By Samuel and Sylvia Kaplan
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Via The Hill
At a time of growing cynicism about our elected political leaders, we feel fortunate to know Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). A true champion for justice, he stands apart as a tireless advocate for the values we hold dear as Democrats.
We’ve known Ellison for years: first as our state legislator, then as our congressman. He reminds us of our beloved friend the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, whose motto was “we all do better when we all do better.” These men both represent the best of Minnesota values — fairness, inclusion and a vision for a better life for those left behind in a changing economy.
Like Wellstone, Ellison has a very real commitment to social justice and an infectious positive energy that inspires. Ellison’s worldview was shaped by hearing stories of his grandfather, Frank Martinez, who bravely fought for voting rights with the Louisiana NAACP in an era when African-Americans were still being lynched.
The Democratic Party is at a crossroads. Voter turnout in this month’s election was at a 24-year low. Nearly 45 percent of voting-age citizens simply failed to show up to vote in the presidential election. As a result, the party lost once-reliably blue states. To reverse our party’s fortunes, we need a leader who engages and energizes working families — of all colors — who are so central to our country’s success.
Keith Ellison is that leader.
As a young man, Ellison followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and went into community service. As an attorney working on Minneapolis’s north side, he was instrumental in improving police and community relations and protecting voting rights.
He continued his activism in the Minnesota Legislature. Ellison saw that kids in our community had an unusually high number of inhalers. He also knew that the coal plant next door increased neighborhood kids’ risk of asthma. So Ellison led a movement with the community to convert the plant to cleaner burning natural gas, improving air quality and protecting jobs.
But it is Ellison’s work in expanding the electorate in our congressional district that serves as a national model and blueprint for Democrats to win state and national elections.
Since taking office, Ellison has fought year-round to increase voter turnout and develop real relationships with voters. Those actions have paid dividends. In 2014, a Democratic governor and senator were on the ballot who had both won their previous elections in squeaker recounts. Ellison’s district increased the Democratic turnout by 13,000 votes — and both were elected in blowouts. This year, Ellison’s winning formula to boost voter turnout helped deliver Minnesota for Hillary Clinton when surrounding swing states broke for Donald Trump.
What impresses us the most about Ellison , however, is his ability to bring diverse constituencies together. As the first Muslim elected to Congress and the first African-American to represent Minnesota — from a 63 percent white district — Ellison is a powerful symbol of our country’s core values of diversity and inclusion. But his work has gone beyond symbolism to a true commitment to interfaith understanding and tolerance.
We are active members of the Minneapolis Jewish community, and have served in leadership positions in many Jewish social service agencies and charities. We have been continually impressed with Ellison ’s efforts throughout his career to battle anti-Semitism around the world. While in the Minnesota state Legislature, Ellison led efforts to hold a colleague accountable for misrepresenting the history of the Holocaust. He was deeply affected by a visit to Auschwitz and has brought that message to Congress, hosting a briefing in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day with imams who attended an Auschwitz study tour.
As President Obama’s former representatives to Morocco, we know the central role of relationships in building bridges and solving conflicts. Ellison has traveled to Israel seven times, and we were fortunate to accompany him on his last trip. Ellison was masterful, setting an inclusive tone and standing as a voice of reason for all sides.
Whether in meetings with members of the Knesset or in a visit to Yad Vashem, he was open, understanding and deeply committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His support for the Jewish state is reflected in congressional votes for over $27 billion in bilateral aid and assistance to Israel during his congressional tenure.
After a presidential campaign where the winning candidate sought to divide us based on faith, on race and on national origin, we need a uniter speaking for all Democrats. As he’s always done, Ellison will energize and excite the grassroots to help build the party from the bottom up.
Ellison is a good man, and uniquely able to bring people together in honest dialogue. If there is anyone who is ready to lead the Democratic Party into the future, it’s Congressman Keith Ellison.
Samuel and Sylvia Kaplan served in Morocco, where Sam was U.S. ambassador.