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WASHINGTON – 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.
Lewis believes Ellison’s attempt to define himself as an economic expert “is a really good thing” because it will make him a more effective representative.
“Do I agree with all of his positions? No,” said Lewis. “But I think he’s a pragmatic guy.”
Ellison credits the roundtable with raising his financial IQ. “Without their input, I would probably know a third of what I do now,” he said.
Treatises on finance and economics fill the e-book library on Ellison’s iPad. He reads them searching for the balance between the “good rules” and “economic liberty” that he believes in. The national economic plan he pushes weighs “what consumers need and what businesses need,” he said.
In 2010 Ellison ran for and won the co-chairmanship of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, landing a political pulpit from which to preach national economic reform.
“I am trying to move groups of people and persuade the body politic in a pragmatic way around a set of economic ideas,” he said.
Those ideas are unabashedly liberal, perhaps too liberal even for his own party, said Dan Holler, communications director of Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“Paul Ryan’s beliefs are the bedrock of the Republican Party now,” Holler noted. “Who knows if Ellison will translate into that.”
Focus on the middle class
Ellison’s plan includes “making the middle class the VIP of the economy” by using government regulations to prevent exploitation and corruption in business, by raising taxes on the super-rich, and by closing corporate tax loopholes.
Understanding how derivatives insuring subprime mortgage-backed securities triggered the Great Recession only reinforced Ellison’s beliefs.
While he hopes to find alternative revenue to replace a new tax on medical devices in deference to Medtronic’s, 3M’s and St. Jude Medical’s opposition, he remains irrevocably wedded to the health care law that spawned the tax.
Asked to comment on their relationship with Ellison, Target and Best Buy each issued statements that focused on points of agreement.
Ellison backed both retailers in their fights to tax Internet sales and limit debit card swipe fees. But he also supports raising the minimum wage and laws that make it easier for unions to organize workers.
“A business’ primary responsibility is to its shareholders,” Ellison explained. “I’m standing in different shoes. I care about businesses because they hire my constituents. But I have to be concerned about what’s good for consumers.”
In early May, Ellison wrote an op-ed for USA Today titled “Focus on jobs, not the deficit: Opposing view.”
“Every day,” he wrote, “Americans hear that we should starve the economy in order to save it. But this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.”
Ellison grew up in Detroit, the child of a psychiatrist and a social worker. He studied economics at Wayne State University before law school at the University of Minnesota. He practiced law in Minneapolis.
At 49, he’s written an autobiography, “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” that is due out in September. He hopes the book’s concepts of economic justice will “galvanize and influence large sections of Americans.”
Ellison insists the book presages no push for higher office. He says he’s happy to stay in a House seat considered one of the safest in Congress.
“We have two excellent senators. We have a great governor,” he said. “I support them.”
Ornstein does not think Ellison is viable for national office. But by becoming broader based and more practical, Ornstein said, Ellison could help shape the national economic debate.
On a recent day, Ellison hopscotched across the nation’s capital from a fair-wage rally to a youth economic policy forum at the AFL-CIO to a gathering of senior citizens fighting Social Security cuts.
“I don’t see myself as simply being a lone voice in the wilderness,” he said.
He will always be sensitive to matters of race and religion. But as he told a young black activist at the youth employment forum, “you live in more of a multicultural world than your ancestors.”
In an interview, Ellison was even more frank.
“You can’t move the political paradigm toward a fairer model of economic distribution without talking to the white middle class,” he said. “I believe you can solve a whole lot of problems if working people have a decent income.”