ELLISON, Keith

ELLISON, Keith
Image courtesy of the Honorable Keith Ellison
1963–

Biography

Keith Ellison earned a place in history as the first African American elected to Congress from Minnesota and the first Muslim to serve in the House or Senate. During his time on Capitol Hill, Ellison routinely had to combat Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, and emerged as a national spokesman for progressive causes. He used his seat on the Financial Services Committee to extend protections and greater opportunity to working-class and minority Americans in the aftermath of the Great Recession. In a speech on the House Floor Ellison explained that his progressive message “[is] about a lot of important things to help the quality of life for Americans, Americans of all colors, all cultures, and all faiths, Americans who serve in our Nation’s military, who serve us as public employees, Americans who are looking out for us every day to live a high quality of life, to send their kids to school and have a chance at education, to have a decent, respectable retirement, to have some health care, to be able to earn a decent living.”1

Keith Ellison was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 4, 1963, the middle of five boys; four, including Ellison, became lawyers and one became a doctor. His parents were Leonard, a psychiatrist, and Clida Martinez Ellison, who managed the family’s psychiatry practice and later earned a master’s degree in social work.2

Ellison’s family had long been active in the civil rights movement. In the segregated South, his maternal grandfather, Frank Martinez, braved death threats and cross burnings by the Ku Klux Klan to organize voters as head of the NAACP in Natchitoches, Louisiana.3 That civil rights legacy inspired Ellison, who graduated from the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy in 1981. During Ellison’s years at Wayne State University in the mid-1980s, he converted from Catholicism to Islam. Years later he recalled, “It was Islam’s message of social justice and equality that affected me the most and satisfied my spiritual yearning and wondering about God, man, nature, and humanity.”4 Ellison became a leading campus advocate for divestment from the South African apartheid regime.5 He graduated from Wayne State in 1986 with a bachelor’s in economics and, four years later, earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis.6  He married Kim Dore, and they raised four children. The couple divorced in 2012.7

After law school, Ellison remained in Minneapolis and entered private practice. He later joined the Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit law firm that provided legal aid to low-income families, and served as the group’s executive director.8  In 1998 he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) nomination for a seat in the Minnesota state house of representatives. Four years later he ran again and won. He served in the state house from 2003 to 2006 and emerged as a sharp critic of the war in Iraq and an advocate for progressive causes.9

In 2006 Democratic U.S. Representative Martin Sabo unexpectedly announced his retirement after 28 years in the House. Ellison joined a crowded race to succeed Sabo. The district encompassed Minneapolis, including affluent suburbs along the city’s southwest and working-class neighborhoods on the north end. The district was diverse, with sizeable Somali, Hmong, and Latino populations, as well as a growing community of Russian Jews. It was the most liberal district in the state with an ethos that one political almanac described as merging “the Yankee tradition of clean government, the Scandinavian tradition of cooperative enterprise and the industrial-labor tradition of economic redistribution.”10

During the primary, Ellison put forth a progressive agenda—backing proposals for universal health care, environmental justice, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.11 He attracted allies of the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, a national liberal leader who died in a 2002 plane crash. “I have the passion of a Wellstone and the practicality of a Sabo,” Ellison said.12 During the primary, Ellison was questioned about his ties to the Nation of Islam and its controversial leader, Louis Farrakhan.13 Opposition researchers discovered comments Ellison had made in law school about Farrakhan, raising concerns among Democrats about his defense of the Nation of Islam. He was also asked about his role organizing a group of Minnesotans to attend the “Million Man March” that Farrakhan led alongside other groups in 1995. Ellison responded that he had never been a member of Farrakhan’s organization and that he rejected Farrakhan’s many anti-Semitic statements.14

Ellison secured the DFL nomination in September, and in the general election faced Republican Alan Fine, a business consultant and lecturer at the University of Minnesota. Ellison kept the focus of his campaign on progressive issues, but Fine, who is Jewish, continued to question his association with the Nation of Islam; at one point, Ellison sent a letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council in Minneapolis rejecting Farrakhan and his followers, calling them anti-Semitic.15

