Keith Ellison

Keith Maurice Ellison
(born August 4, 1963) is an American lawyerpolitician, and a Democrat. He became the first Muslim[1][2] to be elected to the United States Congress when he won the open seat for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, which centers on Minneapolis, in the House of Representatives in 2006. He is also the first African American elected to the House from Minnesota, currently serving in the111th United States Congress.[3] Ellison is also active on a national level in advocacy for Muslims in the United States.[4][5][6][7]


Keith Ellison, the third of five sons, was born and raised a Roman Catholic[8] in Detroit, Michigan by his parents Clida (née Martinez) and Leonard Ellison, a social worker and apsychiatrist respectively.[2][9][10] Ellison and three of his siblings became lawyers while the other became a doctor. One of his brothers is also the pastor of the Baptist “Church of the New Covenant” in Detroit.[9] Ellison’s youth was influenced by the involvement of his family in the civil rights movement, including the work of his grandfather as a member of the NAACPin Louisiana.[2]

He graduated from the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy in 1981 where he had been active in sports and the student senate.[9][11] At age 19, while attending Wayne State University in Detroit, Ellison converted from Catholicism to Islam.[12][13][14] After graduating with a B.A. in economics in 1987, he married his high school sweetheart[8] and moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota Law School. While attending law school, Ellison wrote several articles in support of Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, which caused controversy in his 2006 election campaign (see below). In 1990 he graduated with a degree of Juris Doctor.[15][16]

Ellison and his wife Kim, a high school mathematics teacher,[17] have four children born between 1989 and 1997.[18] They have a daughter, Amirah; and three sons, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Isaiah.[17] Kim is not a Muslim, but their four children have been raised in that faith.[19] During Ellison’s 2006 campaign, Kim Ellison revealed that she has been living with “moderate”multiple sclerosis for several years.[20]

After law school Ellison worked with the firm of Lindquist & Vennum for three years where he was a litigator specializing in civil rights, employment, and criminal defense law.[15][18]Ellison then became executive director of the nonprofit Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis that specialized in the defense of indigent clients.[18] Upon leaving the Legal Rights Center, Ellison entered private practice with the law firm Hassan & Reed Ltd, specializing in trial practice.[21]

In addition to his work for the Legal Rights Center, Ellison has also been regularly involved in community service. He served as the unpaid host of a public affairs talk program at KMOJradio.[18] He has also often volunteered as a track coach for several organizations, working with youth between the ages of 5 and 18. He said, “It’s a great community-building device because it’s for all ages and all genders. Everyone can find a way to fit in.”[18]

Minnesota legislative record

83rd Minnesota Legislative Session

In Nov. 2002, Ellison was elected to his first public office, as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives serving House District 58B. At the time he took his seat, his party was the smallest House minority in Minnesota history.[22] During this session, Ellison was appointed to the Governmental Operations & Veterans Affairs Policy Committee, the Judiciary Policy & Finance Committee and the Local Government & Metropolitan Affairs Committee. In this session he spearheaded an ethics complaint against Rep. Arlon Lindner concerning remarks about homosexuals in the Holocaust.

84th Minnesota Legislative Session

Ellison carried 84% of the votes and was re-elected to the seat for Minnesota’s House District 58B in the 2004 election. He began to serve in the 84th Minnesota Legislative Session (1/4/2005 to 1/2/2007). During the 84th session, Ellison served on the Civil Law & Elections Committee, and the Public Safety Policy & Finance Committee. With his ascent to the national Legislature, Ellison’s seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives was filled by Augustine Willie Dominguez, a Latino community activist and fellow member of the DFL.[23]

House of Representatives

2006 campaign

Ellison’s House seat was previously held by Martin Olav Sabo, whose announcement of his intention to retire precipitated Ellison’s candidacy. The 5th district is one of eight congressional districts in Minnesota.[23]

At the DFL Convention on May 6, 2006, Ellison won the party endorsement over 9 other candidates, leading 2-to-1 on the first ballot, and winning endorsement on the 4th ballot.

In the primary, Ellison faced former state senator Ember Reichgott Junge, Minneapolis city council member Paul Ostrow, and Sabo’s chief of staff Mike Erlandson, whom Sabo had endorsed. Ellison won the primary on September 12, 2006, with 41% of the vote.[24]

In the November 2006 election, Ellison faced Republican Alan Fine, the Green Party‘s Jay Pond, and Tammy Lee of the Independence Party. Ellison won the seat with 56% of the vote.[25][26] However, the 5th is so heavily Democratic (it has been in DFL hands since 1963) that it was generally understood Ellison had assured himself of victory by winning the primary. Ellison is only the fourth person to represent the district since 1943.

