Keith Maurice Ellison (born August 4, 1963) is the U.S. Representative for Minnesota's 5th congressional district, serving since 2007. He is a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The district centers on Minneapolis. He was re-elected in 2010. Ellison is a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
He is the first Muslim to be elected to the United States Congress.
He is also the first African American elected to the House from Minnesota.
Early life, education and career
Keith Ellison, the third of five sons, was born and raised a Roman Catholic in Detroit, Michigan by his parents Clida (née Martinez) and Leonard Ellison, a social worker and a psychiatrist, respectively. Ellison and three of his siblings became lawyers while the other became a doctor. One of his brothers is also the pastor of the Baptist "Church of the New Covenant" in Detroit. Ellison's youth was influenced by the involvement of his family in the civil rights movement, including the work of his grandfather as a member of the NAACP in Louisiana.
He graduated from the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy in 1981 where he had been active in sports and the student senate. At age 19, while attending Wayne State University in Detroit, Ellison converted from Catholicism to Islam, later giving the following explanation: "I can't claim that I was the most observant Catholic at the time [of my conversion].
I had begun to really look around and ask myself about the social circumstances of the country, issues of justice, issues of change. When I looked at my spiritual life, and I looked at what might inform social change, justice in society... I found Islam." After graduating with a B.A. in economics in 1987, he married his high school sweetheart and moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota Law School. While attending law school, Ellison wrote several articles in support of Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. He graduated with a Juris Doctor in 1990.
Ellison and his wife Kim, a high school mathematics teacher, have four children born between 1989 and 1997. They have a daughter, Amirah; and three sons, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Isaiah. Kim is not a Muslim, but their four children have been raised in that faith. During Ellison's 2006 campaign, Kim Ellison revealed that she has been living with moderate multiple sclerosis for several years.
After law school Ellison worked with the firm of Lindquist & Vennum for three years where he was a litigator specializing in civil rights, employment, and criminal defense law. Ellison then became executive director of the nonprofit Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis that specialized in the defense of indigent clients.
Upon leaving the Legal Rights Center, Ellison entered private practice with the law firm Hassan & Reed Ltd, specializing in trial practice.
In addition to his work for the Legal Rights Center, Ellison has also been regularly involved in community service. He served as the unpaid host of a public affairs talk program at KMOJ radio. He has also often volunteered as a track coach for several organizations, working with youth between the ages of 5 and 18. He said, "It’s a great community-building device because it’s for all ages and all genders. Everyone can find a way to fit in."
Minnesota House of Representatives
In November 2002, Ellison was elected to his first public office, as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives serving House District 58B.
At the time he took his seat, his party was the smallest House minority in Minnesota history. During this session, Ellison was appointed to the Governmental Operations & Veterans Affairs Policy Committee, the Judiciary Policy & Finance Committee and the Local Government & Metropolitan Affairs Committee. In this session he spearheaded an ethics complaint against Rep. Arlon Lindner concerning remarks about homosexuals in the Holocaust.
Ellison carried 84% of the votes and was re-elected to the seat for Minnesota’s House District 58B in the 2004 election. He began to serve in the 84th Minnesota Legislative Session (January 2005–January 2007). During the 84th session, Ellison served on the Civil Law & Elections Committee, and the Public Safety Policy & Finance Committee. With his election to Congress, Ellison's seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives was filled by Augustine Willie Dominguez, a Latino community activist and fellow member of the DFL.
U.S. House of Representatives
On December 1, 2006, Ellison announced he had hired Kari Moe as his chief of staff. Moe had previously served in the same position for the late Minnesota U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone. Ellison later announced that Brian Elliott (previously of the Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota) would serve as his district director, and Trayshana Thomas (who worked with Ellison in his legal practice and throughout all stages of his political career) was made his district scheduler.
He said he intended to focus on wages and housing for "relief and justice for the middle class". Because of Ellison’s campaign position calling for an investigation for the impeachment of President George W. Bush, his appointment to the Judiciary Committee (which has jurisdiction on these matters) was hailed by those seeking to have the president impeached.
Ellison was appointed to the Financial Services Committee. He will be joined on this committee by fellow Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R).
On January 10, 2007, Ellison was appointed to the Judiciary Committee by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). This is a position he "had lobbied for" and he called his appointment "an honor and a privilege". He spoke of his goals for this appointment, "I look forward to pursuing a progressive agenda in the committee, including the restoration of American citizens' civil liberties that have come under increasing attack over the past six years." Other issues he intends to focus on while in this post are "community-oriented policing efforts, immigration, intellectual property rights and privacy concerns including the Internet."
In his first week as a congressman, Ellison voted with the majority of other Democrats to raise the minimum wage, voted for stem cell research, and voted to allow Medicare to negotiate pharmaceutical prices.