On Election Day, Ellison prevailed with almost 56 percent of the vote. “I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility,” Ellison said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot of work to do. I feel like I’ve got to pull people together and keep them together.”16 Ellison won re-election to the House five times, taking between 67 and 75 percent of the vote.17

Ellison’s election garnered international media attention; many Muslims viewed it as a counterbalance to negative portrayals of their faith. “I think a lot of Muslims feel highly vulnerable and feel that they are under a tremendous amount of scrutiny,” Ellison told the New York Times shortly after his victory. When asked if he intended to be a spokesman for the larger Muslim community in the United States, Ellison replied “I’m not qualified to be that. I’m not a religious leader and I’m not a scholar.” Ellison promised to focus on the needs of his district and would work to solve issues in Congress “from a standpoint of improving the quality of civil and human rights for all people in America.”18

Following Ellison’s victory, conservative media attacked him with bigoted criticism over his faith. One radio host declared that Ellison threatened to “undermine American civilization.”19 In a similar vein, Republican Representative Virgil Goode of Virginia wrote in a letter to his constituents that without restrictive immigration laws more Muslims would be elected to Congress and that they would demand to take the Oath of Office on the Quran.20 Neither attack acknowledged that Ellison had been born in the United States (on his mother’s side he could trace his Louisiana roots back more than 200 years) and that Members of the House do not take the official Oath of Office on any text whatsoever—religious or secular. Instead they raise their right hands and recite the oath en masse as it is administered by the Speaker of the House in the chamber on Opening Day. After taking the official oath Members often do use religious texts or a copy of the Constitution for optional ceremonial photographs in which they, along with family and friends, pose with the Speaker outside the chamber. For his ceremonial swearing-in, Ellison borrowed Thomas Jefferson’s 1764 copy of the Quran from the Library of Congress.21

Ellison entered Congress as part of a large class of first-term Democrats who, collectively, flipped the majority for the 110th Congress (2007–2009). Democrats assigned Ellison to seats on the Financial Services Committee and the Judiciary Committee. He left the Judiciary Committee in the following Congress and picked up a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, where he served a single term. After Democrats returned to the minority in the 112th Congress (2011–2013), Ellison lost his Foreign Affairs seat. For the remainder of his House career, his sole assignment was on Financial Services.22

Ellison often appeared in the media and spoke nationally on topics including environmental protection, universal health care, U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the need to create a federal department of peace. In the 112th Congress, he was co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.23 By the end of his second term in the House, Ellison served on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which makes committee assignments, and was named a national chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.24

In his 12 years in the House, Ellison introduced more than 200 bills and resolutions.25 His primary contributions came from his work on the Financial Services Committee, where he sought to counteract predatory lending and foreclosure practices, especially those that disproportionately affected people of color. Ellison noted that even before the Great Recession hit in 2008, working-class families struggled and fell further into debt from which lenders profited. “From unfair high-interest credit cards, to payday loans and tax-refund anticipation loans, a whole industry has spawned to take advantage of working families trying to make ends meet,” he wrote in an op-ed. “My passion for consumer justice issues stem from my belief that we must help return economic prosperity to working families. Ensuring that working families are protected from credit abuse will help Americans have more money in their monthly budgets to afford healthcare, college for their children and food for their table.”26

At the height of the Great Recession, Ellison supported legislation designed to reform the banking and financial services industry. He authored a bill to prevent credit card companies from raising interest rates based on a consumer’s late payment history on other loans.27 The bill was included as a provision in the 2009 Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights that President Barack Obama signed into law in May 2009.28 As many home rental properties fell into foreclosure and changed ownership, Ellison introduced the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2009 to prevent new landlords from terminating renters’ existing leases without giving sufficient notice. Much of the bill was incorporated in the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, which became law in May 2009.29

