- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

In one of the safest Democratic congressional districts in the nation, Republicans are welcoming the victory of Keith Ellison, a black Muslim, in the September 12 primary election just concluded. This is not because the GOP nominee, Alan Fine, has a serious chance to win in November, but because the Democrat holds views that Republican strategists feel will cause undecided voters throughout the state to regard his party (called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor or DFL here) as too extreme.

This seat has been held by Rep. Martin Sabo, a Democrat, since 1979, and includes Minneapolis and neighboring suburbs. It has also become one of the most liberal and politically correct districts in the country. Mr. Sabo quickly emerged as a leader in the House after taking office and remained a key figure until the Republicans took control in 1995. Even in the minority, Mr. Sabo was able to deliver funds for local and state projects back home.

Mr. Sabo decided to retire suddenly this past spring, and this set off a frenzy of hasty political activity by numerous candidates who sought the DFL endorsement in June. In Minnesota, political endorsing conventions are dominated by activists, usually the most conservative in the Republican party and the most liberal in the DFL. Delegates to conventions come from biennial precinct caucus elections in which only about one percent of eligible voters take part. In recent years, this has produced serious problems for both parties, especially for statewide races, in which the large number of the state’s independent voters hold the key to winning.

Mr. Ellison, a state legislator representing a minority district in north Minneapolis, ran an energetic and savvy campaign for endorsement and won, even though he had not been one of the favorites originally. Other DFLers, including Mr. Sabo’s long-time chief of staff Mike Erlandson and former state senator Ember Reichgott-Junge, chose to skip the endorsement and go directly to the primary.

Almost immediately, conservative blogs began to reveal ethical and legal problems about Mr. Ellison’s past, including numerous unpaid parking and traffic violations that resulted twice in his driver’s license being suspended, frequent failures to file campaign reports on time, violations on his Minneapolis property to which he did not respond, and problems with filing income-tax returns. This pattern of personal behavior, which has prompted former DFL congressman Tim Penny and others to label Mr. Ellison a “scofflaw,” put the endorsed candidate on the defensive during most of the campaign.

DFLers here are among the most politically correct anywhere, and Mr. Ellison’s pattern of ethical and legal problems seemed to be put aside by many white voters who liked the “idea of having a black Muslim congressman.” (Blacks and minorities make up less than 10 percent of the voting population of the 5th district.) Even disclosures of Mr. Ellison’s past relationships with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam — for which he had served as a local spokesman, and the financial contributions to his campaign from individuals and groups known to be anti-Israel — did not seem to influence DFL voters. They were responsive to his left-populist views, which many said reminded them of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.

At the end of the campaign, Mr. Erlandson belatedly tried to make Mr. Ellison’s controversies an issue but he and his fellow challengers sounded too much alike on policy issues and not quite left and politically correct enough (although Mrs. Reichgott-Junge had the endorsement of Emily’s List).

In fact, Mr. Ellison’s hardline anti-war views on Iraq and U.S. foreign policy, and his populist stands on domestic issues, mirror the new-left policies of DNC chairman Howard Dean as he tries to remake the Democratic Party nationally. The Minnesota state DFL chair is a former Dean activist, and the state party was zealous in its support for Mr. Ellison during the primary campaign.

In addition to Mr. Fine, there is a serious Independent Party candidate, Tammy Lee, but even with DFL voter defections, the fact that there are two opponents to split the vote against him makes it almost certain that Mr. Ellison will win easily.

Republicans, however, will not be as gentle with Mr. Ellison as his DFL opponents have been. Conceding the 5th district race to him, the state Republican Party will make Mr. Ellison’s views an issue throughout the state. This could hurt DFL Senate nominee Amy Klobuchar, who is currently leading in her race against Republican Mark Kennedy. They are already describing the DFL thus: “The party of Hubert Humphrey has become the party of Keith Ellison.”

With DFL statewide candidates losing votes to a newly reinvigorated Independent Party (the party of Jesse Ventura), the Republican Party could sweep the election — in a year the DFL was supposed to win — and Mr. Ellison could emerge after November as one of the most prominent elected officials in his party.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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