2008 campaign

Ellison faced prison chaplain Barb Davis White in the November election and won handily. He was overwhelmingly favored for a second term, given the district’s heavy Democratic tilt.

Ellison eceived three times as much money from individuals as he has from PACs ($541,079 v. $166,855). Ellison has received twice as much money from out-of-state donors than in-state donors ($223,117 v. $79,819) and received more in contributions from health care industry donors this year than from any other economic sector. Ellison has received slightly more money from labor PACs than business PACs in the 2008 election cycle. Of the 10-member Minnesota delegation, Ellison ranked seventh in the amount of earmarked dollars he secured.[27]

Congressional career


On Dec. 1, 2006, Ellison announced he had hired Kari Moe as his chief of staff. She had previously served in the same position for the late Minnesota U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone.[28]Ellison later announced that Brian Elliott (previously of the Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota) would serve as his district director, and Trayshana Thomas (who worked with Ellison in his legal practice and throughout all stages of his political career) was made his district scheduler.[29]


Ellison was appointed to the Financial Services Committee. He said he intends to focus on wages and housing for “relief and justice for the middle class”.[30] He will be joined on this committee by fellow Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R).[31]

On January 10, 2007, Ellison was appointed to the Judiciary Committee[32] by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). This is a position he “had lobbied for” and he called his appointment “an honor and a privilege”.[31] He spoke of his goals for this appointment, “I look forward to pursuing a progressive agenda in the committee, including the restoration of American citizens’ civil liberties that have come under increasing attack over the past six years.”[31] Other issues he intends to focus on while in this post are “community-oriented policing efforts, immigration, intellectual property rights and privacy concerns including the Internet.”[31]

Because of Ellison’s campaign position calling for an investigation for the impeachment of President George W. Bush, his appointment to the Judiciary Committee (which has jurisdiction on these matters) was hailed by those seeking to have the president impeached.[33]

Committee assignments


Votes with party in 100-Hour Plan

In his first week as a congressman, Ellison voted with the majority of other Democrats to raise the minimum wage, voted for stem cellresearch, and voted to allow Medicare to negotiate pharmaceutical prices.

Opposition to increasing troop levels

Ellison joined fellow Minnesota freshman Democrat Tim Walz in opposing President George W. Bush‘s plan to increase troop levels in Iraq.[35]On January 10, 2007, Bush announced his plans for the Iraq War troop surge of 2007. The gist of this announcement had been known around the Capitol for over a week, and when the Associated Press asked Ellison for his reaction to the idea on January 8, 2007, he stated that it was “way too late, way too little …So rather than do something small and ineffective, why not get about the business of what we’re going to have to do eventually, which is to begin to end the occupation?”[36] Ellison called for an immediate withdrawal in Iraq: “We could describe it as a redeployment or withdrawal, but I think we have run the course in terms of our ability to resolve this conflict militarily. I think we need to have a political and economic and diplomatic engagement, and we need to encourage the forces that are in Iraq to begin to resolve the violence in Iraq.”[36] When asked if he would support Bush’s call for an additional $100 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ellison said, “I want to see [the request] first, I want to actually look at it, but I’m not inclined to continue to support a war or an occupation that he has no plans to get us out of, and which is so costly in terms of dollars and lives of American soldiers but also Iraqis.”[36] The White House, when asked for a reaction to the comments, referred to a previous statement by press secretary Tony Snow: “Democrats will have to decide where they stand on two issues: ‘No. 1, do you want Iraq to succeed, and, if so, what does that mean? And, No. 2, do you believe in supporting the troops as you say, and how do you express that support?’”[36]

Iraq War military funding vote

After Bush vetoed HR 1591 that provided military funding for the Iraq War because it contained timetables for withdrawal, Ellison and fellow Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum joined with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top House Democrats in voting “no” to HR 2206 that provided the funding without any timetables. The bill passed the House on a 280 to 142 margin

Credit reform

On May 3, 2007, Ellison introduced a bill to outlaw universal default, the practice whereby credit card companies raise interest rates on customers if they are behind on payments to any other creditors. The bill was also supported by House Financial Services Committee chairman Rep. Barney Frank. Ellison, who described the bill as “the beginning of a whole credit reform effort we’re going to be pursuing,” also announced his interest in limiting high interest rates on credit cards and easing the process for those who have a legitimate need to filebankruptcy.