In August 2014, Ellison’s Money Remittances Improvement Act also became law.30 The bill streamlined the regulation of money transfers and brought federal regulatory practices in line with state banking agencies. The law eased the transfer of money between the United States and other countries, particularly for immigrants in America who sent money to support families overseas. The legislation was important to Ellison’s constituents, including the large Somali population in the Minneapolis area.31

During the 115th Congress (2017–2019), Ellison’s Credit Access and Inclusion Act passed the House unanimously. The measure, which provided expanded access to affordable credit to millions of low-income and minority households, would have amended the Fair Credit Reporting Act to allow people to report certain positive consumer credit data—including rent or utility payment history—to consumer reporting agencies.32 The bill passed the House on a voice vote but failed to clear committee in the Senate.33

From his seat on Foreign Affairs—and even prior to his service on the committee—Ellison addressed the conflict between Israel and Palestine. In a March 2008 floor speech he condemned rocket attacks from inside the Gaza Strip that hit Israeli towns, noting that “if we want to be morally consistent, we must . . . also condemn the humanitarian crisis in Gaza too.”34 In January 2009, Ellison was one of a group of about two dozen Democrats who voted “present” on a resolution that stated that Israel had the right to defend itself from Palestinian attacks that originated in the Gaza Strip.35 Later that year he became one of the first high-level U.S. officials to enter the Gaza Strip after Israel had sealed it off to conduct recurring military strikes to expose Hamas militants. Ellison also visited Israeli towns hit by rockets fired from within Gaza. Taken aback by the destruction he saw during his trip, he later told a reporter, “I’ve always believed we need to resolve this thing by diplomacy. I’m even more convinced of that now.”36 In 2011 Ellison joined a number of prominent American Muslims to demand that Hamas release an Israeli prisoner who had been held for five years; Hamas later included the man in a prisoner swap.37

Following the 2010 elections, conservatives with the Tea Party movement targeted Ellison’s religious background and, once again, former and current House colleagues joined the anti-Muslim chorus. Republican Allen West of Florida described Ellison in 2011 as “the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established.”38 Ellison also dealt with personal attacks from Republican Representative Michele Bachmann—a member of his home state’s congressional delegation. In 2012 Bachmann accused Ellison of being tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Sunni Islamist organization linked to terrorist groups and influential in some Middle Eastern countries.39

During his career, Ellison regularly rebutted the false and discriminatory allegations that American Muslims were being radicalized. When the House Committee on Homeland Security held hearings into “the extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community” in 2011, Ellison was one of the first witnesses to appear before the panel. Fighting back tears during part of his testimony, Ellison told the committee that such an inquiry threatened to isolate American Muslims and stoke unjustified fears about their allegiance. “The best defense against extreme ideologies is social inclusion and civic engagement,” he said.40 Ellison told the story of Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New York City police cadet and paramedic, who was one of hundreds of first responders killed on September 11, 2001. Until Hamdani’s remains were located, conspiracy theorists speculated that he had been in league with the attackers. Hamdani, Ellison concluded, “was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans, and his life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.”41

In November 2016, following Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton’s defeat in the presidential election, Ellison ran for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). He faced Tom Perez, who had served as Labor Secretary in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, in a contest that many saw as proxy battle between the progressive and establishment wings of the party. Ellison had backed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s bid for the presidential nomination in 2016, and Sanders backed him for the DNC chairmanship. Perez won but immediately moved to make Ellison the DNC’s deputy chair.42

In 2018 Ellison jumped late into the race for Minnesota attorney general after the incumbent made an unsuccessful bid for governor. Just days before the primary, Ellison’s former girlfriend accused him of abuse.43 Ellison forcefully denied the accusations, which came amid the #MeToo movement in which women across the country spoke out about their personal experiences with harassment and assault. The allegation sparked calls for Ellison to drop out of the race.44 A private investigative attorney later determined that Ellison’s accuser lacked evidence, and Ellison went so far as to call for an investigation by the House Ethics Committee. In the end, Ellison prevailed over Wardlow 49 to 45 percent. Ellison, whose term will expire in early 2023, became the first African American elected to statewide office in Minnesota and the first Muslim elected to statewide office anywhere in the country.45

Footnotes

1Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (23 September 2010): 16452.

