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City Pages - Keith Ellison on His Vision for America

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By Aaron Rupar

We're running the interview in four parts. Today, we're publishing Ellison's thoughts on his reelection campaign and the Republican challenging him this fall for his Fifth Congressional District seat, Chris Fields. Tomorrow's post features Keith going in-depth about north Minneapolis's problems and how he plans to continue addressing them. Thursday is Keith on the Middle East and free speech, and we'll wrap it up on Friday with Ellison on his overarching political philosophy and future aspirations.

Keith's language has been edited in order to make his logical flow clearer to readers, but the substance of his remarks is all his. Part one of our interview is after the jump.

On whether his congressional seat is "in the bag"

I don't believe in the concept of a safe seat. Oberstar got beat in the Eighth, so we campaign hard. If you look at the primary, I got more votes than any other candidate in the MNGOP or Democratic Party. We campaign as hard as we can. We've also got a lot of interest on the ballot -- [defeating] voter ID and the marriage amendment, so those are two things that [keep me] running like there's no tomorrow.

I believe it's disrespectful to the electorate to act as though you've got it in the bag. We have an apartment [resident outreach] program, a person who does nothing but that. We have a disability director -- if you have a disability, whether it's blindness or some sort of developmental issue, we believe they're an important part of the electorate too.

On what he respects about Chris Fields

I think Chris publicly came out against indefinite detention -- I agree with him about that. I respect Chris's military service. He said we should get troops out of Afghanistan and I agree with that too. We aren't diametrically opposed on every single thing.

On Fields's criticism that he hasn't done enough to alleviate poverty and violence in north Minneapolis, and what he's done to address those issues

I've [set up] numerous job fairs, three just this year alone. Helping to pass Obamacare, expanded health care for everyone -- we have a high percentage of uninsured, a higher concentration on the North Side, and [Obamacare] is going to help a lot of people.

We've expanded Medicare and clinics. [As far as] specific programs, there's the Northside Achievement Zone, I got $400,000 for Summit Academy, [it does] workforce training. The Northside Economic Opportunity Network -- got them $150,000 to help supplement their small business revolving loan zone. Youth violence prevention, $250,000, a gunshot detection system. Squad cars for the police, got $700,000 for them.

And here's the other thing -- I live in north Minneapolis. All four of my children grew up there, went to parks and schools there. Does Chris even know how to find it? Has he walked through it? I can assure you that the people in north Minneapolis know they got a very strong, consistent, reliable advocate in me, and they don't even know who he is. So he can sit back and critique all he wants to. Unemployment and foreclosure -- he says that I haven't fixed it all; I'm saying he hasn't even showed up or anything.

He's got a lot of nerve. Here's the deal -- if you want to just blame me for for the problems of the North Side... does he realize there are churches and mosques that work all the time to alleviate poverty? Does he realize the Minneapolis City Council is working hard? He wants to blame all the problems on the North Side on me? Small-business owners -- we're all trying to make the neighborhood better. We could use help but he doesn't want to give it.

I started my political career representing north Minneapolis in the state Legislature. I've dedicated my life to north Minneapolis, but north Minneapolis had deep systemic problems in 1930.

Have you looked at a zoning map [from then]? It identifies north Minneapolis as a 'negro slum.' There's a reason. At one time, it wasn't that long ago -- the NAACP and Legal Aid sued the city of Minneapolis because of decades of racial steering. The city said, 'you're right, we did it, not us, but people who used to represent this city engaged in that.' And that's how we have Heritage Park today.

Ellison on Fields: "It's incredible that somebody who has never done anything for the Northside can attack somebody who has dedicated their whole life to it."

You know who else doesn't know [about the zoning map]? Chris Fields. Because he has no part in doing good for north Minneapolis. I guarantee you he could walk into the Cub on Broadway and nobody would stop and ask him a thing. You try following me in there and see how long it takes to get Cheerios and a gallon of milk.

I have to admit, nothing Chris Fields says bothers me, but it does get under my skin when he starts saying I haven't done anything for the North Side. It's incredible that somebody who has never done anything for the North Side can attack somebody who has dedicated their whole life to it. The statistics are imbalanced and when we haven't achieved racial justice, I'm a failure.

This man [i.e., Fields] is a 21-year military veteran. He could come to north Minneapolis and give mentoring and offer leadership, and by the way, there's at least two guys who have done just that -- Louis King, he works for Summit Academy, and Sherman Patterson, who works for the mayor and is career military -- two black men who have used their backgrounds to help people, and all Chris can do is tear me down.

He's literally attacking everybody on the North Side. He wants to get after me, but I'm not the only person on the North Side. The City Council, Legislature, school board, whole host of faith groups, businesses, social leaders -- he's saying nothing about them doing anything. I say shame on him, he should be ashamed of himself to say something like that.

At home, his GOP challenger Chris Fields made North Minneapolis' poverty and crime a campaign issue by saying Ellison hasn't done enough for black people, and abroad, Michele Bachmann tried to connect Keith with Islamic extremism by alleging America's first Muslim congressman "has a long record of association with the Muslim Brotherhood."

