For example, Minnesota democrats just voted for Keith Ellison. Good for them.
I don't generally follow political races outside New York (and I barely follow the New York races) but I notice that my old buddy, Keith Ellison won in Minnesota. That's good news.
I met Ellison in the mid-1990s when he was defending my friend Kieran, who'd been charged with felony assault after defending himself against a Nazi skinhead at an anti-Nazi demonstration. It was my understanding at the time that Ellison was a member of the Nation of Islam, and we had a few interesting conversations about Jewish and Black identity. He was sympathetic (as I've found many Black nationalists are) to anyone with a strong Jewish ethnic identity, and asked me if I was perplexed by the Jewish student who was testifying against Kieran. (I was - the kid seemed to feel that self-defense was just mean.)
Knowing him over the years, watching him defend young white guys who'd gotten into conflicts with neo-Nazis, I never found Ellison to be an anti-semite. In fact, because he took on at least two big felony assault cases during which he had to cross-examine pea-brained neo-Nazi boneheads, he probably knows more about anti-Semitism than most people want to. Despite this, and despite his voting record in the Minnesota stage legislature, I imagined that his involvement or association with the NOI would lead to accusations of anti-Semitism. Of course it did, but the accusations didn't stick. Plenty of other people have had the same kind of experience with Ellison that I've had, which is why they voted for him, and it's also probably why the American Jewish World, Minneapolis' mainstream Jewish newspaper, endorsed him in the primary.
The only thing I'm disappointed to see is that Ellison's taken a pretty conservative position on Israel, and even says in his campaign literature that
Iran is the leading sponsor of international terrorism as well as the major financial supporter of many radical groups that threaten moderate regimes throughout the Middle East.
The reality is, however, that taking any other position on this issue is likely to result in losing the election, especially if you are a Muslim.
Middle-East politics is not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Keith Ellison. I knew him as a lawyer who specialized in indigent criminal defense, and as an activist around the issues concerning the urban black poor. I heard him give a great talk at a 1998 prison conference I helped organize in which he pointed out that the Minneapolis police's gang task force listed a number of Black gangs, and argued for a policy of aggressively surveilling suspected/potential gang members (ie, black teenagers), but only one white group: the "baldies," an anti-racist skinhead group that had by that time not existed for at least ten years. If they included the Aryan brotherhood or other white biker gangs, he suggested, they might be able to do something about the methamphetamine traffic in the area. Of course, that was long before "meth" became a national scare.
Ellison is an engaging, open-minded fellow who defies easy stereotypes of the Black nationalist bogeyman. He had me as a guest on his radio show once with David Roediger, whose work on whiteness interested him. He also showed himself to be an all-around nice person, not a lofty activist superstar. One snowy morning I was standing at the bus-stop waiting for my ride to the U and a car drove up, it was Keith, offering me a lift to school. Of course I said yes, and on the way, for some reason, he started talking to me about how much he liked Molly Ivins. Is that what you expect the "follower of Farrakhan" to be talking about or thinking about on his morning drive? Well, he may surprise you yet.
Big ups to Minnesota for being out in front and choosing one of the few true progressives to run for congress as a Democrat.