Black lawyer poised to be first Muslim member of US Congress

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The Independent US

Memories of September 11 are still bitter, and President George Bush's war against "Islamofascism" is in full swing. But a historic new bridge between America and its Muslims is about to be built. Barring a stunning upset, Keith Ellison will next year become the first ever Muslim member of the US Congress.

First, of course, Mr Ellison, 43, has to win the election on 7 November to claim his seat. But after his hard-fought, yet convincing, win in Tuesday's Democratic primary here, this is almost a foregone conclusion. Minnesota's 5th District, covering the thoroughly liberal metropolis of Minneapolis, is one of the party's safest seats in the House of Representatives. Its loss would be the equivalent of Labour being defeated in the mining valleys of Wales.

In the primary, Mr Ellison, a black lawyer and member of the state legislature, saw off the challenges of two eminently qualified rivals, the chief of staff of the former long-serving Democrat congressman for the district, and a female state senator supported by America's most influential women's groups. The general election pits him against a Republican, an independent and a Green candidate, but none is expected to run him close. Across the country, there were a host of significant results this week in the last major batch of primaries before the mid-term elections, in which Democrats are hoping to capture control of the House, and - if all goes perfectly for them - the Senate in Washington as well.

In perhaps the most closely watched contest, Senator Lincoln Chafee, the ultra-moderate Republican incumbent from Rhode Island, defeated an insurgency by an "unelectable" conservative - thus preserving his party's chances of hanging on to a seat that the Democrats have high hopes of winning in eight weeks' time.

In New York state, Hillary Clinton scored a crushing victory in her Senate primary against an anti-Iraq war candidate, while Eliot Spitzer steamrollered aside his opponents for the Democratic nomination for governor. In Washington DC, the 35-year old firebrand Adrian Fenty won the Democratic mayoral primary, tantamount to the general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic capital. But none is a potential landmark to match the victory of Mr Ellison.

You would not guess it to listen to him. Mr Ellison, who converted to Islam as a 19-year-old student, prays five times a day. But he rarely mentions his faith when campaigning. Instead he described himself as "the proven progressive in the race." He may be a Muslim, "but I'm not running as a Muslim candidate". Instead, assuming he is elected in November, Mr Ellison will become the new bearer of a distinctive Minnesotan liberal torch, once carried by the former Democratic vice-presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, and the late and much-loved Senator Paul Wellstone, killed in a plane accident on the eve of the 2002 mid-term vote. The Wellstone imprint on the Ellison campaign has been unmistakable - from the campaign colour of green to many of Mr Wellstone's signature policies.

Like Mr Wellstone, the congressman-in-waiting vehemently opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He advocates state-backed universal health care for Americans, and a big increase in the minimum wage."We will long remember this moment and this night," the victor declared at his election night headquarters at the Blue Nile restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. "This was when all of God's children, all religions and all colours came together around a common agenda." But for a spell, it was not so easy. This was a roller-coaster of a primary campaign. Endorsement in May by the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labour (DFL) organisation - as the Democratic party is known in Minnesota - seemed to guarantee Mr Ellison a smooth takeover of the seat held by the popular and influential Martin Sabo for 28 years.

But the heir apparent was swiftly confronted by a string of embarrassments - some unearthed by a Republican blog, The revelations ranged from links with Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of Nation of Islam, and allegations of anti-Semitism, to the disclosure that Mr Ellison had had his driving licence suspended earlier this year over some unpaid parking tickets, and that he had been late in paying tax payments in the 1990s.

But the candidate repudiated Mr Farrakhan, flatly denied he had ever been anti-Semitic or racist, and then won over leaders of the local Jewish community. Earlier this month Mr Ellison received a crucial endorsement from The American Jewish World, Minnesota's Jewish magazine. The parking tickets meanwhile have been settled and the back taxes paid. Most important, voters have forgiven him.

Statistically, a Muslim member of Congress is long overdue. Though proportionately a smaller group than in Britain, which has four Muslim MPs, Muslims number between two and six million in the US, up to 2 per cent of the total population. Not one, however, has ever served in the 435-seat House of Representatives or 100-member Senate.

The road to Congress

* Born 4 August, 1963, named Keith Maurice Ellison.

* Raised a Roman Catholic in Detroit with his four brothers.

* Attends Wayne State University in Detroit where he converts to Islam at the age of 19.

* Marries in 1987, moves to Minneapolis, attends University of Minnesota Law School.

* Takes the Juris Doctor law degree atMichigan Law School.

* Elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2002.

* Wins 5th District Democratic primary on 12 September, 2006.