Obama endorsement

On Feb. 20, 2007, Ellison endorsed the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama saying, “He speaks with a unifying spirit.” He said he supports “Obama’s message of an open and fair economy, a balanced prosperity and clear opposition to the war in Iraq.” When asked about Hillary Clinton, he promised he would support whomever won the Democratic nomination, and felt that at that stage of the campaign Obama would “keep her honest”.[39][40]

Bill to impeach Cheney

On June 28, 2007, Ellison became a cosponsor with Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Other Democratic representatives sponsoring the bill were William Clay (MO), Janice Schakowsky (IL), Albert Russell Wynn (MD), Yvette Clarke (NY), Hank Johnson (GA), and California’s Barbara Lee,Lynn Woolsey and Maxine Waters. Ellison’s spokesperson said the effort was “largely to send a message” and the representative “has no illusions that this is going anywhere and that’s fine. We’ve got more important things to do that affect people’s daily lives. He basically signed on out of principle, as an expression of the importance of the rule of law — that nobody is above the law, not even the vice president.

Critique of Bush administration policies

On July 8, 2007, Ellison gave a speech in Edina, Minnesota, where he denounced Bush’s commutation of Lewis Libby‘s sentence: “If Libby gets pardoned, then he should not have the cover of the Fifth Amendment. He’s going to have to come clean and tell the truth. Now, he could get Gonzales-itis [referring to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales], you know, with 71 lapses of memory within a two-hour period.”[42] He also criticized Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives saying, “This is basically the Department of Religious Outreach … . It’s essentially a public-relations outreach arm for the Bush administration to reach out to the far right of the evangelical Christian movement. That’s really all it is.”

Votes for contempt citations

On July 25, 2007, Ellison joined fellow Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee in voting 22-17 to issue citations of Contempt of Congress to White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers for “failure to comply with subpoenas on the firings of several federal prosecutors“.[43] When asked about the president’s offer to allow them to testify in private and without a transcript, Ellison stated, “That won’t do. There’s no point of accountability. They have to be sworn. These kind of measures are necessary to ensure that truth-telling occurs.”[43] Having passed the Committee the citations moved on to be voted upon by the full House.

Criticism of China’s human rights policies

According to, “U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison has become the first Minnesota elected official to step forward and address the connections between the Summer Olympics and China’s foreign policy and domestic human rights policies. The Democratic 5th District congressman issued a remarkably strong statement Friday March 21, 2008 that broadly criticized the Chinese government for its Tibet policy and for its relationship with Sudan’s leaders ‘as they commit genocide on the citizens of Darfur.

Hardship and genocide in Darfur

Ellison was arrested along with seven other people including U.S. Representatives James McGovernJohn LewisDonna EdwardsLynn Woolsey for civil disobedience in April 2009 when they spoke at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. to protest that the president of SudanOmar al-Bashir, had asked international aid groups bringing food, health care and water, to leave Darfur.

Travels abroad

Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories

In late March and early April 2007 Ellison was a member of a congressional delegation on a “fact-finding trip to the Middle East.”[46] The group included Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA),Tom Lantos (D-CA), Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Dave Hobson (R-OH) and was led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The delegation visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall. Ellison called his visit to Islam’s third-holiest site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as “personally moving”.[47][48] The group met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and discussed the peace plan devised by the Saudis in 2002.[47] The delegation also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Pelosi also addressed the Israeli Knesset. The group’s visit to Syria was criticized by the Bush administration, which restated its view that the United States should not have diplomatic relations with state sponsors of terrorism.[46]While there the delegation conveyed a message from Olmert to Syrian President Bashar Assad that “Israel is interested in peace if Damascus stops supporting terrorism”.[47] In Lebanonthe group met with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Speaker Nabih Berri. They also visited the grave of Rafik Hariri and met with his son Saad Hariri.[49] In Saudi Arabia the group spoke to King Abdullah and his Shura Council.[50] They praised his peace plan and advocated a greater role for women in his nation’s political process. Ellison’s inclusion in the delegation was praised by council member Abdul-Rahman al-Zamel.[49][50] Ellison called the king a “visionary leader” and that “Even being in the same country where Mecca and Medina are located was personally uplifting for me.”[48] Ellison also said he hoped his presence as a Muslim among the delegation conveyed a message to the Israelis and Palestinians that “people can come together. Reconciliation is possible.”[46] He also said he was there to learn and did not consider himself qualified to mediate in the conflict.[47]