Part three of our interview (to be published tomorrow) will delve deeper into Ellison's thoughts on radical Islam, but in today's installment, Keith talks about some of the things he thinks Congress can do to help unemployed Northsiders find work, and reveals a bit about his personal relationship with Minnesota's most notorious Republican and critic of Islam.

On what Congress can do alleviate unemployment in North Minneapolis

There's a number of things. One thing, we need to invest in transit, so we can help job seekers get to places where there are jobs. I'm a big-time supporter of Bottineau Commuter Rail, the Southwest Line, Northstar Commuter Rail -- I've funded and worked hard to get Central Corridor, which should be up by 2014, and of course the Hiawatha Line happened while I was still in the legislature. Transit is big --[it] puts people to work, gives minority vendors jobs to work on, and after it's built, helps people get jobs.

We have massive infrastructure needs right here in Minnesota. If Congress invested in infrastructure, we could have Lowry Bridge up and running, the 4th Avenue Bridge, [a] bridge from St. Louis Park to Highway 100... investing and repairing those bridges would put massive numbers of people to work.

I've been an author of an Infrastructure Bank Bill. That's $25 billion we would throw toward public-interest bonds, [and we could] leverage this thing up to about $625 billion nationally, and Minneapolis, the city would take part of all of that.

More than that we need to invest in workplace development. We have a lot of people who aren't working -- well, let's train them. That means investing in the MnSCU system and making college more affordable.

The reason we have this jobs gap is because we have an education gap. So the learning gap and the job gap are related, they're just about 15-20 years apart. About the achievement gap -- well, what if we had universal all-day pre-K and kindergarten and made sure every kid was reading by 3rd grade. That wouldn't solve the problem tomorrow, wouldn't solve the guy looking for a job today but it would help his son's problem.

We need to pass 'ban the box.' [When private sector employers ask people if they have a criminal record], if the answer is yes, then give them a chance to show they've made meaningful changes in their lives and will work a job. Because of incarceration rates, more black people are going to have to mark yes on that box than white people as a percentage of the population. Let's ban the box.

Let's change the criminal justice system and put drug dealing and taking in its proper context. [That involves] more treatment. Let's say that the war on drugs is over. I'm not saying open up the prison doors, I'm saying, we're very wasteful with the most expensive component of the criminal justice system -- a prison cell. We shouldn't be putting 19-year-olds who sell a few rocks in prison for two years, we shouldn't be doing that. We should be rehabbing these people, we should be cutting both demand and supply. If you were to do these things I just recommended, you wouldn't solve the problem tomorrow, but you would make big-time dents.

Now, of course, we still have to convince people that all people are equal without regard to color, we have to make sure minority vendors get an equal shot at taking part in these projects.

Ellison on Michele: "Frankly, she can be very charming."

We're cordial. She recently invited me to get on a bill with her regarding Medicare. I seriously considered it, chose not to, but it wasn't because I don't like her. I don't think it's a good piece of legislation for me to be on.

I can't speak for her. I have no personal animosity toward Michele Bachmann. Her views are often wrong, you know? But, it ain't personal, not at all, and quite frankly, she can be very charming. She's going to ask about your family, she's got a smile on her face. She's not a bad person to be around, but we have diametrically opposed views, you know?

On what he makes of the recent Libya embassy attacks that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

First you have to understand what is actually happening. There were literally millions of people calling for Mubarak to step down. In [the case of the embassy attack], you have hundreds, not millions. What you see is the religious extremists and the regime loyalists engaging in counter-revolutionary activity. That's what it is.

We shouldn't look at this and say, 'Oh my God, what did we do wrong? We're messing up again.' What we should say is, 'we support the democratic movement emerging in the country.' We shouldn't get chased out. They are cooperating, [Libyans] denounced the violence. March 'til the tips of your shoes wear off, but do it peacefully. The U.S. government didn't do any of that, we aren't getting chased out by some counter-offensive.

[The embassy attacks and pro-democracy protestors] aren't the same people. They aren't any more the same than tea partiers and occupiers. A person in a foreign country might see the occupy movement, and see the tea party, and say 'They are all Americans doing this.' They are all Americans but they don't have the same point of view...

And so, we have to understand what we are looking at. We aren't looking at democratic movements, we are looking at extremists and ex-regime loyalists and in the case of Egypt, soccer thugs, yes, soccer thugs. A group called The Ultra, look them up, they are soccer thugs. If there's glass breaking they want to be there, and that's how they are.

This is why what Romney's doing is so bad, because he hasn't taken the time to understand. He would run the risk of alienating people who are truly on our side, on the side of democracy and freedom. In Libya, there are people holding up signs saying they apologize, talking about how much they loved Chris Stevens.

On the civil war in Syria and on how America should be involved, if at all.

The Obama Administration has done a lot in Syria that they don't get credit for. There are reports now and then of the CIA being on the border, but they don't want to be seen neck-deep in another Middle Eastern war.

