Democrats' Dilemma: Will They Embrace Candidate Backed by CAIR?

Heading into November, Democrats potentially have a story that ought to be both feel-good and helpful in appealing to a small, but growing constituency. The Democratic congressional candidate for Minnesota’s very blue 5th District is on the verge of becoming the first-ever Muslim elected to Congress.

But embracing the candidate poses enormous risks. Keith Ellison has a disturbing history with the Nation of Islam and has received financial and other help from a self-identified supporter of Hamas.

Over the next two months, the Democrats will need to embrace or distance itself from Ellison. Democratic credentials on national security could be undermined if they fail to denounce a candidate closely allied with someone that a senior Democrat described as having “intimate connections to Hamas.”

Known for months has been that Ellison was involved in the 1990s with the Nation of Islam, which even he now concedes is racist and anti-Semitic. In a letter of apology to the local Jewish community, Ellison claimed that he was never a member of the Nation of Islam and thus didn’t realize until later the organization’s ugly ideology. But according to press accounts at the time, Ellison served as Nation of Islam spokesman at a 1997 public hearing where he defended—in his own words—“the truth” of a government official’s supposed comment that “Jews are the most racist white people.”

Only learned recently and far more troubling is Ellison’s seemingly tight connection with Nihad Awad, co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), whom he met almost two decades ago at the University of Minnesota.  

Ellison’s campaign obviously has downplayed the affiliation with Awad. But here are the facts: Awad headlined a fundraiser last month that the campaign estimates netted $15,000 to $20,000, and in July, and it appears that CAIR’s co-founder bundled contributions totaling more than $10,000. (The campaign issued a terse denial on the latter point, though it refused to explain away overwhelming evidence to the contrary.) The campaign has gone so far as to suggest that Awad did all this without having any contact with someone he’s known since the late 1980s.

The Democrat’s supporters have taken a different tack. Rather than defend Awad or downplay his connections to the candidate, Ellison partisans have attempted to paint attacks on the candidate as overtly partisan or even bigoted. A Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist, for example, recently suggested that Ellison is under attack solely for being Muslim.

But it is top Democrats that have issued some of the most stinging rebukes of CAIR. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s second-leading Democrat, has said that CAIR “is unusual in its extreme rhetoric and its association with groups that are suspect.” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has stated flatly that CAIR “has ties to terrorism.” Schumer has special disdain for Awad and CAIR’s other co-founder, Omar Ahmad, saying in a 2003 hearing that both men have “intimate connections with Hamas.”

The words most damning to CAIR, though, have been uttered by its co-founders. At Barry University in Florida in 1994, Awad declared, “I’m in support of the Hamas movement.”  Addressing a youth session at the 1999 Islamic Association of Palestine convention in Chicago, Ahmad glorified suicide bombers who “kill themselves for Islam”: “Fighting for freedom, fighting for Islam, that is not suicide. They kill themselves for Islam.” (Transcript provided by the Investigative Project.)

Despite representing the Nation of Islam and currently affiliating with Awad, Ellison has received the unabashed support of the Minnesota Democrat-Farm-Labor Party and its activists. He won the party’s official endorsement in May, then won what was essentially a three-way primary last week with 41%. Praise has not yet poured in, however, from national Democrats.

While Democrats need to win every seat possible race in order to take control of the House, distancing the party from Ellison likely would not cost him the victory in a district Kerry won with 71%. Which means that Democrats could give Ellison an ultimatum to sever ties with CAIR and Awad without risking losing the seat.

Even if cold-shouldering Ellison could result in a win-win, the party would risk alienating Muslims, a small, but potent voting bloc in several key states. Democrats might well prefer to bask in the glow of “first Muslim in Congress” stories that are sure to start running even before November.

Right now, Democrats in Washington appear divided. The Democratic National Committee referred this columnist to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and that organization dodged questions about the candidate, offering only this platitude: “We feel confident that Minnesota families will decide to send him to Congress this November.”

At a certain point, especially if controversy surrounding Ellison and his affiliations mounts, national Democrats likely will respond decisively. But even if they choose to remain silent, his welcome on Capitol Hill if he wins, particularly what committee assignments he receives, could be scrutinized not just by Republicans, but even many Democrats.

No wonder national Democrats are taking their time.