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2006-09-14

African-American Minnesota Legislator Keith Ellison Slated to Become First Muslim Elected to Congress

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We speak with Keith Ellison, the African-American state legislator in Minnesota who is slated to become the first Muslim elected to Congress. Ellison won Tuesday’s primary defeating three rivals to become the Democratic nominee. He is favored to win election in November in the heavily Democratic fifth district. [includes rush transcript]

In Minnesota, an African-American state legislator who won Tuesday’s Democratic primary is slated to become the first Muslim elected to Congress. Keith Ellison defeated three rivals to become the Democratic nominee for the seat of retiring Congressmember Martin Olav Sabo. He will face Republican business consultant Alan Fine in November and is favored to win the heavily Democratic fifth district.

Ellison was raised Catholic in Detroit and converted to Islam as a 19 year-old student at Wayne State University before moving to Minnesota for law school. Lebanese-American pollster John Zogby hailed Ellison’s primary win saying, "American Muslims are now a political constituency not just simply a growing group."

  • Keith Ellison, Minnesota state legislator and Democratic nominee for Congress in the state’s fifth district.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Keith Ellison joins us on the phone from Minnesota. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

KEITH ELLISON: I’m really pleased to be here, Amy. How are you today?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to see you and to hear you again after seeing you last Friday night.

KEITH ELLISON: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your response to your Democratic primary victory?

KEITH ELLISON: Well, it’s obviously overwhelming. The best part about it is that we really did knit together God’s whole family. We had people of all faiths. We had people of all religious orientations, colors, cultures, you know, just the whole family was in the room when we celebrated our victory. And it was just tremendously gratifying.

AMY GOODMAN: If you are elected to Congress, you will be the first African American elected to federal office, in addition to being the first Muslim member of Congress.

KEITH ELLISON: Yeah, well, you know, that’s, I think, an interesting thing, but the point that I’ve been making all along in this race is that what we share is more important than the differences between us, that we all need peace. We all need an Iraq policy that makes sense, as opposed to this crazy quagmire war. We all need universal healthcare coverage, and we all need to stop the middle class squeeze, which has left our wages and our pay declining in Bush’s America. Now, that’s something that doesn’t hinge on religion or color. It’s something we all have to focus on, and that’s what I’m going to focus on.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you react to this latest development in Chicago, where the city council voted for a living wage, which is a whole movement building in this country, but Mayor Daley has now vetoed the living wage campaign that would require large retailers like Target and Wal-Mart to pay a living wage of more than $10 to workers by the year 2010?

KEITH ELLISON: Well, I wholeheartedly endorse it. In fact, in the state legislature of Minnesota, I was one of the key people to increase our minimum wage, which still is not at a living wage, but it’s better than what we had. And I’m a supporter of the living wage ordinance in the city of Minneapolis. We have one here, too. But this national movement to give people a living wage is exactly what we all should be about. It’s really the fight that we have going on now.

You know, the question in our country now is this: are we going to have the private gain of a small number of very large corporations be the most important thing, or is the public good going to be the most important thing? And I’m all about the public good. And that means we’ve got to increase the minimum wage, and we gotta make it be a livable wage. And that’s why I’ve been a very strong, ardent supporter of organized labor and the right to strengthen the labor movement and the union movement.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Keith Ellison. He won the Democratic primary in Minneapolis, slated to be the first Muslim congress member in the United States. What did Ned Lamont’s victory mean to you, the upset in Connecticut, where he won the Democratic primary against Joseph Lieberman?

KEITH ELLISON: That it’s about peace. People the nation over know that Americans are a peaceful people. They want peace. Everyone recognizes the quagmire in Iraq. We all know the Bush administration intended to go there before 9/11. And so, you know, we sometimes debate why are we still in Iraq. We’re not there because the Bush administration does not know how to get out. It’s not even about whether we need a — it’s not an issue of a plan. It’s a question of the will to go. And it’s very, very discouraging when you see the Bush administration building military bases and not holding Halliburton accountable, things like that. But Connecticut has shown that Americans want peace. Americans want to get out of Iraq. Americans want a new policy. Americans want to see peace be the guiding principle of our nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Keith Ellison, are you for immediate withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq?

KEITH ELLISON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you make that happen if you become a congress member?

KEITH ELLISON: Well, what I would do is I’d be a voice for it, and as I have been throughout the entire campaign, you know, I would be one to work with all other congress people who share that belief. I know there is a Bring the Troops Home Now caucus. And I’ve talked to members of congress who are part of that. And I’m in favor of having community town hall forums to really introduce this idea, because what the Bush administration has somewhat successfully done is argue the idea that, yeah, it was a mistake to go in there, but now that we’re there, we have to stay. And that is a false idea. We don’t have to stay, just because we’re there. In fact, we have to stop the bleed. We have to stop the hemorrhage now. And my father used to always say, when you dig yourself a hole, the best thing to do is to stop digging.

And that’s what we need to do in Iraq. We need to say that we need to pull, but we need to be part of a multilateral group that would bring the sectarian fighters together so that everyone would have a piece of Iraq and a future in Iraq, and so that not one faction would exalt or be dominant over the others. We’ve got to make sure that the entire — all the groups in Iraq have a stake and a future in Iraq, and that is going to call for diplomacy, which is something the Bush administration has not shown any talent for.

AMY GOODMAN: Keith Ellison, what made you decide to convert to Islam?

KEITH ELLISON: It’s just a religious choice.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you see any significance in that, with Jim Zogby, for example, the well-known pollster, a Lebanese American, talking about Muslims now as a force, not just a group of people in this country, but a political force?

KEITH ELLISON: Well, certainly, you know, when we went out to knit together the coalition to win this election, you know, Muslim Americans were an important part of it. You know, we went to the people in the peace and justice community. We went to GBLT. We went to African Americans who are overwhelmingly Christian. And we also went to the Muslim community, and we went to the Somali community. We went to the Middle Eastern community. And we were very deliberate and purposeful about saying, "Look, you know, let the Muslim voice be heard. Shape America. Help shape America to be a country in which everyone counts and everyone matters." And they overwhelmingly said, "Yeah, we want to be a part of that.

And so, yeah, Jim Zogby is right. And so is John — they’re correct. You know, we’re talking about a constituency that wants to be heard, wants to be part of the American political scene, wants to engage in change through the ballot box. And, you know, as I said, my first goal is to represent the people of the fifth congressional district, but if my candidacy would help Muslims feel a greater part of the American political scene, then that’s a great thing. And if my candidacy would show Americans that Muslims are here to contribute to this country, then that’s a great thing, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Keith Ellison, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Your time now, between now and the election, how do you plan to spend it?

KEITH ELLISON: Well, you know, after the election returns came in Tuesday night, we celebrated. And that’s now over. I was on the ground running yesterday, working hard, talking to people, talking to media. And I’m going to be doing the same thing. We’re not going to let up. We’re just going to keep on running as if we’re behind, even though we know we’re not. And we’re just going to reach out more, include more people, deepen our base of support. That’s what we’re going to do. And I was incredibly honored to meet you the other day. I am a fan of yours. I think you’re the greatest.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Keith Ellison, thanks very much for joining us from Minneapolis. If he is elected to Congress from Minneapolis, he will be the first Muslim to be a congress member in this country and the first African American to be elected to federal office from Minnesota.

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