SHED­DING THE PAST

DNC hope­ful El­li­son dis­tances him­self from black sep­a­ratism

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY SETH MCLAUGH­LIN

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 self­ef­fi­ciency 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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

HOPE­FUL: Rep. Keith El­li­son, the Min­nesota Demo­crat seek­ing to be the next leader of the DNC, is once again be­ing dogged by ac­cu­sa­tions of past anti-Semitism and black na­tion­al­ism that haunted his 2006 cam­paign, which saw him be­come the first Mus­lim elected to Congress.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

“We have to re­vi­tal­ize the Demo­cratic Party,” Rep. Keith El­li­son said, re­fer­ring to the need for his party to re­build its mes­sage after sig­nif­i­cant losses in the 2016 elec­tions. Mr. El­li­son hopes to im­ple­ment change as part of his bid to be­come the DNC’s new leader.

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