Ellison joined fellow Minnesota freshman Democrat Tim Walz in opposing President George W. Bush's plan to increase troop levels in Iraq. On January 10, 2007, Bush announced his plans for the Iraq War troop surge of 2007. The gist of this announcement had been known around the Capitol for over a week, and when the Associated Press asked Ellison for his reaction to the idea on January 8, 2007, he stated that it was "way too late, way too little …So rather than do something small and ineffective, why not get about the business of what we're going to have to do eventually, which is to begin to end the occupation?" Ellison called for an immediate withdrawal in Iraq: "We could describe it as a redeployment or withdrawal, but I think we have run the course in terms of our ability to resolve this conflict militarily. I think we need to have a political and economic and diplomatic engagement, and we need to encourage the forces that are in Iraq to begin to resolve the violence in Iraq." When asked if he would support Bush’s call for an additional $100 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ellison said, "I want to see [the request] first, I want to actually look at it, but I'm not inclined to continue to support a war or an occupation that he has no plans to get us out of, and which is so costly in terms of dollars and lives of American soldiers but also Iraqis." The White House, when asked for a reaction to the comments, referred to a previous statement by press secretary Tony Snow: "Democrats will have to decide where they stand on two issues: ‘No. 1, do you want Iraq to succeed, and, if so, what does that mean? And, No. 2, do you believe in supporting the troops as you say, and how do you express that support?’"
After President Bush vetoed HR 1591 that provided military funding for the Iraq War because it contained timetables for withdrawal, Ellison and fellow Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum joined with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top House Democrats in voting "no" to HR 2206 that provided the funding without any timetables. The bill passed the House on a 280 to 142 margin.
On Feb. 20, 2007, Ellison endorsed the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama saying, "He speaks with a unifying spirit." He said he supports "Obama's message of an open and fair economy, a balanced prosperity and clear opposition to the war in Iraq." When asked about Hillary Clinton, he promised he would support whomever won the Democratic nomination, and felt that at that stage of the campaign Obama would "keep her honest".
According to MinnPost.com, "U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison has become the first Minnesota elected official to step forward and address the connections between the Summer Olympics and China's foreign policy and domestic human rights policies. The Democratic 5th District congressman issued a remarkably strong statement Friday March 21, 2008 that broadly criticized the Chinese government for its Tibet policy and for its relationship with Sudan's leaders 'as they commit genocide on the citizens of Darfur.' "
Ellison was arrested along with seven other people including U.S. Representatives James McGovern, John Lewis, Donna Edwards, Lynn Woolsey for civil disobedience in April 2009 when they spoke at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. to protest that the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, had asked international aid groups bringing food, health care and water, to leave Darfur.
Advocacy for American Muslims
With his victory to the United States House of Representatives Ellison became the first Muslim elected to the Federal Government and the highest Muslim elected official in the United States. Ellison joins Congressman André Carson (D-IN), State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad (D-IA), State Del. Saqib Ali (D-MD), State Senator Larry Shaw (D-NC) and State Rep. Saghir "Saggy" Tahir (R-NH) as elected Muslim officials in the United States of America as of 2008. Ellison’s election has been seen as inspirational to American Muslims, encouraging civic empowerment through participation in the political process. Ellison generally "downplayed the role of religion in his drive for office," but since his 2006 election he has become active in advocacy for Islamic causes on a national level.
Promoting US with the State Department
Two months after taking office Ellison met "with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top State Department officials to talk about showcasing his story as part of their public diplomacy efforts in the Muslim world." According to the Star Tribune, Ellison was "profiled three times by the State Department’s overseas press bureau." He also "did a Voice of America interview from his office, where an American flag was placed conspicuously behind his desk for the cameras." In the interview which was set to play in the Middle East and South Asia, Ellison stressed global inclusiveness and quoted verse 49:13 of the Qur'an "Oh humanity, we created you from a single pair…" Ellison also accepted the Bush administrations request to be part of a "teleconference with Karen Hughes, the State Department's undersecretary for public diplomacy. The White House has asked that the teleconference promote American values and confront ideological support for terrorism around the world." The Voice of America’s Faiz Rehman, ("a Pakistani native and senior political producer") applauded Ellison's cooperation saying "He is the most famous freshman congressman in the world." It was noted that after he took his oath of office he was surrounded by the foreign press, intrigued in part by the oath controversy, who "had to be ushered out of his office after he took his oath to make room for home-state news crews." Ellison has been "featured in a series of articles written for foreign dissemination by the Department's Bureau of International Information Programs." Including an article that was translated into Persian and Arabic that "highlighted the diversity of his constituents in Minnesota, ranging from Swedes and Norwegians to 'the largest Somali immigrant community in America.'" In his work in cooperation with the state department, Ellison stresses the religious freedom available in the US, saying things like "Religious tolerance has a much longer pedigree in America than some of the intolerance we've seen lately." Even in his work with the State Department he remained critical of President Bush's Iraq policy saying "he wants people around the world to know that 'there are many Americans who want to relate to the rest of the world in terms of cooperation, not military domination.'" Ellison staffers told reporters that "the State Department has shown no signs of squeamishness about publicizing his criticism of the war." When asked about working with elements of the Bush administration Ellison said "Hey, my country first. We can work out our political differences later. I've said I'm willing to do whatever I can to make some friends for America."
Ellison was chosen by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for its Trailblazer Award. The group said Ellison "has established a career of advocacy focused on promoting civil and human rights, peace, and prosperity for working families." He was named an Utne Reader visionary in 2011.
December 6th, 2011