Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Less than two weeks after Sen. Barbara Boxer very publicly rebuffed the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the high-profile Muslim organization scored a surprising victory courtesy of a different leading California Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

When Mrs. Boxer rescinded an award that her office had given to a CAIR official, she cited the group’s terrorist ties and its inability to condemn Islamic terrorist organizations. Faced with the same public record, Mrs. Pelosi weeks afterward decided to place a freshman congressman who was heavily backed by CAIR on the Judiciary Committee, which oversees all domestic counterterrorism legislation.

While CAIR’s influence had nothing to do with Rep. Keith Ellison earning a seat on Judiciary (it was the doing of the Congressional Black Caucus, according to several Hill staffers), it is nonetheless surprising that the Islamic group’s role in raising more than $50,000 for Mr. Ellison did not dissuade Mrs. Pelosi, particularly in the wake of Mrs. Boxer’s much-publicized critique.

So far, Mrs. Pelosi’s endorsement of Mr. Ellison has not hurt her politically, but there is definitely potential for future headaches, particularly with key Jewish supporters.

Mr. Ellison has chosen to align himself very closely with CAIR. Through two fund raisers, including one held in Florida, and campaign contributions that almost certainly were bundled by CAIR co-founder Nihad Awad, CAIR helped Mr. Ellison raise more than $50,000. Shortly after he was elected to Congress, Mr. Ellison delivered the keynote address at CAIR’s annual conference.

CAIR’s connection to Mr. Ellison is through its co-founder, Mr. Awad, whom Sen. Charles Schumer said in a 2003 congressional hearing has “intimate connections with Hamas.” That strong accusation is supported by significant evidence. At the time CAIR was founded in 1994, Mr. Awad was a high-ranking executive with the Islamic Association for Palestine, an openly anti-Semitic organization that was long believed by law enforcement to be a political front for Hamas. A civil court judge in Illinois in 2005 confirmed those suspicions when he declared that there was “strong evidence that IAP was supporting Hamas.”

Exacerbating problems for Mr. Ellison is his own past, namely that he’s a former spokesman for the Nation of Islam. He used this perch to spread anti-Semitic propaganda. At a 1997 hearing where a local official was accused of having said that Jews are the “most racist white people,” most in attendance were outraged. Mr. Ellison read aloud a statement on behalf of the Nation of Islam, however, defending “the truth” of that very statement.

Though Mr. Ellison sent a letter of apology to the Minneapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, he was not forthcoming about his record. He claimed that he had never even been a member of the Nation of Islam — even though he had been its spokesman.

The Minneapolis Jewish community was understandably not crazy about Mr. Ellison’s candidacy, even though the vast majority are Democrats. Though a handful of prominent Jews, including a few contributors and a small Jewish newspaper, supported Mr. Ellison, most in the Jewish community in his very blue district pointedly refused to back him.

After Mr. Ellison stated following his election his desire to serve on the Judiciary Committee, several key Democrats, most of whom were Jewish, contacted Mrs. Pelosi’s office to express their concerns about such an appointment. Though her office never gave a blanket guarantee, at least two of the callers said that they felt they were given assurances that Mr. Ellison likely would not win a spot on Judiciary.

Ironically, a key factor in Mr. Ellison landing his seat on Judiciary probably was the intense criticism he faced for using a Koran for his ceremonial swearing-in. Most Democrats felt it was wrong for conservatives, led by talk-radio host Dennis Prager, to demand that the Muslim congressman perform his ceremonial swearing-in on the Christian Bible. In conversations this columnist had with a number of Democratic congressional staffers at that time, it became clear that the whole flap had made Mr. Ellison into something Democrats love more than almost anything else: a victim.

Given a chance to comment on Mr. Ellison’s appointment or his many connections to CAIR, Mrs. Pelosi’s office demurred.

It is not difficult to see that Mr. Ellison could put his party in a bind. As he becomes more prominent — and assuming he maintains his closeness to CAIR — he could easily raise the concern of leading Democrats, particularly Jews. CAIR has refused to condemn as terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah, groups whose core mission is killing innocent Jews. Yet despite that, any actions Mrs. Pelosi might take against Mr. Ellison would almost certainly raise the ire of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus.

All hope is not lost for Mr. Ellison. He is an attractive political figure, and his Muslim faith is a net positive in a party that covets minority support. That said, Mr. Ellison has made a major mistake in embracing CAIR so closely. He simply can’t join the mainstream of his party while locking arms with a group that has been rebuked by leading Democrats such as Mrs. Boxer and Mr. Schumer.

After winning the seat he wanted on Judiciary, though, Mr. Ellison probably sees no need to change his ways.

Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.

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