Keith Ellison

Americans like to brag about how their country is light years ahead of the rest of the world. They truly believe that no other nation has more freedom, or puts democracy into action better than their good ole’ US of A.

This is after the place where anyone, regardless of color or background, education or religion, ethnicity or gender, sexual orientation or physical size, and even financial status can grow up to be President.

Sure. That’s the way it works. But when you look at the roster of our executive branch, the makeup of our judges, and the profiles of our Congress, you’d think the United States of America was a land full of 300 million milky white elderly men, each sporting a comb over, with fat wallets of inherited bills. You’d think, by glancing at an average government figure, that America was nothing but estates and plantations, that every college was part of the Ivy League, that the national car was a Lexus, and that everyone was a dedicated God fearing Baptist.

No wonder the rest of the world hates us.

However the 2006 election was not merely a handover of control from corrupt Republicans to spineless Democrats, it was an affirmation that this place is the melting pot of faces and races we brag about.

While each story of a fresh Hispanic or American-American moving into a new office on Capitol Hill was truly inspiring, and seeing a female from San Francisco take control of the House was neat, nothing compared to the tale of Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, who stood in front of his peers and swore an oath by placing his hand on a book, a book that didn’t have the name King James on it. For the very first time in America’s history, a Muslim had been elected to serve in Washington D.C.

In the midst of controversy from sea to shining sea, over warfare and wages, immigration and taxation, and race relations, the House’s bright young star from the Midwest was kind enough to speak to BallerStatus about the Alberto Gonzales/Don Imus scandals, the war and poverty. Let’s begin with that incident on Glenn Beck’s television program. Why did you not call him out when Beck asked you to, “prove to me that you are not working with our enemies,” insinuating you were a terrorist because of your religion?

Rep. Ellison: Well, you know, the thing is I know he was definitely provoking me and trying to bring the conversation down, but the overall objective is to make space for people of all faiths in this country. If I cussed him out or told him off, or had gotten ill with him, it would have just been a thing between him and me. But today if you ask most people they’ll say that Beck was the knucklehead and I acted like I had some class. At the end of the day, I showed that I can keep my cool and deal with problems, and he showed that he’s an ignorant guy. If I had gotten into a big ole’ argument with him, it would have been like, “Well who’s the fool here?” It would have been hard to figure out who was the knucklehead, but the fact is when you’re trying to strive to make space in the world for everybody, when you’re fighting for a real cause, you cannot allow yourself to petty indulgence of anger. You have to be able to take a lot of crap. I stared right back at him and dealt with a serious situation, and because of that he looks like a knucklehead and looked like an experienced politician, which is what I am. Is it bittersweet for you to be the first Muslim in Congress? It has to be a tremendous honor, but at the same time it’s also a shame it has taken so long.

Rep. Ellison: We don’t dwell on what should or could have been. What we do is march forward. Look at how many Americans live in poverty today. That should have been dealt with a long time ago. We are engaged in a war we never should have started in the first place. There are young men and women dying without just cause. This past week I got a call that someone from my district was dead. He left behind his family, his children. That’s what we’re here to deal with. So I’m not going to sit up here and cry over my problems. There are bigger problems to deal with in district five. We have to focus on peace. We have to focus on finding people work and letting them have a real chance in this economy. How has the transition been, moving on to D.C. and becoming a freshman Congressman?

Rep. Ellison: It’s a big deal man. It’s huge. Plus because of the religious stuff we got inundated with calls from the press. So it was even more than what the average incoming Congressperson has to deal with. We’re up to it and we don’t feel sorry for ourselves at all. We just pick up and carry on. How much do you accredit the grassroots networks and avid citizens for getting you elected?

