America's first Muslim congressman, Rep. Keith Ellison, is campaigning to run the America's oldest political party. His strongest opponent may be his past.
Rivals and critics have dug up Ellison's criticisms of Israel and his alleged ties to the Nation of Islam and Hamas, a terror group, to question his fitness to lead the Democratic party.
As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the Minnesota Democrat wants to help the party recover from its worst electoral defeats at the state and national level since 1928. He is a bright, telegenic and frequent guest on the cable-news programs. He is also a polarizing figure, an unabashed liberal at a time when the country has shifted rightward.
Ellison's greatest challenge before the 447 DNC members select their next chair on February 23 is mollifying critics concerned about his past. Ellison’s involvement with the Nation of Islam, for example, has become a point of contention with Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League and critics who say his past writings and comments could be interpreted as anti-Israel. Ellison helped organize the Minnesota delegation to the Million Man March in 1995, which was led by Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Ellison personally defended the controversial Nation of Islam leader. "Minister Farrakhan is a role model for black youth," Ellison wrote in Insight News, an African-American weekly, in 1995. "He is not an anti-Semite."
Ellison said that American foreign policy in the Middle East "is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people [Israel]. A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. Does that make sense? Is that logic?" in a 2010 speech found by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group.
Since then, however, Ellison has denounced Farrakhan and said he supports Israel.
“Those stories were tongue in cheek when I wrote them. It was over 26 years ago,” he told Minnesota Public Radio. “People are going to try and dig up stuff to undermine my candidacy, but we’ve all been on a life journey and have hopefully learned something over the past quarter century, and I have too.”
Many of his critics reject that explanation.
“Rep. Ellison’s remarks are both deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said in a statement emailed to American Media Institute. “His words imply that U.S. foreign policy is based on religiously or national origin-based special interests rather than simply on America’s best interests,” Greenblatt said. “Additionally, whether intentional or not, his words raise the specter of age-old stereotypes about Jewish control of our government, a poisonous myth that may persist in parts of the world where intolerance thrives, but that has no place in open societies like the U.S.”
Alleging that Ellison is "hostile to Israel," Steven Emerson, executive director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, told American Media Institute that the Congressman "is in bed with radical Islamic groups that are anti-Semitic and he rationalizes Islamic terrorism."
Ellison’s congressional office and the DNC did not respond to interview requests.
Ellison has reportedly cancel speeches at the Muslim American Society (MAS) – Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) annual convention in Chicago on Dec. 27. The ADL has described the MAS as an anti-Semitic organization.
For Bill Murrain, a former civil rights attorney, Ellison's previous involvement with Minister Louis Farrakhan and The Nation of Islam isn't troubling. He sees a more complex reality.
Ellison helped organize the Minnesota delegation to the Million Man March, a historic event that Murrain and his children attended. The Million Man March was less about Farrakhan and The Nation of Islam, he said, and more about the camaraderie and community pride that the event symbolized.
Even though the Million Man March was held 21 years ago, Murrain believes the spirit of the event – uplifting the black community, respecting black women and being responsible fathers – still lives on today.
Murrain doesn't talk much about the organizers, but he does talk about the message.
“Accompanied by two generations of Murrain men we joined the crowd who assembled for the Million Man March on that fabulous day on the Mall,” Murrain told American Media Institute.
“We joined men and women from all walks of life as well as from a rainbow of ethnicities,” said Murrain, the father of five sons and two daughters. “As my three grandsons mature I hope to be alive to recount with them the importance of affirming their ethnic and human manhood. I floated on air during my trip back to Atlanta as I pondered the promise of what life holds for my next generation.”
Over the past weeks, however, Ellison has been embraced by his supporters – and blasted by his critics.
His supporters include Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat from Vermont.
“My friend Keith Ellison is a terrific leader and a strong progressive who knows how to get things done,” outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) said in a statement. “Now is the time for new thinking and a fresh at the DNC. Now is the time for Keith.”
But his critics say he is the wrong man for the job.
Ellison was criticized during the 2006 election for receiving donations from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an activist group that is linked to Hamas.
Ellison also came under fire in 2007 for comparing the George W. Bush administration’s actions to the Nazis.
Democrats, however, say privately that Ellison’s chances have become more favorable since Howard Dean, the former chair of the DNC, dropped out of the race last week.
Craig Kirby, a former Democratic operative who directed several political campaigns across the country, said Democrats need immediate stability. “When in trouble, it doesn’t matter the race or creed of the leader,” Kirby told American Media Institute. “Democrats just need help.”
But it appears that one powerful entity is not backing Ellison: The White House. According to published reports, President Barack Obama’s advisors have talked about whether Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez and former Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan would be willing to run for the job. Last week, Perez indicated he may challenge Ellison.
If elected, Ellison will be in charge of fundraising, challenging policies set by President-elect Donald Trump and galvanizing the Democratic party around 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election.
"Keith Ellison offers a new opportunity for the DNC to recast and re-energize itself after a devastating defeat,” Neil Foote, a professor of journalism at the University of North Texas, told American Media Institute. “The Party will need to sharpen its message - and queue up a viable candidate for 2020."