The nation's first Muslim elected to Congress, he overcame a summer full of controversy, winning by more than a 3-to-1 margin.
Fifth District voters made history Tuesday by sending state Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis to Congress, the first Muslim in the nation and the first black person from Minnesota to go to the U.S. House.
Ellison will succeed 28-year veteran Martin Sabo after defeating his two main opponents, Republican Alan Fine and Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee, by ratios of almost 3 to 1.
Lee and Fine were in a virtual tie for a distant second with nearly all returns in.
"I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility," Ellison said. "I feel like I've got a lot of work to do. I feel like I've got to pull people together and keep them together. We're having fun tonight, but tomorrow, it's on."
Despite attacks against him, Ellison said he had kept his campaign positive. "We put together a vision people could really be inspired by," he said. "We're happy our message of unity and positivity prevailed."
While Ellison ran as a "peace first" candidate who wants a resolution for the United States to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible, he said the war was only part of the message from his victory. "A lot of things were at play. The uninsured, I talked about that a lot and the need to strengthen our labor unions. I think we were able to pull together a message that people could get behind," he said.
His campaign attracted attention because of his groundbreaking status but also because of controversy over unpaid parking tickets, campaign violations and his associations past and present. The 43-year-old Detroit native and married father of four came to Minneapolis in the late 1980s to attend law school at the University of Minnesota. He converted to Islam while a student at Wayne State University in Detroit. His wife, Kim, and four children were with him at his victory party Tuesday evening at Trocaderos in downtown Minneapolis.
"I feel like a mother who just delivered. I'm not worried about any of the pain," Ellison said.
Travel executive Lee, of Golden Valley, had urged voters to make her the first Independence Party candidate elected to Congress. University of Minnesota business teacher Fine sought to become the rare Republican elected in the district that includes Minneapolis and inner-ring suburbs.
Ellison's vote tally was falling well short of the 70 percent Sabo received in 2004. The smaller margin likely was a reflection of the competitiveness, the addition of a high-profile third-party candidate and Ellison's problems.
The 2006 campaign began on St. Patrick's Day when word got out that Sabo would retire at the end of this term.
The DFL field filled up fast as candidates lined up. Less than two months later, DFLers endorsed Ellison, but several opponents stayed in the race.
Ellison stumbled badly over the summer and was declared a "dead man walking" by one political publication. Reports surfaced of unpaid parking tickets, a driver's license revocation, late tax payments and overdue campaign finance report filings. Ellison also was forced to respond to inquires about his relationship to the Nation of Islam and controversial leader, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, who has made anti-Semitic comments.
Ellison said that he was never a member of the group, but that he helped organize the Minnesota contingent to Farrakhan's Million Man March in 1995 in Washington, D.C. Ellison said the message of connecting black men to their families was appealing.
He won easily in the primary, but the next day, Fine held a news conference to say he was offended "as a Jew" by Ellison's candidacy.
Fine questioned Ellison repeatedly about the Nation of Islam, and the DFLer always denied membership. When a Star Tribune report discussed Fine's domestic assault arrest in 1995 - and its subsequent expungement from the public record - he accused the paper of trying to fix the election.
Fine's only mailing went to voters just before the election - a hard-hitting piece that brought up all of Ellison's troubles.
Late Tuesday, Fine praised Lee and said he might run again in two years. "You haven't seen the last of Alan Fine. I'm here to stay," he said.
Lee campaigned as a socially progressive, fiscally responsible candidate, pursuing a "rational" exit strategy from Iraq. "We represented the sensible center and not only claimed the middle ground, we claimed the high ground. No matter what the outcome, we won," she said.
Staff writer Curt Brown contributed to this report. Rochelle Olson 612-673-1747 firstname.lastname@example.org