Rep. Ellison: One hundred percent! My campaign was a reach out campaign. We didn’t spend one thin dime on commercial television. We had a total grassroots campaign and we reached out to people, some of whom were homeless. We went to homeless shelters. We reached out to new immigrants. We reached out to the “headbangers” and the kids with the mohawks and purple hair. And we went to the people who had money, but felt America should be open to anybody. So we went to the nice section of town and found ourselves some good volunteers there too. The bottom line is we had a campaign of all colors, of all cultures. They all came together behind an agenda, knowing that we need to have peace and working class prosperity and environmental protection, so we don’t ruin the creation that God gave us. And above all, there was a movement for human and civil rights for all people. We had the straight and the gay. We had the native born and the new immigrant. We had the rich and the poor. We had the environmentalist and the union worker. The Democrats set some lofty goals for themselves on the campaign trail back in 2006. How do you feel this 110th U.S. Congress is doing so far?

Rep. Ellison: I give them good high marks. There’s a lot of big tests ahead, you know? The thing is, the House passed the minimum wage increase, but the Senate is still slow going on that. And the House has passed many a bill that the Senate is still deliberating over. That might have something to do with there being a far greater majority of Democrats in the House and only a slim advantage in the Senate. Republicans tend to run on hollow platforms proclaiming that there should be less government. Then once elected, coincidentally, they govern less. The golf courses and massage parlors in D.C. probably have much better business when there are more elephants in town.

Rep. Ellison: But, both the House and the Senate have stood up and told this President that this war must end. And that’s a big deal. The common people don’t realize that’s a big deal. Both the House and the Senate said, “Look it’s lost and we can’t spend 8.4 billion a month for our troops to ride around as targets while we still have people in poverty, and people that cannot even afford housing.” You know the whole drill man. I give my marks, but we have a whole lot of work to do. I would give us an “I” for incomplete. Impeachment? Why the lack of support for Kucinich’s proposal? Is the dilemma our great nation faces not worse than Clinton’s infidelities? Do you support it? Or at this late point is it counterproductive?

Rep. Ellison: They certainly deserve to be impeached. They deserve it. They have it coming. They violated the law and really need to be held accountable. The fact is that if we filed for impeachment now given everything that’s already happened, based on what we know so far, it would consume the news cycle to the point where that’s all we’d be dealing with and talking about. I’m a little concerned that it might overshadow other things we have to do. I’m a little concerned about that, given the situation. But do they deserve it? Hell yeah! As a tactical matter, is it the right thing? Not at this point, but I’m not saying it’s not going to be the right thing. Depending on what happens with the Gonzales case, it could ripen up to be the path we have to pursue. I haven’t shut the door on it. At this point though, the American public is so used to this administration being involved in scandals that something Earth shattering would have to take place to even get a rise out of some. I’m just going to remain vigilant. We’re going to keep on pressing them and dropping subpoenas on them. We’re going to keep dragging these people in front of the committees and one of these days, if we get something concrete that can stick, we might have to go hard on impeachment. But at this point, I think most people want to see minimum wage increased and us out of the war. The problem is we can’t do everything all at once. What’s your plan to end the war, bring the boys home?

Rep. Ellison: There’s a woman named Barbara Lee and a guy named Jim McGovern. Together they have the McGovern-Lee Amendment, which is to use the money strictly for withdraw. That’s where I’m at. That’s what I want to do. There was this particular photograph of you on election night, back in November, that in a way captioned itself. You were giving a celebratory fist pump, and there was someone directly behind you with a sign that said “This is what Democracy looks like” and that one photo seemed to sum up the entire day’s events better than any. It was a true “sign” of diversity. The perfect snack for watching the recent Republican Presidential debate would be vanilla ice cream, because vanilla is all you’re going to see.

Rep. Ellison: Yeah. (chuckling) I don’t think there’s going to be any women. There certainly won’t be any gay people around, there’s not going to be any working people. Give me… I’ll take an old white guy if he’s ever worked on a line, if he’s ever done a hard day’s work. That’s what it means to turn a buck. But these guys are the elite. They’re the privileged. They’re the pampered. And they’re not us. You know? They’re not America. You know? So I can’t get down like that. In the past the Democratic National Committee seemed to concentrate on just winning elections. On the fall season and the candidates, it appeared that Dean and company refocused on winning over the hearts and minds, and it worked. The other side of the aisle have been masters of perception, through religion and talk radio. How are the Democrats going to be able to continue influencing ideology?

