MINNEAPOLIS — When Keith Ellison arrives at the Karmel Square, one of Minneapolis's Somali malls, a rock star might as well be walking by the bustling stalls of bright fabrics, jewelry, phone cards, and videos.
People laugh and cheer as they hug Mr. Ellison and pat him on the back. Some speak quickly in Somali as an interpreter translates, and others offer congratulations in fluent English.
"Asalamu aleikum, brothers," Ellison says with a smile. "Thanks for voting."
He is not Somali, or even an immigrant, but for these voters, Ellison is one of their own. After his victory in this month's Democratic primary in the Fifth District, he's likely to become the first Muslim elected to Congress. He would also be the first black congressman to come from Minnesota.
The distinctions are ones Ellison tries to downplay, always directing conversation back to the issues, but national media and many Minnesotans want to talk of little else.
"You think of the stereotype of Minnesota – Garrison Keillor and white Norwegian farmers. The first Muslim congressman coming from Minnesota? It says a lot about the changing face of the United States and Minnesota," says Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. "I think it's one of the most interesting races in the country."
It's also been one of the most contentious, with scathing allegations against Ellison coming from conservative bloggers and, most recently, his Republican opponent.
Much of the controversy focuses on his past associations with the Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan, considered by many to be racist and antisemitic. He raised money for the Million Man March in 1995 and wrote some articles praising Mr. Farrakhan when he was a student. Ellison says he was never actually a member of the Nation of Islam, and that he became disenchanted with Farrakhan when he realized what he stood for.
Ellison has also been questioned over revelations that his driver's license was twice suspended, most recently this spring, over unpaid parking and speeding tickets, and that he's filed taxes and campaign-finance disclosures late.
"There's a pattern of behavior here that should really make us question the character and integrity of this person," says Alan Fine, his Republican opponent and a professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "This has never been about race or religion – it has to do with people who choose to be part of a hate group, and associate with people who promote hatred toward others.... I'd like to know when he realized Louis Farrakhan was a racist."
Since none of the allegations are new – they were all out there during the primary as well – they're unlikely to derail a campaign that seems headed to victory. But some observers say the state GOP hopes to highlight the controversy in order to make gains in other elections.
"There's a broader statewide Republican strategy here, attempting to brand Democrats as the party of Keith Ellison in order to make Republicans statewide seem more appealing," says Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "They're trying to suggest guilt by association for all major Democratic candidates."
Ellison, who grew up a Catholic in Detroit and moved to Minnesota to go to law school, brushes off such criticisms as fearmongering by some conservatives – an effort to derail a progressive campaign and divide voters.
He's at ease and eloquent mingling with a wide variety of voters, and these days, his talk is primarily about inclusiveness and the need to listen. In his campaign, he eschewed tactics like TV advertising in favor of grass-roots efforts to get out the vote and reach out to a variety of constituencies.
After all, despite Minneapolis's demographic changes, blacks comprise less than 15 percent of his district, which includes both the city and several well-off suburbs.
Ellison was extremely successful in his efforts to increase turnout among minorities and immigrants who rarely vote in primaries – the number of primary voters from the heavily minority district he represents as a state legislator more than tripled from two years ago – but he also reached out to environmentalists, union members, gays and lesbians, antiwar folks, Jewish voters, and Minnesota's active progressive community, many of whom see him as a politician after the model of their hero, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D).
"Put all these communities together, and we end up with a quilt that can cover us all," Ellison tells smiling supporters at Clean Water Action, an environmental justice group that endorsed him. "Just keep on inviting more people into vote, and we're going to rock this thing."
As he walks out of their office, he pauses by a photo of Mr. Wellstone. "That's the man," he says. "I just really admire him."
Ellison's critics point out that he won the primary with just 29,000 votes, in a district with 300,000 voters. But his 41 percent primary victory in a crowded field was still notable.
His campaign was helped significantly when he won the endorsement of Minnesota's powerful Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) party – the local Democratic Party equivalent – and of most unions. He's a progressive candidate – advocating universal single-payer healthcare, immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and environmental justice – in a district that's among the most progressive in the country.
He might also have been helped, to an extent, by the fact that politics in mostly white Minnesota aren't as racially charged as in many cities, experts say.
"The other [primary] candidates didn't zero in on race or religion. What stood out was how little they talked about it," says Professor Jacobs. "The Democratic characteristics and the less well developed political identities of these racial and religious groups made it possible for Ellison in this district and this election to emerge."
While liberal voters emphasize that it's his issues that primarily won them over, some also love the idea of being the first district to send a Muslim to Congress.
"I'll be honest – to have my little Lutheran community sending him makes me proud," says Bob Hulteen, the organizing director for Take Action, a coalition of progressive groups, as Ellison stops in to thank cheering members and chat with them about their experiences getting out the vote in the primaries.
Muslims, both in Minneapolis and around the country, are quick to cheer his success as well.
"It sends two very positive messages," says Corey Saylor, national legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group in Washington. "It sends a message about the American people, that five years after 9/11 they're comfortable sending an American to Congress, on issues not based on faith. And for the American Muslim community, it says our community has grown in political inclusion to the point where we can get someone elected to higher office."
Ellison, meanwhile, understands that excitement, but is a bit tired of it.
"All that 'first' stuff isn't why I got in the race, and it doesn't keep me in the race," he says, taking an hour out of a busy day to cheer for his son Elijah at a football game.
"My goals are to have excellent constituent services, and to leverage the energy, talent, and intelligence of the district. I want to see the minimum wage increased and Medicare Part B reformed.... If my religion can prove to people that Muslims can make a contribution – to me, that's a side benefit."