Jan. 5, 2007: A jubilant day of firsts in Congress

  • Article by: Kevin Diaz and Brady Averill
  • Star Tribune
  • July 21, 2007 - 11:31 AM

With eyes from around the world on him, a jubilant Keith Ellison took office Thursday as a Minnesota representative, holding his left hand on a Qur'an once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

It was a day of firsts. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, was sworn in by Nancy Pelosi of California, the first female House speaker. And just hours earlier, fellow Minnesotan Amy Klobuchar, accompanied by former Vice President Walter Mondale, was sworn in as the state's first elected female senator.

Two other fresh Minnesota faces were also sworn in: Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat, and Michele Bachmann, the state's first elected Republican woman in Congress. But most eyes were fixed on Ellison, a 43-year-old attorney and former state representative.

"It's a day of welcoming," said Ellison, accompanied by his wife, Kim, and their four children, including 12-year-old Elijah, wearing an African kenti cloth draped over his suit.

"You sure know how to attract a crowd," Pelosi said to Ellison as they prepared for his ceremonial swearing-in before hundreds of journalists from around the world, including Al Jazeera.

Replied Ellison: "Maybe they're here for you."

Ellison then held his right hand in the air and placed his left hand on two brown leather-bound volumes of the Qur'an, which were held by his wife, a teacher at an alternative school in St. Paul.

The ceremony took place moments after the entire 110th Congress was sworn in en masse on the House floor. Ellison shook hands with Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., who earlier had criticized him for his plan to use the Qur'an.

Ellison said he followed through with his plan to suggest coffee with Goode, whose district includes Jefferson's historic home of Monticello. He said Goode accepted.

"I don't anticipate we're going to have any problems," Ellison said. Ellison, introducing his family to the media, gave a thumbs-up sign and said, "We're here to work for the American people."

Ellison's ceremonial swearing in took place in silence, apart from the sounds of camera clicks. The two volumes, published in London in 1764, were immediately placed in a white box and returned to Librarian of Congress James Billington, who walked them to the Library of Congress across the street, taking a maze of tunnels.

"They have to be handled lightly," Billington said. "I'm liable for them." Later, Ellison characterized his faith as mainstream American and tried to minimize the hype over Goode and the Qur'an, challenging an Arab journalist's contention that Americans dislike Muslims.

Klobuchar and her family took part in a ceremonial swearing in with Vice President Dick Cheney, who helpfully maneuvered Klobuchar's mother, Rose, in a wheelchair, into the picture.

'Dream come true'

Also taking part in history was Bachmann, who stood with her three daughters while she took the oath of office. Among the four new Minnesotans in Congress, she is the only Republican. While she was happy to get down to business on the Democrats' tougher new ethics rules, she said she was disappointed that she had less than 24 hours to review the package before the first votes were scheduled.

Around 50 family and friends were in town to help Bachmann celebrate her first days as a congresswoman.

"I've been pinching myself, asking myself if it's a dream," she said. "The answer is yes, it is - it's a dream come true."

'The people's House'

True to his common-man image, Walz changed his son's diaper on his first day as a congressman. "I think I'm the only congressman to change a diaper on a desk," he said shortly before his swearing-in. As he prepared to take the oath of office, he held his son, Gus, who spit up on him. His daughter, Hope, was at his side. After Pelosi was sworn in as speaker, she invited children to touch the gavel. Hope was among the children who got to stand next to Pelosi.

Walz, the only Minnesotan to unseat an incumbent in last fall's elections, said the highlight of his day was bringing his children to the House floor: "So people back home really feel like it's the people's House," he said.

A military man and a public school teacher, Walz said he wants to be a voice for the middle class. He said, "If I lose that, I probably won't be here."

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