Monday, September 11, 2006

Letter to Progressives: Why Keith Must Win

Tuesday, September 12, is the big day. On Tuesday, Democrats from CD 5 will pick the replacement for 28-year incumbent Martin Sabo. At this point, the race is too close to call between frontrunners Keith Ellison, Ember Reichgott Junge, and Mike Erlandson.

On this election eve, I want to express why I feel why this primary is so important, why it represents far more than the political futures of just these candidates.

First, Keith is a grassroots candidate. The others are not.

You have seen Keith for years at community meetings and events. He speaks at large peace rallies, has fun at Minneapolis Gay Pride, marches for immigrant rights, and quietly attends vigils for victims of violence. If you have been on the streets or at community meetings, you have seen Keith.

Keith’s rivals have their own positive experiences, of course. Reichgott Junge spent a number of years in the Minnesota Senate and had some legislative success. Erlandson has spent much of his adult life working for Martin Sabo and has certainly picked up some knowledge of D.C. shenanigans. These experiences have very little to do with grassroots organizing work, or actually with any lengthy experience in actually listening to people.

How will you feel if you see grassroots candidate Keith Ellison lose the primary to someone with better insider connections or just more money? What could you say about the power of the people in electoral politics?

Second, Keith is the endorsed candidate. The others are not. This race has been going on for over six months. Citizens participate in the very inclusive endorsing system by going to caucuses and sending representatives on to endorsing conventions. Thirteen candidates participated in speeches, debates, and Q & A sessions in the hope of winning the DFL endorsement. At the CD5 convention, the delegates found a candidate that we could all support and agree on: Keith.

What will the endorsement process mean if a well-financed rival can buy the primary a few months later? Who will then be willing to mobilize at the precinct caucuses? What sort of persuasion will get citizens to spend their Saturdays at the various district conventions? Why bother, if expensive television ads can replace the role of the citizen-activist in the party?

Third, we must beat back the power of racism and religious sectarianism.

This campaign has been a dirty, Rovian experience. Attacks on Keith’s race (African-American) and religion (Muslim) have passed from Keith’s rivals to Republican blogs to the pages of the Star Tribune. Keith has endured references to being in the company of “looming but silent black men in dark suits.” He has been attacked for not paying parking tickets and for a garage that needed paint.

By lightly coding the racism, it has been possible for some voters to act on racist assumptions without examining them. Two race myths have been used. The false association with the Nation of Islam has allowed some to believe that he might be a Dangerous Black Man. The parking tickets and missed deadlines references allow some to believe that he might merely be an Irresponsible Negro.

The reality, of course, is that Keith is one of the warmest and most personable people you will ever meet, neither dangerous nor lazy. Those who know him best and longest speak with admiration about how he stood up to anti-Semitism and gay-bashing, even at the height of his work with the Million Man March or during his most passionate U of M law school days.

The question for me, however, is whether or not race and religion should be a legitimate factor in Minnesota campaigns in 2006. Aren’t we beyond that? Shouldn’t we be having at least a few discussions about policy issues concerning war, healthcare, civil liberties, and the environment?

Fourth, we must undermine the power of money.

Reichgott Junge has received large contributions from Republicans and insurance industry executives (while claiming she will reform health care). Erlandson accepts money from defense contractors and Iraq war profiteers (while claiming to be a peace candidate). Keith gets his money from unions, the DFL, and friends. They all get money from law firms and lawyers. You can check the documents at

Who do you want your next U.S. Representative to be answering to?

Fifth, Keith Ellison will broaden the base. The others will not. Keith’s win will give encouragement to Northside residents, who have been beaten down by decades of racism, violence and neglect. Keith’s win will encourage electoral participation by his supporters, including Somalis and other immigrants, the peace community, the environmental community, and the progressive religious community.

Now try to imagine how Mike Erlandson and Ember Reichgott Junge could possibly reach out to underrepresented communities. I can’t. Can you?

Last, Keith Ellison is the very best candidate for all progressive issues.

Many of you have seen Keith at your meetings, or heard him talk at your rallies. You know where he stands. Clearly, he will be one of the very strongest advocates in Congress for ending the disastrous war against Iraq, as well as standing up against any new wars that the imperialistic neocons might be planning. Clearly, he will advocate intelligently for education, the environment, GLBT rights and civil liberties. He brings to that work inspiring words, intelligence and thoughtfulness, accurate information, and his own charismatic charm.

Did you know that only two legislators, both Republican, passed more legislation than Keith in the Minnesota House? Many people would consider that body as a hostile work environment for Democrats, but Keith worked very well there. He has an extremely rare combination of passionate convictions and personal warmth, so he is able to take strong moral stands while working with those across the aisle. He has the strength to stand up to the Bush agenda, yet do so with humanity, warmth, and class.

During all the smears against Keith, have you ever heard stories about any angry outbursts or even defensiveness? Keith doesn’t storm out of meetings or call his opponents names. He takes passionate positions for justice, yet he doesn’t make enemies. Consider the contrast with his rivals in the primary. All the pretty slogans in the world won’t get us better policy. All the best insider connections in Washington won’t compensate for thin-skinned peevishness and a wounded sense of entitlement.

What we must do:

Vote on Tuesday. If you don’t know your polling place, go to or call 311 for Minneapolis info. If you’ve moved and you’re not registered, prove your current address by either bringing a state ID with your new address, an old-address state ID with a current utility bill or cell phone bill, or go to the poll with a registered neighbor. (Other methods are found at

Call your friends in the Fifth Congressional District. Remind them that polls are open from 7 am to 8 pm, and that lines are usually short for primaries. Talk to them about how crucial this particular vote is. Call them right away, before you forget.

On Tuesday, greet friends with, “Hi! Did you vote yet?” Suggest to the coffee server or receptionist or clerk to do the same.

This is history. Let’s make it.
Charles Underwood


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