Keith Ellison is a Democrat running for an open House seat in a heavily Democratic district. But what once looked like a cakewalk has turned into a bruising campaign in which many facts are disputed but a central one is not: If he wins, he will be the first Muslim elected to Congress.
Before he can make history, Ellison must capture Tuesday's hotly contested Democratic primary in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District, which consists of the Minneapolis side of the Twin Cities and an inner ring of suburbs. Whoever gets the Democratic nomination is expected to sweep to victory in November to succeed Rep. Martin O. Sabo (D), who is retiring after 28 years in the House.
Ellison, 43, is a two-term state legislator. He prays toward Mecca five times a day and says he has not eaten pork or had a drink of alcohol since he converted to Islam as a 19-year-old student at Wayne State University in Detroit. When speaking at mosques or to members of Minneapolis's large Somali immigrant population, he opens with "Salaam aleikum," Arabic for "Peace be with you."
Other than that, he seldom refers to his religion on the campaign trail, unless asked.
"I'm a Muslim. I'm proud to be a Muslim. But I'm not running as a Muslim candidate," Ellison said during a break between a commemoration of Hurricane Katrina and an appearance at a public housing project. "I'm running as a candidate who believes in peace and bringing the troops out of Iraq now. I'm running as a candidate who believes in universal, single-payer health care coverage and an increase in the minimum wage."
Despite Ellison's desire to focus on the war and the economy, questions about his faith and character have kept him on the defensive. . .
Among Muslims, Ellison's campaign has generated excitement.
"There are millions of Muslims in this country. It shouldn't have taken this long to elect one to Congress," said Nimco Ahmed, 24, a Somali immigrant and political organizer.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, flew to Minneapolis for an Aug. 25 fundraiser for Ellison, who has collected about $400,000, mostly from individual contributors in his district. Awad said that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have both heightened prejudice against Muslims and spurred Muslims to be more politically active in hopes of countering that prejudice.
According to CAIR and other Muslim groups, Ellison would be the first Muslim elected to national office. Awad said the highest Muslim elected official now is a state senator in North Carolina, Larry Shaw, and the last Muslim to make a serious bid for Congress was Ferial Masry, a Saudi-born woman who lost in California in 2004.