It’s like deja vu for Rep. Keith Ellison.
More than a decade after he persuaded Minnesota voters to look beyond his controversial past and reward him with a seat in Congress, Mr. Ellison is now asking national Democrats to do the same as he seeks to lead their party.
The first Muslim elected to Congress, Mr. Ellison is now running to lead the Democratic National Committee next year, when the party will attempt to rebuild in the wake of yet another election spanking. But the congressman’s bid has been complicated by questions about his views on Louis Farrakhan, the politics of Israel and black nationalism.
Writing under the name Keith Hakim, Mr. Ellison penned columns while at the University of Minnesota Law School in which he defended Nation of Islam chief Mr. Farrakhan against accusations of being a racist and an anti-Semite. Mr. Ellison also said a separate black state might be a better option for black Americans than affirmative action.
Additionally, he’s faced criticism for the lead role he played as a member of a Black Law Students Association, inviting black nationalist speakers to the University of Minnesota — events that drew opposition from campus groups representing Jewish, women and gay and lesbian students.
But Joshua Wirtschafter, who led the Jewish association at the time, says he saw Mr. Ellison more as a defender of free speech rights than a backer of the speakers’ separatist views.
“Even in that period, he did not endorse the anti-Semitic messages of black nationalist speakers,” Mr. Wirtschafter said. “He was claiming that one could listen to the positive messages of self-efficiency and pride and ignore their hate speech on Jews and women and gays.”
Mr. Wirtschafter said it was a “dark time” for blacks coming of age given the racially charged events — including the 1986 murder and beating in Howard Beach, Queens, New York — and said Mr. Ellison challenged some of the speakers on their anti-Jewish statements, and would later take part in dialogues on campus that made it clear he did share their anti-Jewish views.
“I think the man should be judged in his 30s and 40s and early 50s, rather than his exploration in his 20s of black nationalism,” he said. “I saw Keith try out the big firm lawyer role, I saw him trying out the black nationalist role, and neither of them fit him.”
Instead, Mr. Ellison cut a career path that saw him take over as executive director of the Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit group that provides legal representation for poor people. He won his seat in Congress in 2006.
For a DNC struggling to figure out how it lost an election that appeared, earlier this year, to be sewn up, Mr. Ellison offers a back-to-basics approach.
He says the party needs to empower local activists and parties and drive a progressive agenda that resonates with the working-class voters that ditched Democrats in the 2016 election.
He has called for expanding Social Security, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, protecting voting rights for felons, decriminalizing marijuana, countering climate change, standing up for illegal immigrants, increasing taxes on the rich and strengthening collective bargaining for union and labor groups.
“Something has gone wrong, folks,” Mr. Ellison recently told Texas Democrats. “We have got to revitalize the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party must be the party where working people of all backgrounds feel that that is the one [that] is going to fight for us.”
The field also includes New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley, South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison and Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, who was urged to enter the race in part because of concerns over Mr. Ellison’s past and liberal leanings.
Mr. Ellison is black and Mr. Perez is Latino, highlighting the two competing power bases within the Democratic coalition.
The Minnesota congressman has already earned the support of some of his party’s biggest names, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Sen. Bernard Sanders, who ran for Democrats’ presidential nomination this year.
Two dozen members of the House, activist group MoveOn.org and powerful labor unions are also backing his bid.
His momentum, however, has been slowed by his initial reluctance to make clear he would give up his congressional seat to be a full-time chairman, and by warnings from the Anti-Defamation League over his support of Israel.
Others have noted that Mr. Ellison helped lead a march in Minnesota in response to the 1992 Rodney King verdict, telling the Minnesota Star Tribune: “Black people do not live under democracy. You don’t have an obligation to obey a government that considers you to be less human.”
Mr. Ellison was born in Detroit and graduated from Wayne State University, where he converted from Catholicism to Islam, before moving to Minneapolis for law school.
Steve Simon, a former law school professor who recruited Mr. Ellison for a judge training program, said his student had a winning approach.
“I was very careful who I chose to be the defense attorneys and prosecutors,” Mr. Simon said. “Being a lawyer in a courtroom is like being a combo of ballet dancer, hockey player and prizefighter. You are doing everything on purpose, and you really know what is going on.
“He was a good defense attorney,” Mr. Simon said. “He was very dynamic and dramatic in the courtroom. He knew exactly what I wanted done, and he did it well.”
Mr. Ellison entered the Minnesota legislature in 2002 and made a name for himself as a champion on environmental, labor and voter rights issues, said Rep. Frank Hornstein, who entered at the same time and sat next to Mr. Ellison in the state House chamber.
“He comes from a long line of civil rights activists,” Mr. Hornstein said, alluding to Mr. Ellison’s grandfather’s involvement in the Louisiana chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “I think that is really what got him interested in these kinds of issues. I think his passion comes from a family lineage that is very deeply connected to the civil rights movement in the South, and that is a powerful thing.”
The questions about Mr. Ellison’s views on Mr. Farrakhan surfaced when he ran for Congress in 2006, and he tried to put them behind him by telling the Jewish Community Relations Council that “I should have come to that conclusion that they were anti-Semitic earlier than I did.”
“I regret that I didn’t,” he said.
Mr. Hornstein, whose wife is the senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Minneapolis, endorsed Mr. Ellison’s congressional bid, and credited the Democrat with putting questions about his past to rest.
“He repudiated that completely, and most of the people in our community thought that was great,” he said. “He has a record of supporting Jewish causes in our community and really was a friend and is a friend. So I think these kinds of recycled accusations are not only inaccurate but unfair. This is not the Keith Ellison I know, and I think his record proves it.”