On July 28 and 29, 2007, Ellison was among an “all-freshman bipartisan congressional delegation” visiting Iraq, arranged by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and led by Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA).[51][52] Before the trip Ellison told reporters that he would be stopping over in Germany to visit wounded U.S. soldiers being treated there.[51] He also stated that he respected any politician who visited Iraq, making note of Republican Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (who went February 10–11, 2007, with five other governors[53]).[51] Ellison said, “If this country is going to ask these young people to stand in a war zone, their political leadership should visit them.”[51] In Iraq the delegation met with Iraqi and U.S. military officials, including Gen. David Petraeus.[52] The group in flak vests and helmets visited Ramadi in the Anbar province. Ellison noted “we did see people walking around the streets of Ramadi, going back and forth to the market.”[52] He also noted that he was impressed that Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin, U.S. commander in the Anbar province, greeted people with “as-salama aleikum. And they would respond back with smiles and waves. I don’t want to overplay it. There were no flowers. There was no clapping. There was no parade. But there was a general level of respect and calm that I thought was good. The success in Ramadi is not just because of bombs and bullets, but because the U.S. and Iraqi military and the Iraqi police are partnering with the tribal leadership and the religious leadership. So they’re not trying to just bomb people into submission. What they’re doing is respecting the people, giving the people some control over their own lives.”[52] While in Ramadi, Ellison met “with two sheiks, who oversee several hundred thousand congregants.”[52] Ellison told reporters that “They were very upset and concerned that al-Qaeda is misrepresenting Islam. And they were talking to me about what I can possibly do to work with them to give a clearer, more accurate picture of what Islam is all about.”[52] Ellison, who assists the State Department’s “outreach effort aimed at improving the image of the U.S. in the Muslim world” told them he would help any way he could.[52]Ellison said that local leaders in Ramadi told him of how they “partnered with U.S. and Iraqi military officials to virtually rid al-Qaeda from the city. There have been fewer anti-U.S. sermons as the violence has been reduced and religious leaders meet regularly with U.S. military officials.”[52] After the trip, Ellison stated that he was still certain “it was a mistake for the U.S. to invade Iraq. But there are 150,000 American soldiers there now, and I care very deeply about them. I also care about the Iraqi people. I don’t want to see them suffer.”[52]

Second trip to Israel

Soon after returning home from his trip to Iraq, Ellison joined with 19 other Congress members (mostly freshmen Democrats) on a week-long trip to Israel sponsored by the America Israel Education Federation. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) led the group and personally invited Ellison to join them for a stay from August 12–18, 2007.[54] The group met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Ellison’s spokesperson told reporters that the trip was “a natural extension of his visit to Iraq” and that “the Middle East peace issue is important to the diverse communities of his Minneapolis-area district — from the Jewish Community Relations Council to the patrons of the Holy Land Middle Eastern eatery on Lake Street and Central Avenue. He hears about it every time he goes back to his district.” The group traveled to JerusalemTel Aviv, the northern Galileeregion, and Ramallah, and viewed the Israeli border with Lebanon.[54]

During this trip, Ellison stated that Israel did not permit him to travel to Gaza, where a conflict was occurring.[55] In a 2009 interview with reporter Shihab Rattansi, Ellison expressed his disappointment at his inability to see the humanitarian situation for himself. In the same interview, he called for a more open discussion on Gaza, stating: “The people who have a strong sympathy for the Israeli position… dominate the conversation. And it’s really not politically safe to say, look, there are two sides to this, and Israel has not been a angel in this, and certainly there have been people on the Palestinian side who have not contributed to a constructive solution.”[55]

Visit to Gaza

On February 19, 2009, Ellison, together with fellow congressman Brian Baird, (D-WA-03), visited Gaza to view firsthand the destruction from recent Israeli air and ground attacks and to meet with international and local relief agencies. Others in the visit included Senator John Kerry (D-MA). This visit, which did not have the official sanction of the Obama Administration, is the first time anyone from the U.S. government has entered Gaza in more than three years.[56] Ellison had this to say about Gaza;

The stories about the children affected me the most. No parent, or anyone who cares for kids, can remain unmoved by what Brian and I saw here.

Advocacy for American Muslims

With his victory to the United States House of Representatives Ellison became the first Muslim elected to the Federal Government and the highest Muslim elected official in the United States. Ellison joins State Del. Saqib Ali (D-MD), State Senator Larry Shaw (D-NC), State Rep. Saghir “Saggy” Tahir (R-NH) and Congressman André Carson (D-IN) as the known elected Muslim officials in the United States of America as of 2008.[57] Ellison’s election has been seen as inspirational to American Muslims, encouraging civic empowerment through participation in the political process.[58][59] Ellison generally “downplayed the role of religion in his drive for office,”[60] but since his 2006 election he has become active in advocacy for Islamic causes on a national level.

