Voters elected a black Democrat as the first Muslim in Congress on Tuesday after a race in which he advocated quick U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and made little mention of his faith.
Keith Ellison, a 43-year-old defense attorney and state representative, was projected to defeat two rivals to succeed retiring Democrat Martin Sabo in a seat that has been held by Democrats since 1963.
Ellison, who converted to Islam as a 19-year-old college student in his native Detroit, won with the help of Muslims among a coalition of liberal, anti-war voters. "We were able to bring in Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists," he said. "We brought in everybody."
Ellison said his race and religion weren't as important as issues such as Iraq and health insurance for all. "We still have 43 million American uninsured. This is a problem for everyone in the United States," he said.
He advocates an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq along with strongly liberal views. While Ellison did not often speak of his faith during the campaign, awareness of his candidacy drew interest from Muslims well beyond the district centered in Minneapolis.
Surprise choice of faithful
A significant community of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis cast their first votes for him in the crowded September primary. Ellison also was the surprise choice of party regulars.
While Muslim Americans make up less than 3 percent of the U.S. population and have largely been a non-factor in terms of political power, get-out-the-vote efforts in several Muslim communities could indicate they may become an emerging force.
Roughly 2 million Muslims are registered U.S. voters, and their ranks increased by tens of thousands in the weeks prior to Tuesday’s mid-term elections, Muslim groups have said.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Islamic militants, Muslim Americans have become sensitized to what many feel is an erosion of their civil rights. U.S. foreign policy that targets Muslim countries also has generated a sense of urgency, experts said.
“(Americans) treat us differently after Sept. 11. My own father was attacked,” said Ellison supporter Khadra Darsame, a 1995 immigrant from Somalia. “Ellison said everybody matters equally and he told us what he would do ... he will do the right thing.”
Born into a Roman Catholic family in Detroit, Ellison said his values were shaped by both faiths, along with his grandfather’s civil rights work in the Deep South.
Opponents focused on Ellison’s sloppy handling of his taxes and a slew of unpaid parking tickets, along with his one-time affiliation with the Nation of Islam, whose leader, Louis Farrakhan, has been criticized for making anti-Semitic remarks. Ellison subsequently said he worked with the group largely to promote the 1995 Million Man March.
Ellison also denounced Farrakhan, and he won the endorsement of a Minneapolis Jewish newspaper.