Image: Rep. Keith Ellison
Tom Williams  /  Roll Call via Getty Images
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., talks to a reporter after leaving a Democratic Steering and Policy Committee meeting for committee leadership selections in room HC-5 in the Capitol on Dec. 15.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 2/17/2011 1:06:39 PM ET 2011-02-17T18:06:39

It’s a measure of how ideology matters as much as race that one of America’s most prominent African-American politicians, Rep. Keith Ellison, comes from a congressional district that is 74 percent white.

First elected to the House in 2006 after a stint in the Minnesota legislature, Ellison is also the first Muslim to serve in Congress. He was selected this year as one of theGrio's notable 100 History Makers in the Making for his role in diversifying American politics. "I seldom think about my place in history," Ellison told theGrio last month. "I just serve the best I can."

And so far, he has proven himself far more than an African-American or Muslim spokesman. With his outspoken style and frequent appearances on MSNBC and other cable channels, Ellison has become one of the leading voices for the progressive or liberal view of government.

He has just become the co-chairman of the 83-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, and “already we’ve seen an effect of that. He’s certainly a powerful organizer and somebody who absolutely knows where he stands on the issues,” said Charles Chamberlain, political director of Democracy for America, the advocacy group founded by former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean.

“Strategically he’s got a good understanding of the value of being on offense and the value of fighting as hard as you can for the best of what you want — and then potentially accepting compromise at the end, if necessary, but not starting from the compromise position and negotiating further and further away,” Chamberlain said.

Video: Is Obama allowing the GOP to take control? (on this page)

As for Ellison’s future, Chamberlain said, “Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi was at one point leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. There’s no reason to believe he couldn’t be Speaker Ellison in the future or he might choose to run for Senate.”

Famous oath taking in 2007
Ellison, who was born in Detroit on Aug. 4, 1963, and converted to Islam at age 19, became instantly famous in 2007 by taking his oath of office on a copy of the Koran, one that had belonged to President Thomas Jefferson, which Ellison borrowed from the Library of Congress.

Virgil Goode, then a Republican House member from Virginia, said in 2006 before Ellison was sworn in that, “The Muslim representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”

Video: Rep. Ellison: We need to stand on side of Egyptian people (on this page)

In a gesture of conciliation, Goode and Ellison shook hands on the House floor on the day Ellison took his oath.

Despite his House career beginning with that moment of notoriety, Chamberlain said that Ellison ought not to be pigeonholed as a Muslim politician. “There’s no reason he can’t talk about issues that have nothing to do with being a Muslim,” he said. But he said “he’s wonderful spokesperson and a great role model, someone who can make it clear to Muslim Americans that the sky’s the limit.”

“He has not sought to be a national spokesperson for Muslims, despite many invitations for him to do so,” said Steven Schier, a congressional expert at Carleton College in Minnesota. “He is more focused on representing his district and doing his legislative work, rather than aggressively seeking the national spotlight. He is a contrast to fellow Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann in that regard.”

Safe seat means seniority and influence
Ellison has one of the safest seats in the House since his district, the city of Minneapolis and environs, is one of the nation’s most staunchly Democratic places.  His views are very much in the Minnesota tradition of crusading liberal Democratic senators Eugene McCarthy in the 1960s and Paul Wellstone in the 1990s.

Ellison won his third term last year with 68 percent of the vote. His district voted for President Obama in 2008 with 74 percent. “His district is one of the most liberal in the country, so race was probably a large positive for him as he ran for office.  It has in no way been a political negative for him back home, and is probably a central feature of his appeal there,” said Schier.

Ellison’s safe seat gives him the chance to serve for decades — his predecessor Martin Olav Sabo served for 28 years — and might one day make him chairman of a House committee or help elevate him to a leadership post.

The Dellums precedent
Claremont McKenna College congressional expert John Pitney said one comparison that can be drawn is between Ellison and Ron Dellums, who represented the predominantly white and very liberal Berkeley, Calif. congressional district for 27 years.

Dellums “never moved to the right, he took the route of institutional power and became the chair of Armed Services. Conservatives respected him for his fairness and integrity,” Pitney said.