2Jonathan Capehart, “Keith Ellison’s Mom Reminds Us of What Family Is,” 16 September 2014, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2014/09/16/keith-ellisons-mom-reminds-us-of-what-family-is/.

3Lori Sturdevant, “How to Get out the Vote? (Keith Ellison Demonstrates)” 26 November 2014, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), http://www.startribune.com/how-to-get-out-the-vote-keith-ellison-demonstrates/284044361/.

4“Ellison Explains How and Why He Became a Muslim,” 13 December 2013, International Iran Times, http://iran-times.com/ellison-explains-how-and-why-he-became-a-muslim/.

5Vinson Cunningham, “Will Keith Ellison Move the Democrats to the Left?,” 27 February 2017, The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/will-keith-ellison-move-the-democrats-left.

6“Keith Ellison,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present, http://bioguide.congress.gov/; Almanac of American Politics, 2008 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2007): 900; Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 551.

7Cheryl Johnson, “Ellison Files for Separation from His Wife,” 5 June 2010, Star Tribune: n.p.

8The Legal Rights Center, “About,” accessed 11 July 2019, https://www.legalrightscenter.org/about.html; Politics in America, 2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 554.

9Almanac of American Politics, 2010: 827–828.

10Quotations from Almanac of American Politics, 2008: 900.

11Politics in America, 2008: 551; Neil MacFarquhar, “Democrat Poised to Become First Muslim in Congress,” 8 October 2006, New York Times: 1; Rochelle Olson and Mark Brunswick, “Ellison’s Past Views, Ties Drawing Scrutiny,” 28 June 2006, Star Tribune: 1B.

12Almanac of American Politics, 2008: 901.

13MacFarquhar, “Democrat Poised to Become First Muslim in Congress”; Olson and Brunswick, “Ellison’s Past Views, Ties Drawing Scrutiny”; Dan Rasmussen, “Minn. Party Designee May Be in Some Trouble,” 27 June 2006, Roll Call: n.p.

14Olson and Brunswick, “Ellison’s Past Views, Ties Drawing Scrutiny.”

15MacFarquhar, “Democrat Poised to Become First Muslim in Congress.”

16Rochelle Olson, “Election 2006: Fifth District; Ellison’s Win a First in Several Areas,” 8 November 2006, Star Tribune: 10A.

17Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.

18Rochelle Olson, “Minnesota’s New Representatives, Keith Ellison; Double Duty,” 13 November 2006, Star Tribune: 1A; Neil MacFarquhar, “Muslim’s Election Is Celebrated Here and in Mideast,” 10 November 2006, New York Times: A28.

19“Jefferson’s Koran,” 4 January 2007, Chicago Tribune: 1.

20Almanac of American Politics, 2008: 901; Rob Hotakainen, “Oath on Qur’an: Provocation or Act of Faith?,” 1 December 2006, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN): 1A. For a reference to Ellison’s ancestry see “Jefferson’s Koran”; Capehart, “Keith Ellison’s Mom Reminds Us of What Family Is.”

21Almanac of American Politics, 2008: 901; Brady Averill, “Swearing-in Doesn’t Go by the Books,” 2 December 2006, Star Tribune: 6A; Brady Averill, “Ellison to Borrow Qur’an once Owned by Jefferson,” 4 January 2007, Star Tribune: 6A; Jonathan Turley, “The Truth about Oaths,” 4 January 2007, USA Today: A9.

22Garrison Nelson and Charles Stewart, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1993–2010 (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2011): 690.

