North side versus Downtown?

Updated: April 30, 2007 - 1:32 pm

Four challengers hope Downtown voters can upend DFL in legislative district 58B

This spring, nearly half of Downtown redistricted into traditionally north-side state House district 58B. This fall, the open seat with broader geographic boundaries has attracted five candidates to replace departing DFL Rep. Greg Gray.

The acknowledged front-runner in 58B -- which now encompasses all of North Loop, the Mill District riverfront, and Downtown north of 7th Street -- is attorney Keith Ellison, a noted lawyer, community activist and radio talk-show host who was endorsed by the DFL last summer. He is squaring off against former Cargill executive and ex-DFLer Duane Reed, now an independent; Republican Party worker Larrisa Presho; Downtown entrepreneur and Independence Party nominee J. Thomas Lijewski;, and Green Party candidate Bonnie Jean Smith.

The field is as diverse as the redrawn district. Ellison, Reed and Smith are African American; Lijewski is blind; and the GOP's Presho is 25 years old, female, and comes from an impoverished north side family.

As the nominee of the district's traditionally dominant party, Ellison has become the lightning rod. The two Downtown residents -- Reed and Lijewski -- suggest Ellison will ignore Downtown's needs and is merely a creature of North Side machine politics.

Ellison vigorously denies it. "I'm as much a part of Downtown as anybody in this race," he said. "The welfare and benefit of Downtown is critical to me personally and to our district and our city."

There are also echoes from last year's city council race, in which Natalie Johnson Lee upset longtime city council power Jackie Cherryhomes. Reed said he entered the race at Johnson Lee's urging, while Cherryhomes has promoted Ellison.

Radical reconstruction Ellison, 39, was born in 1963, several years after his grandfather, a black voting-rights activist in Louisiana, was killed in a suspicious tractor accident. Ellison grew up in northwest Detroit, the son of a social worker mother and psychiatrist father, and he still vividly remembers hiding under a bed as armored personnel carriers rolled by during the riot-torn summer of 1968.

He discovered his politics reading "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" at age 13. "I was curious about who held power in this world and how they wielded it," he said.

He studied economics at Detroit's Wayne State University, where he became active in the anti-apartheid movement and campus newspaper. He married at 23, and left Detroit to study law at the University of Minnesota. He said he planned to return to become involved in Detroit politics, but wound up staying in Minneapolis after receiving his law degree.

Ellison first surfaced publicly a decade ago as an attorney for Sharif Willis, a gang leader convicted in 1995 of robbery and kidnapping. He continued taking on high-profile cases, representing Kieran Knutson, accused of attacking a neo-Nazi during a 1993 University of Minnesota demonstration, and Lawrence Miles, a 13-year-old shot by police after he allegedly pointed a pellet gun at officers, a charge the boy denied. Ellison is with the Minneapolis law firm Hassan & Reed.

Until recently, Ellison hosted a KMOJ radio talk show, "Black Power Perspectives." At one point he interviewed Sara Jane Olson, later convicted of trying to bomb a Los Angeles police car. Ellison then counted himself among Olson's supporters, believing she was being persecuted for her radical views.

Now that she has pleaded guilty, Ellison says he doesn't know what to make of the Olson case, but he doesn't regret supporting her. "I don't regret standing up for the right of people to defend their political beliefs," he said.

One of Ellison's opponents, the former DFLer Reed, said Ellison today is camouflaging his past ideologies in a bid to attract votes. "He was a little bit more radical than he is depicted right now," Reed said. "He was real radical."

Ellison says the district -- one of the poorest in the state -- needs an effective, forceful spokesperson. In the legislature, he said, "not everybody likes the Twin Cities and not everybody likes Downtown. … when other state legislators look at our [low] voter turnout they rank us accordingly in terms of their priorities. So what we need to do is to excite and energize the whole district, and we need to make our voices heard, we need to organize and advocate for the community."

The challengers Outgoing Rep. Gray said former DFL delegate Reed doesn't appear far away from Ellison's positions.

"I think this ends up being a situation of style more than anything else," Gray said.

Reed, 54, is the only candidate with prior experience as an elected official. During his 28-year stint at Cargill, Reed was a school board member in Champaign, Ill., from 1984-1989, reaching the post of president-elect. He grew up in the Twin Cities and moved back to Minnesota after his retirement. He now lives in North Loop.