North American Imams’ Federation

On November 18, 2006 Ellison gave a speech called “Imams and Politics” to the Fourth Annual Body Meeting of the North American Imams’ Federation.[61] The Federation’s materials presented the issues to be outlined in Ellison’s speech as follows: “Many Muslims around the United States are involved in political activities at different levels. Recognizing the sensitivity of political issues and the potential for divisiveness within the communities as a result of divergent political views, Imams must be able to provide Muslims with the proper guidance and educate them on the etiquettes of any political involvement within the Islamic context. Questions also arise on whether Imams and Islamic centers should be involved in politics at all and what the extent of this involvement should be, therefore Imams should have the ability to address these concerns. Overall, it is important that Imams are aware and understand the general political climate of their communities and be especially conversant with the issues that affect Muslims.”[61] Ellison also took part in “Community Night” with Imam Siraj Wahhaj, and Imam Dr. Omar Shahin. This was “for Imams to meet and interact with community members.”[61] Some of the participants of this meeting became involved in the Flying Imams controversy after being removed from an Arizona bound plane for concerning behavior.[62] Ellison became involved in this controversy shortly after it erupted when he attempted to arrange a meeting between parties including US Airways executives, the Metropolitan Airports Commission, and other legislators and community members.[63]

MOSES interfaith group

On December 27, Ellison spoke at a meeting in Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Detroit for Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES). The meeting was with leaders from the Catholic, Muslim, and Arab-American communities, along with members of the organized labor movement. He told those in attendance that the principles of Islam guide his life, but he has no intention of imposing his faith on others, “I’m not a religious leader, I’ve never led religious services of any kind. I’m not here to be a preacher, but in terms of political agenda items, my faith informs me.” He addressed the Quran Oath controversy of the 110th United States Congress and said that “religion should be something that unites, rather than divide people…’They’ve never actually tried to explore how religion should connect us, they’re into how religion divides us. …They haven’t really explored…how my faith connects me to you.

ISNA luncheon speaker

Ellison was listed as the keynote speaker for the Community Service Recognition Luncheon on September 1, 2007 during the Islamic Society of North America 2007 annual convention

Promoting US with the State Department

Two months after taking office Ellison met “with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top State Department officials to talk about showcasing his story as part of their public diplomacy efforts in the Muslim world.”[68] According to the Star Tribune, Ellison was “profiled three times by the State Department’s overseas press bureau.” He also “did a Voice of America interview from his office, where an American flag was placed conspicuously behind his desk for the cameras.”[68] In the interview which was set to play in the Middle East and South Asia, Ellison stressed global inclusiveness and quoted verse 49:13 of the Qur’an “Oh humanity, we created you from a single pair…”[68] Ellison also accepted the Bush administrations request to be part of a “teleconference with Karen Hughes, the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy. The White House has asked that the teleconference promote American values and confront ideological support for terrorism around the world.”[68] The Voice of America’s Faiz Rehman, (“a Pakistani native and senior political producer”[68]) applauded Ellison’s cooperation saying “He is the most famous freshman congressman in the world.”[68] It was noted that after he took his oath of office he was surrounded by the foreign press, intrigued in part by the oath controversy, who “had to be ushered out of his office after he took his oath to make room for home-state news crews.”[68] Ellison has been “featured in a series of articles written for foreign dissemination by the Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.”[68] Including an article that was translated into Persian and Arabic that “highlighted the diversity of his constituents in Minnesota, ranging from Swedes and Norwegians to ‘the largest Somali immigrant community in America.'”[68] In his work in cooperation with the state department, Ellison stresses the religious freedom available in the US, saying things like “Religious tolerance has a much longer pedigree in America than some of the intolerance we’ve seen lately.”[68] Even in his work with the State Department he remained critical of President Bush’s Iraq policy saying “he wants people around the world to know that ‘there are many Americans who want to relate to the rest of the world in terms of cooperation, not military domination.'”[68] Ellison staffers told reporters that “the State Department has shown no signs of squeamishness about publicizing his criticism of the war.”[68] When asked about working with elements of the Bush administration Ellison said “Hey, my country first. We can work out our political differences later. I’ve said I’m willing to do whatever I can to make some friends for America.”[68]

Issues and controversies

Farrakhan and Nation of Islam ties

While a law student in 1989 and 1990, Ellison wrote several columns as Keith E. Hakim in the student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. In the articles, he defended Louis Farrakhanagainst accusations of antisemitism, and suggested that affirmative action served as a “sneaky” way of paying reparations to African Americans for slavery.[69][70][71] In another article, he purportedly suggested the creation of a separate state for black residents.[72][73]

In 1997, when Joanne Jackson, executive director of the Minneapolis Initiative Against Racism (MIAR), allegedly said that, “Jews are among the most racist white people”, Ellison, using his religious name Mohammed, read a statement supporting her on behalf of the The Minneapolis-St. Paul Study Group of the Nations of Islam.[70][74] Ellison later suggested that he used the controversy to “[speak] out in favor of increased dialogue between the Jewish and African-American communities.” In 1998, during his Minnesota State Legislature House campaign, Ellison asserted that he “rejected anti-Jewish attitudes”.[75]

