media campaign (“Remember Ember in September”) has made her well-known in this year’s election. She has received the endorsement of the national Emily’s List.

Mr. Ellison’s controversies have made this primary a serious three-way contest. Mr. Ellison has also run an openly populist left and hardline antiwar campaign, and is supported strongly by the state DFL party, whose new chairman was active in the Dean presidential campaign, and is part of the national effort to move the Democratic Party to the antiwar and domestic left this year and in 2008, the presidential election year. His opponents are also strong liberals who oppose the war. But they are in varying degrees more mainstream liberals, as Mr. Sabo has been.

This race could be seen as a test run of the new antiwar left in its attempt to become dominant in the national Democratic Party.

If Mr. Erlandson or Mrs. Reichgott-Junge win the primary, the election is over and the seat will remain safely Democratic. If Mr. Ellison wins, he would be the clear favorite. But the emotions and controversies he has provoked would probably mean that one of the other major party candidates in the November race could become a serious challenger, and one of the safest Democratic seats in the nation could be at risk.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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