Rabbi Lerner interviews Congressman Keith Ellison

Editor’s Note: Last week I had the opportunity to interview Representative Keith Ellison about his thoughts on everything from identity politics to the Global Marshall Plan (a resolution which Representative Ellison has supported and introduced to Congress several times!) to his decision to leave Congress and run for Attorney General of Minnesota. He has publicly aligned himself with the approach to tikkun olam (the healing and transformatin of the world) which we at Tikkun and our interfaith and secular-humanist-and-atheist-welcoming NSP–Network of Spiritual Progressives–have pioneered. And in case you’ve ever thought that Tikkun is just “preaching to the choir,” Breitbart News, the voice of American ultra-nationalist Right-wing extremism, has already written about this interview almost immediately when we put this up on our website a few hours ago–to try to find something wrong with Ellison. Please do share this with your friends and social media contacts.

–Rabbi Michael Lerner rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com .  [Tikkun/NSP does NOT endorse candidates for office or support any political party]

ML: Well, what I want to ask you first of all is in running for – if I understand it correctly you’re running for attorney general, then you can’t simultaneously be running for Congress, is that true?

KE: That is true.

ML: So that means you’re giving up the congressional seat.

KE: That is true.

ML: Why?

KE: Let me tell you, I am giving up the congressional seat but there are really good people who are running in my place. I’ve been working to develop their talent and skill and I believe in them. So it’s going to be fine. But the reason I’m leaving Congress is because I think I can help more people faster in the Minnesota Attorney General’s office than I can in Congress. As you know, state attorney generals have been leading the fight on a multitude of things, including on the first three battles that were fought on the travel/Muslim ban were by attorney generals, including the Minnesota Attorney General. And also, the fight against the separation policy where the Trump administration is separating children from parents, is being led by state attorney generals. Including other things, like state attorney generals are fighting back to protect the Affordable Care Act. State attorney generals are fighting back to fight for net neutrality. Also Minnesota has joined several other states in fighting the opioid crisis because manufacturers made false claims in marketing about the level of addiction and effectiveness of these drugs. But not only that, California’s Attorney General is suing Betsy DeVos and is being joined by other state attorneys general because student loan services are defrauding student loan borrowers and charging them more money, things like that. So I feel like the most effective way I can be a part of the struggle today is by joining the fight to become Minnesota Attorney General then by standing up for consumers, standing up for people in terms of their rights as citizens. It’s about economic rights and civil human rights, and that’s the fight I’m jumping into.

ML: Yeah, great. Well maybe you want to say a bit more about those two things. About economic rights and civil human rights and what you have in mind, because you mention a number of other things that other attorney generals are also doing. Are there any specific things that are unique to your candidacy?

KE: Well yeah, one unique thing is that it’s for the people of the state of Minnesota. But, you know, I do plan on being aggressive and helping to lead the effort nationally, with the help of other attorneys general.

There are a number of things that I’m quite concerned about, one of them being antitrust. If you look at any industry here in the United States, nearly all of them are concentrating at an alarming rate. We’ve seen a number of mergers and acquisitions and these things are bad for consumers, they’re bad for workers, they’re bad for small businesses, they’re bad for innovation, and they’re bad because they make everywhere just like everywhere else. I mean if you’ve ever driven down the highway in California or Minnesota or New York, what are you going to see? You’re going to see Chili’s, you’re going to see Target, you’re going to see Walmart, and it’s all the same. Actually the product diversity and the diversity of companies and small businesses makes for a richer life for all of us. And this massive standardization that goes along with this market concentration and this trust building is a bad thing.

And I also think, Rabbi, that if you look at wage stagnation in the United States, part of it is explained by the fact of monopsony. Now we talk about monopoly, but what’s the other side? Monopsony. If a company is the only buyer of labor in the community it determines the wages. If you have multiple employers then you can have them compete for workers and wages will rise. But if there’s just one or two or three they can say this is what we’re paying, that’s all we’re paying, and if you don’t like it, move. And that’s a bad thing. So I do want to break ground and lead on that front as well.

And I also think that the Minnesota Attorney General can offer leadership when it comes to criminal justice. Now it is the prerogative of local county officials to do most of the prosecution, but the attorney general has a role to play in terms of officer involved shooting – when it comes to training, when it comes to coordination, when it comes to screening, when it comes to the education process.

The attorney general has also a lot to say about second chance. Are we going to have a whole set of collateral consequences for ex-felons or are we going to try to get them back into society where they can be productive? Things like voting, things like rationalizing some of the restrictions. Now look, I would be opposed to somebody with a sex offense working in a day care, obviously. But if you have a prior small felony, small theft, why shouldn’t you be able to pursue a social work license, for example? And there’s a lot of things that people are restricted from that they shouldn’t be. So if you have a prior theft conviction you can’t get a barber’s licence. We’re lacking people out of the market and we should be trying to create more ways where people can pursue their economic lives –

ML: Yeah, beautiful –

KE: -not less.

ML: So um, you know that there’s attempts to create a different kind of legal process in which –

KE: Sure.

ML: – there is a kind of way of seeing the criminal or the person charged with a crime in terms of the context of who he has hurt, and trying to bring a process in which you don’t first go for throwing people into jail, but first go for trying to reconstruct the damage that’s been down to the community.

KE: Sure.

ML: Now I’m wondering if that kind of approach is something that interests you.