Questions about Ellison’s involvement with the Nation of Islam arose during his 2006 campaign. After winning the Democratic party nomination in May, he wrote a letter to the local Jewish Community Relations Council where he reportedly “asserted that his involvement with the Nation of Islam had been limited to an 18-month period around the time of the Million Man March in 1995, that he had been unfamiliar with the Nation of Islam’s anti-Semitic views during his involvement with the group, and that he himself had never expressed such views.”[70][76] He also stated that he was never a member of the Nation of Islam, but only worked with it to organize the Minnesota contingent to the Million Man March,[69][70] and has insisted he is a Sunni Muslim.[77][78]

In Ellison’s letter, he denounced the Nation of Islam and Farrakhan, writing “I wrongly dismissed concerns that they [Farrakhan’s remarks] were anti-Semitic. They were and are anti-Semitic and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did.”[79] He explained his previous views, saying that he, “did not adequately scrutinize the positions and statements of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, and Khalid Muhammed.” He also stated that “any kind of discrimination and hate are wrong. This has always been my position”.

CAIR campaign contributions

During the 2006 election Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and James Yee, the former Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, spoke at an August 25 fundraiser for Ellison.[69][80] According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune Ellison accepted thousands of dollars from Nihad Awad and another leader of CAIR; Ellison responded that he had fully disclosed all contributions and asserted that he had “nothing to hide”.[81] Ellison stressed that he was supported by individuals, and that the organization CAIR itself did not endorse him.[82] His Republican opponent in the race, Alan Fine, criticized Ellison for accepting these contributions. Fine said that CAIR was “a group that Democrats say has deep ties to terrorism”.[83] The Fine campaign quoted Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) alleging CAIR’s “ties to terrorism” and “its association with groups that are suspect.” Many conservatives and Jewish groups claim CAIR is rooted in the Hamas movement and that its leaders also secretly support Hezbollah in Lebanon. Fine went so far as to say “CAIR is to Muslims as the Ku Klux Klan is to Christians.”[84] During the 2006 election Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee also accused CAIR of having secret ties to Hamas.[85] CAIR director Nihad Awad has known Ellison since they both attended the University of Minnesota.[9][84]

In response to Ellison’s opponents, CAIR leaders Parvez Ahmed and Nihad Awad wrote “We are proud of our personal donations to Ellison’s campaign” and derided any ‘guilt by association’ arguments.[86] During this time the “Not in the Name of Islam” paid advertisement began appearing on Minnesota television channels for the first time, with Communications Director of CAIR, Florida Ahmed Bedier, coordinating the ad campaign.

During October 2006, Ellison traveled to Florida on a fundraising tour that “included a party hosted by Altaf Ali, CAIR’s state director there”.[85][87] The party had a suggested donation of $100.[88] Since winning the 2006 election, Ellison and CAIR have continued their association.(see above)

Campaign finance violations

Campaign finance has also been an issue for Ellison. In early 2006, the Minnesota State Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board reprimanded Ellison for unreported contributions, discrepancies in cash balances, and misclassified disbursements. These transgressions occurred in the years 2002–2004. In 2005 when the board tried to get more information about the problems in Ellison’s reports, they got no response from Ellison or his treasurer (his wife Kim). When the board heard nothing, they opened the investigation. Ellison was subpoenaed and fined.[89][90] The board has also fined Ellison numerous times for late filings[91] been sued twice by the attorney general, and has been warned many times for absent or incomplete disclosure.

Nonpayment of fines and taxes

Ellison’s license to drive an automobile has been suspended multiple times for failure to pay tickets and fines. When asked in 2006 how many times his license has been suspended, he said, “I don’t know how many prior suspensions I’ve had; I don’t keep count.”[76]

Ellison also failed to pay all or part of his income taxes in five separate years between 1992 and 2000, forcing the state and Internal Revenue Service to put liens on his home. He later paid in excess of $18,000.

CNN interview with Glenn Beck

On November 14, 2006, Glenn Beck of CNN Headline News[95] said to Ellison, “I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’ And I know you’re not. I’m not accusing you of being an enemy, but that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.” Ellison replied that his constituents, “know that I have a deep love and affection for my country. There’s no one who’s more patriotic than I am, and so you know, I don’t need to — need to prove my patriotic stripes.”

When asked by Beck about his opinion on “Muslim extremists” Ellison replied, “They’re criminals. But I think that people who commit criminal acts should be treated like criminals, regardless of their faith.”[95] Ellison has also said, “Osama bin Laden no more represents Islam than Timothy McVeigh represented Christianity.”[96]

Asked about the incident later, Ellison dismissed it, “It’s just shock TV. Some pundits think they have to ask the most outrageous questions.”[97] On January 2, 2007, Beck said on hisradio program that Ellison did not take offense at the comments and the two had a friendly chat off the air. On January 9, 2007, at the Television Critics Association’s semiannual press tour, Beck said it was “Quite possibly the poorest-worded question of all time.” He clarified by saying, “My point to Keith Ellison … is the same point that I make to my own faith, and that is — you must stand up before things get out of control … And it’s important for people of all faiths, when someone is hijacking their religion, to stand and say, ‘That is not what we do. That is not who we are.