Having no party backing, Reed said he had to petition district neighborhoods to get his name on the ballot. He needed 500 signatures to qualify, but collected more than 1,200, he said.

Said Reed, "For me as a candidate, this race is about bridging the gap and bringing the old and new together to celebrate what I call the effective change in this newly redesigned 58B, a total representation of all people."

Lijewski, 51, the Independence Party candidate, has built businesses, something he says his opponents -- even Reed -- lack. Born legally blind, Lijewski said he encountered many roadblocks because of his disability and once had trouble finding even menial jobs.

"I decided that if I was going to have a productive and satisfying life I was going to have to create my own job," he said.

Lijewski launched a Lakeville radio station, 105.1-FM, which he later sold. He took the proceeds and built four more radio stations in northern Minnesota. He also launched a north-side taxi company, Premier Cab, and counts himself among the first ever to start a street-vending business on the Nicollet Mall.

His political interests and positions, he said, are not new.

"Probably for 20 years I've always figured I would run for an elected office at some point when the timing was right," he said. "It just happens that we're in between broadcast endeavors right now."

Presho, 25, acknowledges she is no typical Republican. She grew up in poverty on the north side, and early in her adult life she was forced to support her mother and grandparents while also trying to finish college. It meant 65-hour workweeks, and deep disappointment when she saw the bite taxes were taking out of her paychecks.

This led her to reject her DFL roots, Presho said. "I never saw … the DFL do anything for north Minneapolis," she said. "Politicians ignored us until recently."

The conversion was completed, she said, when she answered a job listing seeking someone will to help get out the vote for the Republican Party. She has since moved up the ladder to her present position as the state GOP's assistant controller.

Like Reed and Lijewski, Presho makes a point of pushing Downtown interests, saying a healthy Downtown benefits the entire district. And like her opponents, she said the DFL's Ellison isn't doing that.

"I don't think that Keith understands that that's what people in north Minneapolis are looking for right now," she said. "They're not looking for [a Democrat] that's going to assume himself into the position because that's how it normally goes."

Ellison calls such characterizations unfair. He works Downtown every day, uses Downtown amenities and takes advantage of its cultural life, he said. He also chafes at the notion that because he has been vocal in support of rights for African Americans and other dispossessed citizens, he can only represent their interests.

"My personal background and certain things I've been involved with should not be used to typecast me as only caring about North Side issues," he said. "I care about the whole district."

Machine politics Reed said he entered the race reluctantly after being urged by 5th Ward City Councilmember Natalie Johnson Lee and others to enter the race. "It took three weeks for them to convince me," he said.

Reed, who lives in what was District 59B, attended and participated in the 58B DFL convention where Ellison was endorsed. The proceedings left such a bad taste in his mouth that he left the party, Reed said.

One reason Reed said he was upset was that only two DFL candidates sought endorsement for an open seat. Also, only three former 59B delegates were invited to participate when there should have been 12 delegates from the Downtown portion of old 59B, he said.

Reed noted that Cherryhomes nominated Ellison, which he said gave the proceedings the tinge of old-style machine politics. "It was the old guard nominating new guard," he said. "It's almost like it was a done deal."

Ellison calls that allegation "absolutely absurd."

"Duane [Reed] is wrong when he says that the DFL is just protecting its power base," Ellison said. "I mean, that's the kind of conspiratorial stuff that might make for interesting reading, but it's just not factually supported. "

Rep. Gray agrees. "That's a fallacy," he said. "There is no machine here."

Gray worries that open political combat between Reed, Ellison and other candidates pitting the North Side against Downtown might be harmful to the newly formed district. "This is not the foot that we want to get off on after redistricting," Gray said.

To Gray, the new 58B is the "best district in Minnesota," and in its diversity it is a picture in microcosm of Minnesota two decades from now.

"We ought to celebrate that as a community, and not start pitting one group against another," he said. "And to the extent that … any of the candidates have done that, I think that's a huge mistake."

Added Gray: "Hopefully, once this is over, we can all sit down at a table and say, 'OK, how can we build the kind of bridges that are gong to allow this district to continue to move forward?'"