People like McCain say we have to do more there -- I personally think we need to set up a safe zone on the border of Syria and if the Assad regime breaks the line of the safe zone, it should be defended militarily. It should be for the express purpose of providing medical assistance and refugee help, and we should explicitly say we aren't here to aggress against you.

On the free speech issues raised by the anti-Islam film trailer that sparked last week's Middle East protests and attacks.

Well, let me see that not only is freedom of expression a constitutional right, it's deeply rooted in American history. But other countries don't have that same heritage. They just don't.

I believe that the movie is not in the heartland of what we call political speech. I believe that when we talk about political speech, [we're talking about] people who are making controversial but perhaps legitimate points of view based on their interpretation of some set of facts. This particular movie wasn't in that realm. This was what I would describe as 'incitement.' But, for a democratic society like ours, incitement is kind of a problem.

Ellison ascribes last week's anti-America Middle East unrest to 'religious extremists and regime loyalists.'

Most of the time, political speech, even if wrong or ill-advised, it invites a counter-argument and in the course of the back and forth maybe society learns an even greater truth. The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom, right? I might pull out an idea, maybe it's good, maybe it isn't. 'Maybe blacks should be able to sit anywhere they want on the bus' -- I think that's a fine idea, let's do it. So if you ban somebody because you didn't like it you would foreclose debate and not reach higher truth.

This isn't that type of speech. It is incitement. But, given our constitutional heritage and our culture, we don't have any good way to deal with it. Let's face it, there are people in America who would ban Islam if they could. I'm not joking. So what's the answer? There's only one. The only answer is that people of good will and good faith have to use their constitutional right to free expression to condemn incitement. Trying to craft a bill or statute to ban it is nearly impossible without banning some other type of speech that may be legitimate. I think it's crappy for the guy to have [created the anti-Islam film]. I think it's despicable actually but it's like when people want to burn a Koran.

What legitimate point of view is that? It's like Nazis marching to incite Jews in Skokie. There's no way to stop them from doing it, so I don't think there's any way to have a rule to ban the kind of incitement contained in that movie.

[But] we aren't helpless. Speaking up on a more powerful truth like saying all faiths should be respected, you don't have to like their faith but you shouldn't be openly antagonized. You see Coptic leaders denouncing this film, you see Jews, Christians, Muslim leaders, it's more powerful than just banning.

[It's like Don Imus] calling the Rutgers' women's basketball team 'nappy-headed hos.' It's the right of the private employer to take him off the air, the right of the listeners to demand that the speech was wrong and then [the employer] to say, 'I don't want to be associated with that.' The best thing to do would be with this movie, Koran burning, Nazis marching, is for people to say you have a right to do it but you're wrong.

A lot of foreign leaders don't understand. Nasrallah [leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah] said if [America] was really against the film, you'd ban it. Actually, no, you're wrong about that, but you don't understand this country.

Nasrallah doesn't understand that as a law abiding person he'd be able to practice Islam more freely in American than anywhere else in the world. If you are a Shia Muslim in Saudi Arabia, life is going to be hard. A Sunni in Iran, life is going to be hard. If you want to wear a religious [emblem] in Turkey, tough times. France, they want to ban you from wearing religious symbols. In Switzerland you can't build a mosque with a minaret on it. The thing about it, freedom of speech, it's a good and bad thing. It applies to everybody. Once you start making exceptions, you start the erosion of the principle.

On his political aspirations

I have no political ambitions to go to higher office. I'm not saying I would never do it. I do have ambition. I'd like to build support and strengthen a certain philosophical point of view across America. I'd like to see progressive ideals have a more prominent role in our society, and what I mean by that is I'd like to see millionaires take the attitude that, 'Hey, this is my country. I'm going to give back to my country through taxes and other ways, charitable giving.' I'd like to see us invest in the public wealth of our nation.

In 1964, Goldwater lost in a landslide. Conservatives didn't quit -- in fact, they began to build and strengthen their movement. They had their big victory in 1980 with Ronald Reagan and since that time they've been doing nothing but trying to get rid of government, taxes, regulations, and there hasn't been a progressive answer to that. [My answer is about] infrastructure, affirming the importance of a balanced economy, both with the private sector and public sector working together, not the elimination of the public sector.

I'm ambitious to recapture the American dream. We have a governing philosophy the politics of generosity and inclusion. Everybody counts, everybody matters. You won't see 'Vote for Ellison' on any of my bumper stickers.

We need to create and help grow a wave that will do four things. First, promote the idea that America's awesome military strength and power should be about promoting peace. We shouldn't be messed up in crazy wars again.

Second, we need to promote middle-class and working-class prosperity. That's health care, that's better wages, that's investing in public infrastructure and putting people back to work.

Third, environmental sustainability. Reducing our carbon footprint to zero, living in harmony with the natural world.

Four, we need to do all of those three things on the basis of equality and inclusion, whether black, white, Latino, Asian, gay, straight, born here or abroad, Muslim, Jew, Christian or no faith at all. An American is an American and we embrace each one. That's what I'm ambitious to do.


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