Quran Oath Controversy of the 110th United States Congress

Because Ellison stated an intent to use the Quran instead of a Bible at his photo-op reenactment of the swearing in ceremony (the official ceremony is done en masse without any books), Conservative columnist Dennis Prager wrote a column criticizing him.[99] This drew responses from organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), theAmerican Family Association, and the Anti-Defamation League.

Fifth-term Rep. Virgil Goode (RVA), responding to “scores and hundreds of emails”[100] from his constituents after the Prager articles, has also stated his view that Ellison’s decision to use the Quran is a threat to “the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America”.[101] He also wrote, “…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 Quran.”

CNN reported that on the January 4, 2007 (the opening day of Congress), Ellison met Goode on the House floor to shake hands and Goode accepted an offer to talk over coffee.[102]

That same day during his oath reenactment, Ellison used a two volume Quran published in London in 1764 that was once owned by Thomas Jefferson[103] and loaned to Ellison by “the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress“.[104] According to Ellison, “It demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleaned from any number of sources, including the Quran.”[105] Historian Kevin J. Hayes in his book How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur’an explains that Jefferson purchased the book in 1765 while studying for the bar exam to become a lawyer (when he began questioning British Common Law after the Stamp Act Crisis).[106]

President Barack Obama in an address to nations with a majority Muslim population made in CairoEgypt on June 4, 2009 cited this event as an example of the continual positive impact Muslims have had on America, saying, “And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Quran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.”[107]

Comments: Reichstag fire and 9/11

On July 8, 2007, Ellison discussed the power of the executive branch in the US currently in a speech before the organization Atheists for Human Rights. He stated that Dick Cheneyasserts it is “beneath his dignity in order for him to answer any questions from the citizens of the United States. That is the very definition of totalitarianismauthoritarianism anddictatorship.”[108] He went on to say, “It’s almost like the Reichstag fire, kind of reminds me of that. After the Reichstag was burned, they blamed the Communists for it and it put the leader of that country [Hitler] in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted. The fact is that I’m not saying [Sept. 11] was a [U.S.] plan, or anything like that because, you know, that’s how they put you in the nut-ball box — dismiss you.”[108]

Fox News picked up the story[109] and their commentator John Gibson categorized Ellison’s comments as accusing “Bush of planning and executing the 9/11 attacks”.[110] In the Congress Reps. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Zach Wamp (R-TN) wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanding she “swiftly and immediately” reprimand Ellison for his remarks.[111] The letter said “Even if Ellison asserts that he was not implying that 9/11 was orchestrated by the administration, the comparison he draws between Hitler and the president of United States is disgraceful. These comments inflame hatred and division at a time when we should be promoting our unity and reconciliation.”[111][112] The Anti-Defamation League also stated “Whatever his views may be on the administration’s response to 9/11 and the conduct of the war on terrorism, likening it to Hitler’s rise to power and Nazism is odious and demeans the victims of 9/11 and the brave American men and women engaged in the war on terror. Furthermore, it demonstrates a profound lack of understanding about the horrors that Hitler and his Nazi regime perpetrated.”[111]

When later questioned about his comments, Ellison told a reporter that Osama bin Laden, and not the Bush administration, was responsible for the attacks.[113] Ellison also said, “In the aftermath of a tragedy, space is opened up for governments to take action that they could not have achieved before that.” He pointed to the Iraq War and provisions granting greater arrest and surveillance powers within the USA PATRIOT Act as examples.[114] Ellison also “In response to a question, I stated that the Bush Administration exploited post-9/11 fears to advance a policy agenda that has undermined our civil liberties. I stand by this statement. …I want to be clear that the murderous Nazi regime is historically distinct and the horror of theHolocaust must be acknowledged as a unique event in human history. I did not intend any direct comparison between the totalitarian state of Nazi Germany and the current administration. I have taken consistent and strong stands against Holocaust denial throughout my life in public service.

