Ellison discusses life in U.S. House

Ellison praises the success of the first 100 hours of the 110th U.S. Congress.

Courtney Blanchard

Keith Ellison remains close to his roots, despite election publicity and controversy that turned him into a household name. His constituent office is in the Minneapolis Urban League building, where he practiced law before being elected to the Minnesota House five years ago.

Ellison set aside time Saturday to talk with the Daily. In green flannel, Ellison wandered around his office in north Minneapolis with his daughter, Amirah, and talked about his first few weeks in Congress.

What’s the biggest difference between St. Paul politics and D.C. politics?

Local politics is closer to the people. When you’re in the state legislature, you go into the grocery store and you’re talking to your folks right there. Well it’s the same way as a U.S. congressman, but you’re not home as much, so it’s a little harder. But it’s still just as important to stay in close contact with people.

The issues are a little different. You know, being able to be directly involved in this Iraq war policy and being able to oppose it as closely as I can from Congress is different. Before, we could have resolutions against the war all we wanted in the Statehouse, but they were pretty much symbolic. Now, it’s really real business.

Now that these 100 hours are over, what do you think are the biggest successes in the push for legislation?

Well, the 100 hours itself was a big success, because it signals changes to come: a new way of doing politics, a new politics of generosity, a new politics of inclusion, a new politics of a fair economy. And so you just look at the ingredients. To be able to vote to lower interest rates on student loans is a tremendous benefit to people and their families.

Then again, it wasn’t just students and young people. The reform of the Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit, signals that our seniors are precious to us, too. And that we’re never going to allow them to be in a situation where they have to pick food or medicine or rent. They’re going to be able to maintain a quality of life that’s consistent with their own dignity, and we’re going to keep their golden years golden.

And then, of course, we made a bold step in terms of life-saving research, and to make sure cures that could be found and discovered through stem-cell research are going to be available. And then we sent a really strong signal that we’re not going to let big oil and big coal continue to pollute our environment and get subsidies.

What do you think should have been done that wasn’t?

I mean, it’s important to understand this: To do the 100 hours program we had to suspend the rules. Normally stuff like this goes through committee, but we suspended the rules to say to the American people, “Look, these Republicans have been in power since 1994 and they didn’t do these important things that we did in 100 hours.”

So, what’s left out? Nothing’s left out. This 100 hours is not the end of our program, it’s the beginning.

Why did Congress decide to cut interest rates on student loans instead of tackling grants or other programs?

This is the beginning to signal change. How long has tuition at the University of Minnesota been galloping skyward? Well, the federal government has not come to your rescue, have they? No. This is 100 hours just to give you a taste of what it means to have Democrats in control.

Of course we’re gong to talk about Pell Grants, the HOPE Scholarship; of course we’re going to tackle this college affordability in a more comprehensive way. But we didn’t want you guys to sit around waiting … look at this as earnest money. Look at this as a down payment on a better future.

You’re on a bill that calls for withdrawing troops from Iraq. Does it say how to get out of Iraq?

Yeah, no new bases. No, it doesn’t, well, it doesn’t say exactly how to get out. But, it does say what the policy will be: no new permanent bases, no money for the surge, additional veterans benefits.

The way to get out is to start getting out. The Woolsey, Lee, Waters bill says “redeploy and withdraw within six months.” I agree with that, if not sooner.

Michele Bachmann has said that she wants to go over to Iraq to see it for herself. Is that something that you’d want to do, too?

Long before Michele Bachmann was saying that, I was saying that. No, no, I’m clear. I’ve been consistent. I’ve already put steps in place about me going to Iraq. I’ve already made formal requests, and I’m Ö very anxious to do it. And also Afghanistan. I don’t know when … that’s something they tell you.

Do you have any ideas of bills you want to author yourself?

We have a number of bills on environmental justice we’re going to introduce, consumer credit, to help relieve citizens from the crushing debt that’s piling up on their shoulders. We have bills in mind to expand the vote and the franchise for more Americans, so more people can participate and have a stake in our society.