- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS. — Every two years, there is at least one “safe seat” race that turns into a surprise on Election Day. The sleeper this year may be the race in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District. Late-breaking circumstance, in this race, considered safe for the Democrats (here called Democratic-Farmer-Labor or DFL), may produce an upset on election night.

Although DFL candidate Keith Ellison does have a Republican opponent, Alan Fine, the most serious challenger to win this seat, now held by retiring DFL Congressman Martin Sabo, is Independence Party (IP) nominee Tammy Lee.

The Independence Party put Jesse Ventura up for governor in 1998. Mr. Ventura won in an amazing upset that year. In 2002, the party nominee Tim Penny received 16 percent of the vote. And as Mr. Penny discovered, in a three-way race many voters will abandon the candidate in third place to cast their vote for one of the frontrunning two.

This is what is apparently happening this year with the statewide IP candidates. But in the Minnesota 5th, IP nominee Tammy Lee is now widely perceived to be in second place.

The DFL nominee in this heavily DFL and liberal district usually wins with 70 percent or more of the vote. Mr. Sabo, in 14 terms, did not have a close race. When he unexpectedly announced his retirement early this year, it set off a scramble among local DFL politicians to fill his seat. A dozen sought endorsement at the district party convention. It was won in June by populist black Muslim legislator, Keith Ellison. Although he did not win a majority of the approximately 250 delegates, he led from the first ballot on, and his opponents decided not to block the endorsement. Traditionally, endorsement here means winning the primary and the November election, but a number of unsettling revelations about Mr. Ellison caused three major DFL figures to challenge him in the primary. These challengers said that there had not been time enough after Mr. Sabo’s announcement for proper vetting, and that new revelations showed he was a “flawed”candidate.

These revelations concerned Mr. Ellison’s past. First, it was disclosed that Mr. Ellison had been an active part of Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic movement in the 1990s. Mr. Ellison said that he now renounced the Nation of Islam leader, and apologized to the Jewish community. Second, it was revealed that Mr. Ellison had left a long trail of unpaid traffic violations, housing violations, and failure to respond to numerous campaign violations. He did not deny any of this. His opponents branded him a “scofflaw.”

Mr. Ellison nonetheless won the primary because his three opponents split the 59 percent of the vote against him. He won 41percent and the DFL nomination. At that point, it appeared the election was over since he would face two opponents in November, and it was an overwhelmingly DFL district.

Right after the primary, the Republican nominee, Mr. Fine, launched a bitter attack against Mr. Ellison for his past association with Mr. Farrakhan, and for his receipt of large donations from an American Muslim group alleged to have ties to terrorism. Even among many Republicans, Mr. Fine’s manner was perceived to be too abrasive and confrontational. At the same time, Independent candidate Tammy Lee emerged as a serious candidate. Mrs. Lee was for many years a TV broadcaster, and later an executive for a regional airline. Originally a DFLer, she had also been press secretary for Sen. Byron Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat and communications director for a statewide DFL campaign. A self-described “fiscal conservative and social moderate,” she then found her way to the Independence Party.

As Mr. Fine’s political fortunes sank, Ms. Lee’s rose. Mr. Ellison has conducted a very low profile November campaign and has scheduled no TV advertising. Several DFLers have failed to endorse him, including the DFL nominee for governor. Mr. Sabo, in what has been described as his “Norwegian endorsement,” went to Ms. Lee’s office, had his picture taken with her and authorized her to use the picture in her campaign literature. Significant numbers of GOP and DFL political figures, including many mayors of the suburban parts of the district (40 percent of the vote) have endorsed her. The Minneapolis business community has poured money into her campaign. She has made a major TV ad buy. Recently, she placed a full-page ad in the largest newspaper in the state listing her endorsements.

The St. Paul Pioneer-Press headlined that Mr. Ellison was in trouble and Ms. Lee was surging. The Jewish community, with some exceptions, has seemingly rallied around her candidacy (although she is Catholic and Mr. Fine is Jewish). Mr. Ventura endorsed her on the cover of the gay community (a large voter group in the district) magazine. Prominent GOP figures reportedly asked Mr. Fine to withdraw. He did not, and will continue in the race, spending his campaign funds to attack Mr. Ellison.

A Green Party candidate is also in the race and is likely to win about 5 percent of the vote. (The Green Party traditionally is strong in Minneapolis.) If major DFL constituencies (Jews, gays, seniors, women) desert Mr. Ellison, this could become a very close race on Nov. 7.

The DFL GOTV effort, one of the best in the country, still gives Mr. Ellison the edge. He is on the party and labor sample ballots. Ms. Lee’s emergence has come late in the campaign, and many voters do not yet know who she is. But there is a “buzz” about her campaign that is very reminiscent of Ventura phenomenon when the “impossible” happened at the end of the campaign.

If she does win, it would be the upset of the year.

Barry Casselman writes for Preludium News Service.

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