Sali remarks

Rep. Bill Sali (R-ID) drew criticism for his comments in an August 8, 2007 interview with the conservative Christian-based American Family News Network. Sali, an outspoken Evangelical Christian, denounced the Senate leadership for allowing a Hindu to lead the opening prayer. He held that invoking a non-Christian god in the Senate threatened to endanger America by removing “the protective hand of God.”[115] He then went on to say “We have not only a Hindu prayer being offered in the Senate, we have a Muslim member of the House of Representatives now, Keith Ellison from Minnesota. Those are changes and they are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers. The principles that this country was built on, that have made it great over these centuries, were Christian principles derived from Scripture. You know the Lord can make the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike.” Former Idaho Democratic congressman Richard Stallings, among others, demanded that Sali either apologize or resign. In response Sali sent Ellison an e-mail saying he “meant no offense.”[116] At the time Ellison was in Iraq with a congressional delegation, his spokesperson said “The congressman just doesn’t respond to comments like that.”[117] Sali stressed to reporters that he was not calling for Ellison to be removed, “He got elected the same way I did. People certainly have the right to elect anyone they want.”[117] Sali defended his claim about America’s founding principles, saying, “The idea that somehow we can move to multiculturalism and still remain the same — I think that’s a little dangerous, too. From my standpoint, I believe the Founding Fathers were overwhelmingly Christian and the God they were talking about is the God of the Bible.”[117] When asked about his policy discussions with those of other faiths he stated, “I would say, ‘These are principles that I think are important,’ and if he agrees with those, great. At the end of the game, maybe it does get down to religious beliefs and how they impact how you make public policy.”[117] It has been noted in a New York Sun editorial that claims dogging Ellison that the founders of the US did not anticipate Muslim legislators are incorrect.[118] The specific subject was brought up in many of the State conventions to ratify the Constitution, including remarks by William Lancaster in the North Carolina Ratifying Convention in 1788.

New York Daily News & SITE Institute

After the 2006 election, the New York Daily News published an article describing comments participants in Jihadist chat rooms made about Ellison and his election victory. The Newsbased their article on a report from the SITE Institute, a non-profit organization that monitors chat rooms frequented by terrorist supporters and sympathizers.[120][121] According to theDaily News, messages were found in two jihadi chat rooms, including Al-Hesbah, which is “solidly tied to Al Qaeda Central, Bin Laden’s network,” and where many “Al Qaeda communiques” were first released. Participants in chat rooms called Ellison, “the first Jewish Muslim that goes to Congress”, a “fool” trying to “deceive us,” and “one of them, [a] one-way ticket to Hell.” Another characterized the election as “a comedy”. One said, “My God, if you have 1 billion Muslims like him, we shall [continue to] fight you as the Muslim fights theinfidel.” Ellison’s campaign spokeswoman, Bridget Cusick, said, “Why would Al Qaeda embrace Keith’s success? He’s the opposite of what they’re about.

Trailblazer Award

Ellison was chosen by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for its Trailblazer Award. The group said Ellison “has established a career of advocacy focused on promoting civil and human rights, peace, and prosperity for working families.

Electoral history


Minnesota 5th congressional district election, 2008
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Keith Ellison 228,753 70.9 +14.9
Republican Barb Davis White 71,013 22
Independence Bill McGaughey 22,315 6.9


Congressman Martin SaboDFL retired after 26 years in the House. Keith Ellison, also a DFLer, replaced him. Although Ellison was endorsed by the DFL convention, three non-endorsed candidates ran strong campaigns against him in the DFL primary: Mike ErlandsonEmber Reichgott Junge, and Paul Ostrow. Ellison won the primary with 41% of the vote. In the general election, he won with 56% of the vote against Jay Pond of the Green PartyTammy Lee of the Independence Party and Alan Fine of the Republican Party. Ellison is the first Muslimmember of the U.S. Congress.[124]

Minnesota 5th congressional district election, 2006
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Keith Ellison 136,060 55.56
Republican Alan Fine 52,263 21.34
Independence Tammy Lee 51,456 21.01
Green Jay Pond 4,792 1.96
  • 2006 Race for U.S. House of Representatives — Minnesota 5th District (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Primary)[24]
Name Votes Percent
Keith Ellison 29,003 41.21%
Mike Erlandson 21,857 31.06%
Ember Reichgott Junge 14,454 20.54%
Paul Ostrow 3,795 5.39%
Andrew Vincent Favorite 470 0.67%
Gregg A. Iverson 448 0.64%
Patrick J. Wiles 347 0.49%
  • 2004 Race for Minnesota House of Representatives — District 58B[125]
Name Votes Percent
Keith Ellison (Democratic-Farmer-Labor) 10,796 84.1%
Jay Cyril Mastrud (Republican) 1,988 15.5%
  • 2002 Race for Minnesota House of Representatives — District 58B[126]
Name Votes Percent
Keith M. Ellison (Democratic-Farmer-Labor) 5,714 66.54%
Larissa Presho (Republican) 1,212 14.11%
Duane K. Reed (Independent) 726 8.45%
Bonnie Jean Smith (Green) 480 5.59%
J. Thomas Lijewski (Independence) 440 5.12%