Rep. Keith Ellison works to position himself as a leading economic voice on the left

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 2, 2013 - 4:23 PM

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., center, waited to speak on a panel at the National Youth Economic Policy Forum at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Photos by Mary F. Calvert • Special to the Star Tribune,

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– In 2008, when Democratic firebrand Keith Ellison was deciding how to vote on an $800 billion bank bailout, one of the first calls he made was to ex-Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican.

Since 2006, Carlson and others have staged quarterly meetings of a financial services roundtable that facilitates frank, private discussions about business issues between Ellison and representatives of Minnesota’s investment and banking sectors.

Ellison trusts roundtable members to provide a point of view he may not agree with but needs to hear, a perspective he often does not get talking to the progressive Minneapolis constituency he represents in the U.S. House of Representatives. His talk with Carlson in 2008 helped persuade Ellison to vote for the bank bailout.

“He’ll get out a notebook and pen and start asking questions,” said current roundtable leader Stephen Lewis, board chairman of Columbia Funds. “I have been very impressed how he wants to learn.”

Ellison is schooling himself on economic matters for a reason. What he really wants is to lead a serious national economic movement with what he describes as a workable common-sense message for corporate America.

To better position himself at the Capitol, Ellison gave up other committee assignments to sit on the powerful House Financial Services Committee and its Capital Markets Subcommittee. If America will empower its rank-and-file workers with good jobs without regard to race or religion, he said, many other issues disappear.

Known for occasionally sparring with conservative talk show hosts, notably Sean Hannity of Fox News over automatic federal budget cuts, Ellison aims to provide a populist counterpoint to the conservative vision that commands the majority in the House. It’s a mission that should complement the politics of his district, which includes Minneapolis and is the state’s most ethnically diverse and Democratic-leaning.

“If you’re talking about a sustainable company that can rely on a decent margin of profit over the course of years and years, then your destiny is tied to the viability of the American middle class,” Ellison said. “And you cannot take so much advantage of that class of workers that they cannot afford to buy your product unless they borrow money to do so.”

He likens his approach to Henry Ford’s efforts to pay his workers enough to buy the cars they produced. Or, if you can’t think of Ellison as Henry Ford, try Paul Ryan of the left.

Not that the Republican-run House will debate an “Ellison Plan” any time soon. Ellison’s economic initiatives, including a plan to tax high-frequency Wall Street traders and a “Back to Work” budget that emphasizes government stimulus and higher taxes for the super-rich, are almost universally dead on arrival.

Reaching out to business

The first Muslim elected to Congress, Ellison believes the media has “overemphasized” his faith, causing “distortions.” Where he would like to lead is on economics.

“Members of Congress are typically viewed as experts in the areas their committees have jurisdiction over,” University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson said. Still, she added, as co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Ellison risks being permanently branded an ideologue and a partisan.

There is a way to re-brand, explained Norman Ornstein, who studies Congress for the American Enterprise Institute.

“You can be a populist firebrand interested in throwing bombs,” Ornstein said. “Or you can reach out to a wider range of people and make yourself a player that way,”

Ellison tries to visit at least one Minnesota business a week. He’s seen the giants — 3M, Target, Medtronic— and recently donned a brown UPS uniform to ride along on deliveries to small businesses.

In March, Ellison met with Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President David Olson to talk about workforce development and export promotion. He has been on five trade missions to Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

And there is the financial services roundtable that the congressman continues to attend.

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  • Ellison worked on his iPad before taking the stage with the panel. His e-book library is filled with treatises on finance and economics.

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