“Because his party is in the minority, Ellison cannot pass much legislation. For the next couple of years at least, he can do more in the role of gadfly. If Democrats return to the majority at some point, however, he can still follow the Dellums path. Early in Dellums's career, nobody would have predicted that he'd win praise from people like Dick Cheney.”

He has shown a pragmatic streak in balancing advocacy of progressive views with an understanding that often politics is, as Bismarck said, “the art of the possible.”

Defending Obama from left-wing critics
Late last year, for example, he denounced the deal between Obama and GOP leaders that extended the current tax rates for another two years, averting a tax increase on the wealthy that Ellison and many Democrats sought. "Why are we giving it to the most privileged Americans and why aren't we asking everybody to do their fair share in this economy?" he asked.

But he defended Obama against his detractors on the left.

When MSNBC’s Ed Schultz told Ellison in an interview last December that many Democrats thought that Obama’s deal with GOP leaders was “total capitulation" and that "the very tax policy that took us into this ditch is exactly what President Obama and the Democrats are ready to sign on to,” Ellison rebutted that argument.

"It is the Republicans who caused this situation," he told Schultz. "You could say that the Democrats could have played it better, but if you beat on the Democratic president long enough, you’re going to end up with a Republican president. And then you’re going to see real pain."

He added, "I'm not going to be the one to help Republicans get rid of Barack Obama, OK?"

Keeping progressives motivated
In recent months Ellison has made it his mission to keep the left wing of his party motivated and to avert backbiting and malaise. Progressives need to keep fighting for their beliefs, he says, despite their disappointment over not getting all they wanted when Democrats had the House majority.

TheGrio's 100 History Makers in the Making

“We didn’t get a chance to debate single payer,” he told a progressive group in Minnesota recently, referring to the health care bill passed by Congress in 2010. “We should have been in the streets on this.... There should have been 20,000 people in Washington over this.”

But Ellison noted that even after the “public option” — a diluted form of single-payer government health care — was removed from the bill, he still voted for it.

Ellison has argued ever since Obama won the 2008 election that the president’s success would hinge on progressives’ continuing to advocate their agenda, from higher taxes on the wealthy to stricter gun laws to withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

He said early in 2010, “If we take our eye off the ball and think Obama is the problem, we miss a historic opportunity. The problem is apathy, the problem is that we have not organized the majority of people and convinced them we are right about the politics of generosity.... The progressive movement made an Obama presidency possible and the progressive movement needs to keep it in mind that the policies we want Obama to promote are still possible: it all depends on our level of unity, cohesion, and focus.”

Other names in theGrio's 100 include:

  • Don Peebles, one of the most successful Real Estate entrepreneurs in the nation.
  • Donald Glover, a comedian and "Community" star.
  • Janelle Monae, a singer and songwriter.
  • Donya Douglas, a NASA engineer with areas of expertise including research and development of two-phase thermal control devices for spacecraft.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: Is Obama allowing the GOP to take control?

  1. Closed captioning of: Is Obama allowing the GOP to take control?

    >>> and in psycho talk tonight , one of my favorites, we have more proof liz cheney doesn't know what the heck she's talking about. on fox news sunday shooter jr. had this to say about the way president obama has handled the war in afghanistan .

    >> you know, what i'd like to see, because i do believe that setting a 2011 dethe effort in terms of convincing people that we're committed to be there to win. i'd like to see the president repudiate it, see him say, let's be clear, we are going to make our decisions based on conditions on the ground, not based on dates we set back here in washington.

    >> uh, liz, hello? i recommend that you get out of that fox news bubble and actually listen to the president every now and then. if you did, you would know that president obama and general petraeus have both repeatedly said, decisions in afghanistan will be based on conditions on the ground.

    >> just as we have done in iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.

    >> this is not a date when the united states races for the exits and turns off the light switch. it is a date at which a process begins that is based on conditions. the responsible drawdown of the u.s. forces with the pace of both the transition of tasks and the drawdown of forces to be based on conditions on the ground.

    >> the pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground.

    >> well, of course, ? liz is on the correct network when it comes to lying about president obama . chris wallace didn't bother to mention that she was wrong, but i'm not going to let her get away with it. she was way off base. attacking president obama like this is seriously uninformed psycho talk.

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