Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison has entered the running for the challenging job of steering the Democratic Party back to success. The 52-year-old made history when he was first elected to the House back in 2006, being the first Muslim to serve in this branch of government. Born a Roman Catholic, Rep. Keith converted to Islam at the age of 19, having gone through a period of soul-searching;
“I can’t claim that I was the most observant Catholic at the time. 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.”
One of the pulls towards Islam for him was his reading of Malcolm X’s autobiography.
Ellison has the backing of Bernie Sanders, the man who took on Hillary Clinton in an attempt to be the Democratic nominee for this year’s presidential race. Several polls have reported that Sanders would have defeated Trump in the race; the fact that many polls had Hillary beating Trump is a reminder of the fallibility of polling. True to his progressivism, Ellison had backed Bernie over Hillary. Political analysts have been commenting on the need for the Democratic Party to re-engage with its grassroots by promoting dynamic figures such as Ellison, rather than weathered establishment members.
A Tough Race Ahead
Ellison is by no means a fringe candidate in the race, having received vocal backing so far, including from figures such as Senators Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid, the outgoing and incoming leaders in the Senate, as well as New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman. The race will be by no means a shoe-in, though, with other high-caliber candidates being touted such as Labor Secretary Tom Perez, former DNC chair Howard Dean and Martin O’Malley, who was the third from last candidate to drop out of the Presidential candidate run for the Democratic party. Having towed the party line more readily than Ellison, all three other potential candidates might be seemingly more palatable to the Democratic establishment; Ellison was one of the Democratic Party’s most vocal critics of President Obama, challenging him on his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, and fighting against the bipartisan “Grand Bargain”, an agreement aimed at reducing the deficit that would also have reduced Social Security benefits for working Americans.
A Champion of the People
Ellison’s past credentials would place him to be a champion for the marginalized, the working-class and to American Muslims; in a statement announcing his candidacy he wrote, “Democrats win when we harness the power of everyday people and fight for the issues they care about…It is not enough for Democrats to ask for voters’ support every two years. We must be with them through every lost paycheck, every tuition hike, and every time they are the victim of a hate crime. When voters know what Democrats stand for, we can improve the lives of all Americans.”
He has been a champion for Palestinians too, having been one of 54 members of Congress to sign a letter to President Obama regarding easing Israel’s blockade of Gaza. He was also one of the signatories of a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry demanding that the U.S. administration prioritise the human rights of Palestinian children, hundreds of whom are detained within Israel’s prisons, many of whom are subjected to torture.
On being sworn into office after his 2006 victory, he swore on a copy of the Quran that had been owned by founding father Thomas Jefferson. Back in 2011, he was visibly moved when testifying to a controversial committee hearing on radicalization of American Muslims. He evoked the memory of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, one of the Muslim first responders who gave their lives while trying to save others on 9/11, “His life should not be defined as a member of an ethnic group or a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow citizens…this committee’s approach to violent extremism is contrary to American values and threatens our security“.