Primary Won, Ellison Sets Sights on Minn. Seat

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Keith Ellison, winner of the Democratic Primary for the 5th Congressional District in Minnesota, hopes to be the first Muslim to win a seat in the U.S. Congress. He spent a lot of his primary campaign answering questions about his relationship to the Nation of Islam, a revoked driver's license and other controversies in his past. Regardless, he won easily against the other Democratic candidates. Michele Norris talks with Ellison.


After winning a hard-fought Congressional primary in Minnesota, Keith Ellison could be on the verge of some firsts. If he wins in November, he would be the first Muslim elected to Congress and the first black congressman from Minnesota. Ellison won with 41 percent of the vote. He's a lawyer, a former radio host and he's been a state legislator since 2002. He says he's found his constituents are interested in the issues, not in his religion.

Mr. KEITH ELLISON (Democrat, Minnesota): The people of the 5th Congressional District didn't seem nearly as concerned about it as our friends in the press. The folks in the 5th Congressional District wanted to talk about healthcare. They wanted to talk about a drug benefit for seniors that made sense as opposed to what we have. They wanted to talk about getting the troops home now, not religion and those other broader, more symbolic things.

NORRIS: Your campaign, though, did hit some snags during the run up to the election. The questions about your connections to the Nation of Islam stemming from work you did in connection with the Million Man March and the revelation that your driver's license was suspended for the failure to pay parking tickets. You're likely to face those questions again in the general election. How do you respond, particularly to that last question about the parking infractions, as someone who's sworn to make and uphold the law?

Mr. ELLISON: Well, you know, no one is perfect and nearly everyone in the race had a parking violation and I would suspect that many folks listening have them, too. That doesn't excuse me and I'm sorry for those things and I've taken extra steps to make sure that that does not happen again.

NORRIS: Before we go on, I also want to give you a chance to respond to the repeated questions about your connection to the Nation of Islam. Your opponents unearthed some articles that you wrote for a student newspaper, articles that were written under a different byline than the name you use now.

Mr. ELLISON: Yeah, you're right. Let me just tell you - I'm 43 years old. These articles were written when I was on campus as a student. I do hope that in the world we live in people are allowed to have new and better ideas at the age of 43 than they had at 23.

NORRIS: They were stories in which you defended Minister Louis Farrakhan against charges of anti-Semitism. In another, you called for reparations. A question that I had is knowing that you'd written those articles under the byline of Keith Hakim, why didn't you get out ahead of this and reveal this yourself instead of letting the bloggers get to this first?

Mr. ELLISON: Well, let me tell you this. I was in the Minnesota State Legislature for years and none of this stuff came up. And quite frankly, I hadn't thought about my college writings in quite a long time. Let me point out, none of the articles I wrote denigrated any group of people in any way.

NORRIS: The two signature issues in your campaign were the war and the economy. What's your prescription on those two fronts? First, on the war.

Mr. ELLISON: Well, I believe that the war is failed policy. We never should have entered the war and I believe that we need to get out of Iraq right away.

NORRIS: And the economy? You say that you're somewhat out of step with the Democrats on your prescription for what ails the economy, at least in Minnesota.

Mr. ELLISON: I don't believe I ever said any such thing. I have not been critical of the Democratic Party. I've been critical of the Bush administration. And as a matter of fact, you know, I believe that the right to organize in a labor union has eroded to the point where, you know, working people really are suffering and we need to strengthen and reinvigorate the right to organize.

NORRIS: You've often been described as an unapologetic liberal in a state that has moved further to the right in recent years. I guess from a state that I guess you could say was dark blue, it is now moving to a shade of purple. Is there a message in your victory for the larger Democratic Party, for the national Democratic Party?

Mr. ELLISON: You know I really think, whether or not there are lessons for the national election, I'm not sure. I do know that it's important to stand up for what you believe in. I do believe that it's important to say in a bold, unapologetic way that the middle class has a right to be successful and that the common good is a good idea and we should embrace it and we should lift it up.

NORRIS: Mr. Ellison, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. ELLISON: Thank you and have a nice day.

NORRIS: Keith Ellison is a Democratic candidate for Congress from Minnesota.

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