Detroit, MI

Detroit Native Keith Ellison Proves “A Week is a Long Time in Politics”

Joseph Serwach

After going 3–0 in the Derek Chauvin trial, Ellison is again at the center of national attention Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. Photo by Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons.

DETROIT - No politician better illustrates the leaps and crashes of the rollercoaster ride of national politics than Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.

“A week is a long time in politics,” British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said more than a half-century ago.

Today, that adage is often updated to argue a week can be a lifetime in the agony and ecstasy of U.S. politics where players are portrayed as heroes widely applauded one moment then widely attacked and ridiculed as villains soon after.

The Detroit native’s political fortunes are riding high again after going 3–0 in the intensely watched trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin was convicted on all three counts for the death of George Floyd, reaffirming every Ellison move (so far):

  • From the start, nearly a year ago, Ellison was criticized for his unusual decision to charge an on-duty police officer with second-degree murder plus third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
  • The jury fully accepted each of the prosecution’s three charges after just 10 hours of deliberations.
  • Ellison picked the prosecution team and worked on the case personally.
  • The wins marked just the second time in Minnesota history that a police officer was found guilty of murder charges involving an on-duty incident.

The case sparked protests nationwide. From the very start, critics questioned Ellison’s charges, saying they made a conviction harder. Communities nationwide braced for rioting over the possibility a jury would clear Chauvin or favor lesser charges.

But jurors supported every request Ellison’s team made. It’s the latest popular moment for Ellison in a political career of highs — and lows — going back to his days growing up in Detroit:

Ellison’s first wins? Victory began in his native Detroit

Raised Catholic in Detroit, Ellison, 57, is a 1981 graduate of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, where he was elected to the Student Senate.

He and his brothers have all been successful: four became attorneys, and the fifth became a doctor.

At Detroit’s Gesu Catholic Church, the Detroit Free Press reported their mother was always considered a beloved pillar of the community. But life wasn’t easy:

  • At age 5, according to a profile in Mother Jones, Ellison hid under his bed as the National Guard rolled into Detroit after the 1968 assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King.
  • Last June, when he began prosecuting the George Floyd case, Ellison told Reveal that police had singled him out because he’s Black, citing “some unfortunate incidents.” He said his father taught him to keep his hands on the wheel if he was ever pulled over, “Because they’ll kill you, and there won’t be much of anything any of us can do about it.”
  • As a teenage student at Detroit's Wayne State University, he converted from Catholicism to Islam, saying, “I can’t claim that I was the most observant Catholic at the time.” He said he “found Islam” as he “looked at what might inform social change, justice in society.”
  • He earned his bachelor’s from Wayne State in 1986, marrying his high school sweetheart, and moved to Minnesota to attend law school.

In Minnesota, he focused on civil rights and progressive politics

Settling in Minnesota, Ellison became a civil rights litigator, including serving as executive director of the nonprofit Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis and working free hosting a public affairs talk program at a local radio station.

He was elected as a Minnesota state lawmaker in 2002 when Democrats had their smallest number of seats in state history.

He was elected to Congress in 2006, serving until running for state attorney general in 2018. He was succeeded in Congress by U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Opponents attacked him for his driver’s license being suspended repeatedly for unpaid tickets and failing to pay part of his income taxes over five of eight years in the 1990s. He eventually paid more than $18,000 in back taxes.

In Congress, he received national attention on his first day of job

Ellison made national news during his first minute in Congress.

He received widespread positive and negative attention for deciding to become the first member of Congress to be sworn in using the Quran instead of the Bible.

“I raised my right hand and placed my left on the Quran, which was being held by my wife and mom. Suddenly, I was blinded by a cascade of camera flashes…” ― Keith Ellison, writing in My Country ’Tis of Thee.

The rollercoaster of national attention — positive and negative — continued throughout his time on the national stage:

  • In a July 2007 speech six months after taking office, he spoke to Atheists for Human Rights, saying then-Vice President Dick Cheney was “beneath his dignity” for not answering questions from citizens, adding, “That is the very definition of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and dictatorship.” He also compared the Bush administration’s post 9/11 strategy to the Reichstag fire, which German Nazis used to take power.
  • 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.”
  • Ellison rose to become chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

His battle for chair of the DNC received massive national coverage

In 2016-2017, Ellison represented the progressive/Bernie Sanders wing of the Democrat Party, running to chair the Democratic National Committee. The race was repeatedly cast as a battle for the soul of the party.

Obama-Biden veterans pushed former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, and Ellison was widely attacked by media and donors, calling him anti-Semitic. Others argued he was too progressive.

Perez won the election, but the two worked out a deal where Ellison took the new title of deputy chair. Ellison eventually left the DNC role and Congress to run for state office in Minnesota.

Even in Minnesota, the national political attention has continued

Domestic abuse allegations also swirled around Ellison. In 2018, Ellison’s ex-girlfriend and her son accused him of attempting to drag her off a bed while shouting obscenities. Democrats said the allegations were unsubstantiated.

The George Floyd case and subsequent national protests have kept national attention on Minnesota since Floyd’s death in May 2020.

What’s next for Ellison? Prosecuting charges against the officers who were with Chauvin and handling any appeals. In Ellison’s native Detroit, appeals over the Vincent Chin case took nearly a decade.

“The people who lead us are of us. We put them in office and we can take them out. America proves that the people can govern themselves.” ― Keith Ellison, My Country ’Tis of Thee. Photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels.

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