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Ellison: progressive in a conservative Congress

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, joined low-wage workers at an April 28 rally outside the Capitol in Washington to urge Congress to raise the federal minimum wage. (AP Photo)

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, joined low-wage workers at an April 28 rally outside the Capitol in Washington to urge Congress to raise the federal minimum wage. (AP Photo)

If you search Keith Ellison’s name on YouTube, one of the first video clips you will be directed to is a February 2013 shouting match between the 5th District congressman from Minnesota and the right-wing provocateur from Fox News, Sean Hannity.

As satisfying as it may have been for Ellison’s predominantly liberal constituents to hear him heap scorn on Hannity — his first words were “You are the worst excuse for a journalist I have ever seen” — the contretemps was a classic example of winning the battle while losing the war. Over the next 36 hours, Fox News replayed the clip over and over on the morning shows and panel discussions, gleefully deploring the spectacle of this black, Muslim, elected official appearing rude, unreasonable and unhinged.

Ellison’s appearances on the more respectable talk shows, such as “Meet The Press,” have a different whiff of desolation. Because his views are so frequently out of sync with the chattering class inside the Beltway, he is often tolerated as a curiosity, a check-off box for their demographics.

Asked recently why he engages in these dog-and-pony shows, Ellison said his point has little to do with the Beltway chat circuit.

“I go on these shows as a signal to people in this country that some folks in Congress really do get it,” he said. “Otherwise it is too easy for people to be cynical, thinking that the Republicans are out to undermine their interests and the Democrats are feckless. I’m trying to show that there are people willing for fight for you, who are outraged by the same things.

“You don’t know how common it is for me to run into somebody at the grocery store and have them say to me, ‘How come nobody is talking about…’ and then fill in the blank. I want to talk about those things too.”

There won’t be nearly as many eyes laid on the YouTube footage of Ellison walking the picket lines with Wal-Mart workers protesting for higher wages, or Ellison addressing the graduating class of Minneapolis South High School, two things he did in the week following the DFL State Convention in Duluth at the end of May.

Most political observers would regard Ellison as outside the political mainstream. Then again, while many of his DFL brethren — including U.S. Sen. Al Franken, Gov. Mark Dayton, and CD 1 U.S. Rep. Tim Walz — are gearing up for rugged re-election battles, Ellison is expected to garner the same two-thirds to three-quarters vote majorities he has wielded in his last three bids for re-election when he goes on the ballot for a fifth term in Congress this November.

Ellison occupies a uniquely quixotic position on the political landscape. Barring a major scandal, he will almost certainly represent Minnesota’s 5th District in Washington for as long as he wishes. Yet he stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Martin Sabo, who held that seat for 28 years.

Sabo was a stoic Norwegian who maneuvered the levers of Congress to become chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, a political insider who brought home the pork in hefty slabs. Ellison is an outspoken African-American of the Muslim faith, who has spent most of his time in Washington serving with the nation’s first African-American president.

That President Barack Obama is inaccurately called a Muslim by the opposition party as a means to link him to the 9/11 terrorists obviously affects Ellison’s role in the partisan political culture wars that have consumed Washington. But so has the fact that Obama has frequently governed in a manner that lends credence to popular perceptions of Democrats as feckless.

On the one hand, people regard Ellison as the lefty version of Michele Bachmann (without the “pants on fire” misstatements that pockmark her resume), a glitzy irrelevance who feeds red meat to the partisan base but isn’t allowed near real political power, especially compared with Sabo. On the other hand, people regard Ellison, the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, as an ineffectual apologist for Obama. His tirade against Hannity came over Obama’s culpability for the sequester cuts in the federal budget.

Ellison understands these pincer perceptions, and tries to combat them with defiant goodwill: “Fabulous!” he responds to the conversation-starting pleasantry of asking how he’s doing.

On the subject of reaching across the aisle for retail political accomplishments, he cites the bipartisan bill providing money to stop the spread of Asian carp, and, just last month, the approval of legislation he introduced in the House making it easier for non-banking financial institutions to provide international money transfers.

“Marty Sabo is one of the finest public servants to walk the halls of Congress,” Ellison said of his predecessor. “He would have been important in any age, including this one. But we live in an environment where it is tougher [to carve out political pork] because there are no longer earmarks, which is a shame. Before they ended, I brought as much home as I could, like gunshot detectors and cameras for the police and the multi-modal transportation units you see now around Target Field.

“But Congress doesn’t work as well if everybody has the same skill set. Along with a Sabo, you need a Wellstone, to key people into what is going on. It’s like to make the cake, you need someone to shake the fruit out of the tree and someone to make the jam. I am more of a Wellstone than I am a Sabo.”

Another lefty model for Ellison to emulate might be Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Originally elected as a Socialist, now officially an Independent who frequently caucuses with the Democrats, Sanders has assumed a position of influence recently on the subject of funding for veterans. His clout is related to his freedom from political parties, the primacy of the issue in light of the recent scandals in the veteran’s hospitals, and the fact that he serves in a congressional body where the Democrats are in the majority.

At this stage in his incumbency, Ellison could probably become more independent from the Democratic Party, but he gives the notion short shrift.

“Back in the 1940s, the sociologists were saying there wasn’t enough differentiation in the parties,” he notes. “Now the ideological divide is probably at an all-time high in how the parties define their belief systems. Having said that, I am a Democrat for a reason. I may disagree on some things — I want to close Guantanamo, have single-payer be more of the health care debate, and don’t like some of our representatives from coal-producing states [running] away from renewable energy. But in terms of deep themes, I am a Democrat.”

But of course the deepest theme in Congress actually unites the parties, and fosters so much of the cynicism Ellison wants to work against — the pervasive influence of money in politics.

“Thank you for making that point,” he says quickly. “I do believe money has a corrosive effect on politics. But I think there is an ideological difference with the parties on that. I think Democrats would abandon the pay-to-play system if they could, but nobody wants to unilaterally disarm. Republicans think that money and freedom are the same thing, so there is a difference.”

Ellison paused, made one of the calculations that must fill his days, another step in his ongoing, intricate dance. “But I can’t deny that we are into the money-getting game the same as the Republicans.”

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