23“Congressmen Ellison and Grijalva Elected Co-Chairs of Congressional Progressive Caucus,” 3 December 2010, Targeted News Service.

24Politics in America, 2012: 533.

25This is based on a review of legislation listed on congress.gov. Ellison introduced 210 bills of which one directly became law and several others were added as amendments to broader legislation.

26Keith Ellison, “Saving the Golden Goose: Preserving America’s Middle Class,” 18 July 2007, The Hill: n.p.

27Ellison’s original bill was the Universal Default Prohibition Act of 2009, H.R. 1637, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (2009).

28Credit CARD Act of 2009, H.R. 627, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (2009); Credit CARD Act of 2009, PL 111–24, 123 Stat. 1734 (2009).

29Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009, S. 896, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (2009); Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009, PL 111–22, 123 Stat. 1632 (2009); Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2009, H.R. 1247, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (2009).

30Money Remittances Improvement Act of 2014, H.R. 4386, 113th Cong., 2nd sess. (2014); Money Remittances Improvement Act of 2014, PL 113–156, 128 Stat. 1829 (2014).

31Money Remittances Improvement Act of 2014, H.R. 4386, 113th Cong., 2nd sess. (2014); Katherine Peralta, “Bill Aims to Ease Terrorism, Laundering Fears Around Foreign Money Transfers,” 9 July 2014, Newsweek: n.p.

32Credit Access and Inclusion Act of 2017, H.R. 435, 115th Cong., 1st sess. (2017).

33TRID Improvement Act of 2018, H.R. 5078, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (2018).

34Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 2nd sess. (5 March 2008): 3305.

35Almanac of American Politics, 2010: 828.

36Kevin Diaz, “Ellison Is Moved by Damage in Gaza,” 14 August 2009, Star Tribune: n.p.; David Montgomery, “A Public Figure,” 16 July 2009, Washington Post: n.p.

37Almanac of American Politics, 2014: 923.

38Almanac of American Politics, 2014: 923.

39Almanac of American Politics, 2014: 923; Mark Sommerhauser, “Bachmann: Ellison Has Ties to Muslim Brotherhood,” 20 July 2012, St. Cloud Times (Minnesota): n.p.

40Hearings before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Compilation of Hearings on Islamist Radicalization—Volume I, 112th Cong., 1st sess. (10 March, 15 June, and 27 July 2011): 14–18, quotation on p. 17.

41Compilation of Hearings on Islamist Radicalization—Volume I: 18.

42Cunningham, “Will Keith Ellison Move the Democrats to the Left?”; Rema Rahman, “Keith Ellison Vying for DNC Chairman,” 14 November 2016, Roll Call: n.p; John Wagner and Mike DeBonis, “Schumer Throws His Support Behind Keith Ellison for DNC Chairman,” 11 November 2016, Washington Post: n.p.; Clare Malone, “Tom Perez Isn’t as Liberal as Keith Ellison, But He’s Still Pretty Progressive,” 25 February 2017, FiveThirtyEight, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/tom-perez-isnt-as-liberal-as-keith-ellison-but-hes-still-pretty-progressive/.

43Julie Turkewitz, “A Broken Relationship and Accusations of Emotional Abuse: The Case of Keith Ellison,” 30 August 2018, New York Times: n.p.

44J. Patrick Coolican et al., “Keith Ellison Denies Abuse Allegations,” 13 August 2018, Star Tribune: 1A.

45David Weigel, “Keith Ellison Wins Attorney General Race in Minnesota,” 7 November 2018, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/live-updates/midterms/midterm-election-updates/keith-ellison-wins-attorney-general-race-in-minnesota.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Keith Ellison" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.

Ellison, Keith. My Country, 'Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future. South Orange, N.J.: Karen Hunter Publishing, 2014.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Financial Services
  • House Committee - Foreign Affairs
  • House Committee - Judiciary
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