November 21, 2016
Rep. Keith Ellison speaks at a Hillary Clinton campaign event at the University of Minnesota in October 2016. Credit: Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons.
In the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress, Minnesota representative Keith Ellison has emerged as a leading contender to chair the Democratic National Committee. Ellison resides on the far-left fringe of the Democratic party. But perhaps it is a fringe no more. Ellison has received the support not only of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren but also of prospective Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer.
I have followed Ellison's career since he secured the endorsement of the Fifth congressional district Democratic-Farmer-Labor convention in 2006, against the handpicked successor of long-time incumbent Martin Sabo when Sabo was to step down. Ellison presented himself to the convention as the leftward-most viable candidate to succeed Sabo and dared the delegates to vote their true views. It was a winning argument at the convention, though it resulted in a competitive four-way primary for the Democratic nomination that September. Ellison prevailed in the primary with 42 percent of the vote. It's the last truly competitive election in which Ellison has run.
I'm doubtful that Ellison is the man to lead the Democrats out of the political wilderness in which they find themselves at the moment. His district is heavily Democratic. Republicans are able to recruit candidates to oppose Ellison, but the exercise is a formality. In the 2016 election, Ellison was off 12,000 votes from the support he received in 2012. This time around the candidate of Legal Marijuana Now drew 30,000 votes and otherwise appears to have subtracted from support Ellison might have received. It's that kind of congressional district.
Ellison embodies the identity politics on which the Democrats have staked so much of their success. As a black Muslim in a one-party town with a left-wing newspaper (Minneapolis's Star Tribune), it has served him well. Ellison has been insulated from the kind of media scrutiny that his checkered past would have received elsewhere.
Although there are practical political grounds for doubting that Ellison is the man to lead the Democrats back to power, that is an issue for Democrats. The case against Ellison that should concern all Americans is moral. To borrow a term, he is a bad hombre.
When I speak about Ellison in the Twin Cities, I give a talk titled "The Secret History of Keith Ellison." The title is facetious. Ellison's history only became "secret" when he ran for Congress in 2006 and bet his campaign on three lies about his involvement with the Nation of Islam. I recounted and recalled Ellison's "secret history" in the WEEKLY STANDARD articles "Louis Farrakhan's First Congressman"and "The Ellison Elision."
Yet Ellison's history as an active member and local leader of the Nation of Islam remains a deep secret to Ellison's constituents in his district. He blatantly lied about it when he was running in the 2006 DFL primary. He suppressed it in his 2014 memoir, My Country, 'Tis of Thee. Indeed, in his memoir he presented himself as a critic of Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
Speaking of Farrakhan, Ellison writes in his memoir: "He could only wax eloquent while scapegoating other groups." Ellison writes of the Nation of Islam itself: "In the NOI, if you're not angry in opposition to some group of people (whites, Jews, so-called 'sellout' blacks), you don't have religion."
He should know. He was speaking from his own personal experience in the cult.
Ellison was not happy when the Star Tribune published my column "Ellison remembers to forget" on its opinion page. In the column I restored some of his own history that he had left out of his memoir. He promptly sent out a fundraising letter to his fans asserting that my column represented "a new low" in the manifestation of anti-Muslim bigotry against him.
The cry of bigotry was another lie, but Ellison invited St. Paul Pioneer Press political reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger and others on his email list to fight back against his alleged victimization with a modest contribution to his campaign. I posted a copy of his fundraising letter to Stassen-Berger in "In which Keith Ellison finds me of use."
How has Ellison gotten away with his act? It helps to be a Democrat. It helps to be black. It helps to be a Muslim. It helps to have a sympathetic press. It helps to play to a Minneapolis crowd in a one-party town. And yet Ellison seeks to take his act to a national audience. He dreams of higher office.
In his memoir, Ellison recounts his conversion to Islam as a 19-year-old undergraduate at Detroit's Wayne State University. By the time Ellison graduated from law school at the University of Minnesota, however, he was toeing the Nation of Islam line. When Ellison first ran for public office in Minneapolis in 1998, he was a self-identified member of the Nation of Islam going under the name Keith Ellison-Muhammad.
Ellison was still talking up "Minister Farrakhan" at a National Lawyers Guild fundraiser for former Symbionese Liberation Army terrorist Kathleen Soliah/Sara Jane Olson in 2000. By 2002, however, when Ellison was first elected to the Minnesota legislature, and 2006, when he sought the DFL endorsement to succeed Sabo in Congress, Ellison had abandoned the Nation of Islam and returned to the fold of Islam.
So far as I know, Ellison is the only convert to Islam for whom Islam has served as a way station to the Nation of Islam. How did that work? That's one part of Ellison's secret history that actually remains secret.
Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the site Power Line.