A conversation with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison occupies a relatively safe seat representing the heavily democratic 5th Congressional District, so in the final weeks of the election season he was hitting the pavement to campaign on behalf of other local democrats.
Ellison took a break from that work on Oct. 30 to chat with The Journal about what comes after the election and a couple of key issues of both local and national significance: protests here and in neighboring North Dakota over the Dakota Access oil pipeline project and a debate in Minneapolis over whether or not to become the country’s latest municipality to set a $15 minimum wage.
Southwest Journal: We’re speaking just nine days before Election Day. What are you doing right now to get voters out to the polls?
Ellison: I’m going to Northfield to help Angie Craig get the vote out in the Second District. We’re very excited about her candidacy. She has a great record of service to community. She understands the needs of both workers and business owners. She understands the need for equality and inclusion. She herself worked hard, was born into a low-income family and worked her way up through a quality education and has had great success in the business world. Now she’s using that talent to help us. So that’s what I’m doing.
Yesterday, I door-knocked in Columbia Heights with Sean Broom — he’s running for city council — knocked in Richfield with Maria Regan Gonzalez — she’s another city (council candidate) — and knocked in Crystal with Therese Kiser, who’s running for city council in Crystal. Also, I knocked with Mike Freiberg, who’s a (DFL) state representative (in District 45B).
We’re just getting out the vote. We’re getting it out locally, we’re getting it out nationally, we’re getting it out statewide, trying to help the (DFL in the) Minnesota legislature get back in the majority. That’s what we’re doing.
What do you think it would mean to this country to elect its first woman president on Nov. 8?
I think it would be a moment of tremendous historic magnitude. Less than 100 years ago, women gained the constitutional right to vote. That was 1920. Women who couldn’t get credit in their own names, girls who were told you can be a nurse or a teacher, that’s all you can be.
It’s just shattering a long-held glass ceiling that I think will really help our country, because it will allow everyone to express their full talent. Nobody is going to be told you can’t do this because you’re this.
I think it’s a great, very important moment, and I hope we don’t miss it.
As this election has shown, so many people feel left behind by the economy or left out of the political process. What needs to happen after Nov. 8 to show them that the country is still working for them?
I think we need to have a major transformation to invest and turn out a new level of civic engagement. We need a renaissance of civic engagement. And I think that party politics and voting can help do it.
People have plenty of information, but the information they have is slanted to their previously held viewpoints. We need to have more discussion across ideological lines so people can see, hey, we’re not so different. We all want the same things, right?
I also think we need to do some racial healing. I have a sneaking suspicion that there are some people who feel that it is Mexicans or Muslims or somebody else that’s making their lives not good, so when Donald Trump says build a wall, you know, they’re not talking about Canada, right?
I think we need to do some racial healing and really recommit to this idea of equal protection under the law. No group can be privileged over another, and everybody has to have a fair shot in this country. And so I think that what Donald Trump’s whole campaign has basically said is that the Muslims and the Mexicans and the black people and the women and everybody are somehow harming working-class white men. And that is what I think he’s basically saying to people. And if you look at his rallies, that’s the message he’s trying to send.
We must counteract this message after the election. It’s going to only work if we reach out to each other: sitting down, talking about our country, talking about how everyone is included and also listening to how everyone feels, including white men who don’t have college degrees.
Every person of color knows that there is of course something called white privilege. You can’t tell me there isn’t white privilege any more than you can tell me water isn’t wet. But if you are a working class guy whose job has been offshored who might be losing his house to foreclosure, you don’t feel very privileged. You don’t feel like (that), and in fact you feel left behind, you know?
There’s got to be acknowledgement of that. There’s got to be some acknowledgement of that, or else, first, we leave our fellow citizens behind. The second is we allow these people to be susceptible to the kind of message Trump is giving out, which is that your problems are because of those people. Which is totally a lie, unless he’s talking about himself.
So, that’s what I think should happen after the election.
On Friday, you appeared at a Dakota Access Pipeline protest in front of Minneapolis City Hall. What are your concerns about that project?
I’m concerned about the water. I’m concerned about how there are two major rivers (near the North Dakota pipeline protest site), the Cannonball River and (Missouri River). I’m just worried about how that project could be very detrimental to our water source.
We already a lot of impaired waters here in the upper Midwest — Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota — and we’ve got to protect those waters, so that concerns me. Also, it does bother me that I think — those tribal communities, they really do need to be listened to.
At the end of the day, we’ve got to have power in our country. We need energy. I’m not against that. But we’ve got to do it in a way that says that’s sensitive to tribal interests and ecological interests, too.
You’ve supported a $15 minimum wage on the federal level and, as you know, a city minimum wage proposal is being debated here in Minneapolis and facing skepticism from many members of the business community. Do you support a $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis, and how do you respond when business owners say a higher minimum wage would force them to cut employees or even close?
Here’s what I say about that: Minnesota has a higher minimum wage than Wisconsin, and our economy is doing better than theirs. Companies like Punch Pizza raised the minimum wage, and they’re doing really well. They’re selling plenty of pizza. Hennepin County doesn’t have a single worker making less than 15 bucks, and Hennepin County keeps chugging along.
I do think there will be some short-time shocks to small-business people, but I think that’s why you want to ladder it in. You don’t want to go from where it is, $7.25, to $15 overnight. It goes in a stepwise way, so people can adjust.
I really do agree with (Mayor) Betsy Hodges’ point that the best thing would be a regional approach or a statewide approach so one community is not at a competitive disadvantage with another one right next to it.
But, at the end of the day, let me tell you: A higher minimum wage means more working people have more money to spend in our consumer economy. And that helps business, right? And that helps business.
You want to sell something? Try it with a populace that doesn’t have any money. Right? And so what happened in the mid-2000s is people didn’t have any money, but they were consuming based on debt: credit cards, home equity, stuff like that. Now, lending is a little tighter than it was, so the only thing to do is increase pay.
And, look, we’ve seen corporate profitability go up, we’ve seen the rich get a heck of a lot richer and we’ve seen working people’s pay stagnate. It’s time to increase the minimum wage, no doubt.