Rep. Ellison: Well, you’re one hundred percent right. We have to talk in terms of values. What do we value? We all need to live in harmony with creation, we can’t destroy creation. This world is not one big fat toilet seat for us to take a dump in. We have to make sure that we can drink the water and breathe the air. We’re going to have to live in harmony with creation. That’s a value, and people can get together with that. Whether you’re a hip-hopper or a head-banger, no matter what you’re into you can understand living in harmony with this world that we have. That’s a value.

Another thing is basic fairness. We have to talk to people about how it’s unfair for our country to torture anyone. Even if we think they’re terrorist, we’re not going to get any information by continually beating them. We have to always be about due process. That’s what America stands for. If we don’t, then we end up just like the people we say we don’t like. It’s a basic value of fairness. Then, you know, we have to be about peace. We got to talk it out, not shoot it out. We got to do it in Iraq. We have to do it in these streets, these cities and these towns we live in. Why do our young people settle their disputes with guns? Because our government does. Let’s talk about peace, negotiating a problem, and talking it out. Diplomacy, that’s a value. If you say these things and if you work these things people will listen, and you will find yourself uniting people of very diverse backgrounds. You’ll be able to bring them together. Why does society perceive Islam as the religion of violence? Eric Rudolph was a hardcore Christian. Ted Bundy was Vice President of the local Methodist Youth Fellowship growing up. McVeigh was raised as a devout Roman Catholic…

Rep. Ellison: Well the thing is people fear what they don’t know. There are people who are Muslim who claim Islam in doing horrible things, but there are a lot of other people that don’t claim Islam at all, like Timothy McVeigh, who does horrible things. I don’t run around as the spokesman for Muslim Americans, but everyone knows I’m Muslim, and when they see me they’re like, “Well that guy seems ok.” You can’t tell me that all Muslims are the same. We have these stereotypes, sometimes without even trying. It’s fear. In the 50s it was the commies. In the 60s, the hippies, then in the 80s, the homosexuals.

Rep. Ellison: Every era has its boogeyman. But you know what though? People will be surprised. You go to the doctor. He might be Muslim. The nurse who was so nice to you might be. It shouldn’t matter. You shouldn’t say, “Oh there’s a good one.” There are probably a whole lot of people we encounter every day that we don’t know that we don’t the background of, we don’t ask of the faith of everyone we meet. There are good decent people just trying to make it like everybody. What were your thoughts on the Democratic debate the other week? It’s early, but the election for President has never been this wide open.

Rep. Ellison: Nobody really broke out of the pack for me. I’m looking for some bold ideas. I’m looking for something strong on climate change. I’m looking for somebody to say that this war was wrong from the start and we have to get out right away. Gravel said that. Hell, he screamed it. Economic plans aren’t a strong point for him though.

Rep. Ellison: We need someone to stand up for the working class people. Who’s going to look out for them? Forty-seven million Americans don’t have healthcare. Don’t be such an idealist. Think of how boring life would be if you never got sick. How the heck could you cut class? Or take two weeks off of work with a “stomach bug” when you’re really at a cheap motel in South Dakota in the company of a lady of the night who doesn’t have a last name?

Rep. Ellison: I’m going to say this. I had a situation man, when I was campaigning where I ran into a guy who was making twelve bucks an hour, didn’t have healthcare. He went up on his roof, the roof was leaking and he couldn’t hire a guy to do it because… he couldn’t hire a roofer because he had no money. He went up there, fell off the ladder, and hurt his back then went to the doctor and got a huge medical bill. He put it on the credit card, then got jacked on the credit card. He was late on it and…