Q & A with Keith Ellison

The representative believes in cutting interest rates on student loans.

by Courtney Blanchard

Since the November election, when he was elected to represent Minneapolis and some inner-ring suburbs in the U.S. Congress, Keith Ellison has been a busy man. As the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, he’s a regular on national media outlets.

But what matters most, Ellison said, is what he can do in Congress. The soon-to-be freshman representative recently sat down with the Daily to talk about legislation the new Congress will consider and how it might affect students.

What are your biggest legislative goals going into your first session?

Well, I’d like to see the United States get out of Iraq or at least redeploy in a way that gets American soldiers out of harm’s way, and see the United States try to engage the world community to have a political and diplomatic solution to the raging violence in Iraq.

No. 2, I’d like to see the United States increase the minimum wage. There hasn’t been an increase in minimum wage since 1997. It’s the longest period of time in which the minimum wage has not been increased.

I’d like to see us strip the subsidies to the big oil and gas energy companies and have those subsidies put into renewable energy.

I’d like to see us fix the “doughnut hole.” What that is, is that under Medicare Part D, which is the Bush prescription drug benefit, seniors get coverage from Medicare up to about $2,500, then after that, they’re 100 percent on their own up until they spend about $5,000, when they get subsidies again.

That’s cumulative over the course of a year, so around August, a lot of seniors were hitting the doughnut hole. That put them in a position where they had to beg their physician for samples, had to cut pills, had to go without, and some of this medication is very important for their health.

It’s something that we’ve got to fix. This prescription drug benefit is something that was written for the pharmaceuticals from the very beginning. Never was it to enhance the lives of our seniors.

How do you see the Democrats’ Six for ’06 plan faring in Congress? And which of these issues will affect students?

I think that the Six for ’06 plan is going to be extremely successful. As I was campaigning, I didn’t have in mind Six for ’06. I was just campaigning on the issues I cared about, and I knew that people in Minnesota cared about.

One of those issues was rebuilding college affordability. It so happened that one of the Six was college affordability Ö so it’s clearly something that people across the country are really concerned about, and nowhere is it more important than in Minnesota, where we’ve seen galloping tuition over the last several years.

So, we’ve got to cut the interest rates on student loans, increase Pell Grants dramatically and increase the HOPE Scholarship fund. We’ve got to make sure that we can consolidate these student loans.

We’ve got to make sure that the middle class and the poor in America can go to college. I think we’re increasingly moving towards a society where that’s going to be out of the reach of the average middle-class family.

During the campaign, you were adamant about higher education reforms, like providing loan forgiveness for students who work in the public interest. How real of a possibility is this when the next Congress convenes?

I think it’s a very real possibility. Here’s the thing about legislation: Once you tell yourself it’s not going to happen, it won’t. But if you tell yourself it can happen and you work at it, it just might.

So, it’s a realistic possibility, there’s a very strong reform agenda, and a very clear focus by the Democrats that college affordability is central to maintaining opportunity in America. And loan forgiveness is a crucial part of that, particularly for students who want to work in the public interest.

Whether people were happy about it or critical, outgoing (5th Congressional District) Rep. Martin Sabo was known for bringing in large sources of funding for the University and other projects around the state. Is this something you’ll work for also?

Yeah, it’s definitely something I’m going to work for, but you have to understand that Martin Sabo was a 28-year incumbent, and there’s just a certain amount of leverage you’re going to have for being there so long that no freshman is going to have. I don’t care who that freshman is. And so I hope people are somewhat patient knowing I’m going to be working hard and going to be very energetic.

Many people have turned to you as the voice on Islam at the Capitol. Do you see this role interfering with your style of personal and progressive interaction with the 5th District?

No, I don’t see any interference. I’m not a religious leader. I’m not going to take the mantle of religious leader on my shoulders because I’m not one. I’m going to continue to be progressive. I’m going to continue to stick up for the things I believe in, which are the same things that a lot of people from a lot of different faiths believe in.

The University has a large stake in the national stem cell research debate. Do you think that this is something Congress will address, or is it out of their minds?

No, it’s very much at the forefront of Congress’ mind. One of the Six for ’06 is lifesaving scientific research. Stem cell research is a big deal; I’ve already agreed to sign on a bill and can’t wait to put my name on that bill because I want to be a part of that lifesaving science that the University of Minnesota is going to help promote.

Have you been assigned to any committees yet, or do you have your eye on any in particular?

No, I’ve not been assigned to any committees, we’ll find out soon Ö I’m going to be happy no matter what committee I get on. I’m going to be working hard on that committee. I’ve put in a list of committee assignments that I want, but the bottom line is that I’m going to be really energetic no matter what one I’m on.

Which one of those have you expressed interest in?

I’ve expressed interest in the Energy and Commerce Committee, Judiciary Committee and Education and Workforce Committee. The most important thing is to work hard no matter what committee you’re on, and all the committees are important.