KE:  Yeah, restorative justice is incredibly important to me. I’ve been working on it for years and years. When I was a director of the Legal Rights Center in Minnesota, we had several restorative justice programs which included family conferencing circles, which included mediation, which included a number of ways to try to fill the hole that was inflicted by the harm. So now you cannot always put victims and defendants back together, but sometimes you can, particularly when the victim wants to be able to say, “Here’s what you did to me, here’s how it affected my life.” And sometimes victims want that more than they want somebody to go to a jail sentence.

Let’s just say that somebody throws a rock and it breaks a window. You know, then they get a fine, they get restitution, they get jail, but they never have to go back to that person and say, “I’m really sorry I hurt you.” And sometimes that’s what the victim really wants. It completes the circle and allows for true justice to take place. And I’ve seen cases where one mother lost her son at the hands of a young man. That young man went to prison, got out. That woman reached out to her son’s killer and now this woman – whose name is Mary Robinson – goes on speaking tours with this young man and she says, “He’s my son now, and I know that when he shot and killed my son he was a 16 year-old kid. He had a lot of problems in his life and my son could have been the one shooting him. And I just hope that we can stop the violence, start the healing, and build bonds of community between each other.” But these things are not easy. And it’s a lot easier if political leaders will stand for attempts at restorative justice.

ML: Yeah, beautiful. Is there any way that in your position – should you win for attorney general – that you could impact the problem of mass incarceration of people of color?

KE: Oh, yeah. But you know, let me just tell you, people of color are not the only ones mass incarcerated. People of color are certainly mass incarcerated. But the United States could not be the world’s leader in incarceration if all we did is lock up people of color. There’s a lot of white people doing time that wouldn’t be in a more rational system than the one we have. So to answer your main question – what do we do about mass incarceration and what do we do about the disproportionate impact on communities of color, what to do we do. Well I want to be a voice, and have been one, for pushing back on mass incarceration. So, for example, right now I’ve been part of a group in Congress that helped reduce drug sentencing from 100-1 to 18-1 when it comes to powder versus crack cocaine. As people know who’ve watched the drug trade, and the drug war, whites are much more likely to have powder cocaine and blacks are more likely to have crack. Crack is sentenced 100 times more than powder cocaine, which led to massive disparities that hit communities of color particularly hard. And I was part of the effort to reduce that disparity. I’d like to see it go to 1-1, quite frankly. I’d like to get rid of mandatory minimum sentencing and turn sentencing back to judge and probation. Let’s do that. I’d like to change the system to put in much more job creation, job training, and drug treatment within the prison walls that if people complete it, they could get time reductions.

And I think we should just straight up cut sentences. They’ve been too high. I mean, as a matter of fact, when I was a state legislator a few years ago, I co-authored a piece of legislation with a guy named Eric Lipman who was a conservative Republican. Eric and I introduced a bill to cut drug sentencing – not way down, but just to be the same as other states in our region – and we got hit with a tremendous pushback. People thought, well, you’re just letting these people run amok. We’re like, no, we’re not going to let people run amok, we know even the nonviolent drug offender is a tremendous nuisance in the neighborhoods in which they do what they do. We’re not saying do nothing, we’re saying don’t put them in prison because that doesn’t do anything except waste a lot of money.

So what we want to do is reduce sentencing and put the money into drug treatment, put the money into job creation, and put the money into things that might put people on a more productive path. What we learned is that most people who are out on the corner selling drugs don’t want to be there. You know, if you have a neighborhood that has 65% unemployment, people will take drugs or they will sell drugs. This is the way it is. I’m not trying to excuse behaviour but I’m trying to realistically deal with behavior as opposed to just folding my arms and moralizing. Why don’t we do something about a problem and try to actually solve it?

And you know, in my view, that is what a Minnesota Attorney General should actually be doing: trying to be a problem solver, trying to help lead the way to getting people back into society as opposed to creating a permanent underclass of people. And may I also mention restoring the vote. Restoring the vote is essential. You know in Maine and Vermont, you never lose your right to vote if you commit a crime.

There’s no reason why people who go to prison should be essentially non-citizens for the purposes of voting. They should be allowed to vote, they should be able to participate in society, and I’m a very strong advocate of felon re-enfranchisement.

ML: Yeah. Now there has been a systematic effort on the part of some of the Right-wing billionaires to try to exclude people – both people of color but also poor people – from the voting roles. Would you have any ability to have some oversight over that issue, should you become the Attorney General?

KE: Absolutely. In fact, in our own state of Minnesota, people were interfering on a systematic basis with the right of Native Americans to vote. There were several reservations – Red Lake, Leech Lake, and a few others – where people were showing up there and trying to interfere with their right to vote. As Minnesota Attorney General I’ll collaborate with the secretary of state, a good friend of mine named Steve Simon, to make sure that every vote is counted and everybody was able to participate. That would be the goal, that would be the purpose. And I think that is absolutely essential.

Plus I would band together with other state attorney generals to protect the vote. You’ve got to protect the vote. You know, in our country, the United States, we have a historic drop in voter participation. We need to increase participation. We need to get more people voting, not fewer. One of the things that we’ve seen since World War I is a gradual decline in voter participation. I will always be one of those folks who are saying we need to invite more people to democracy, increase the participation in our society, and as a Minnesota Attorney General that is one of the things I’m running to do.

ML: There’s also been an effort on the part of some of the most Right-wing elements in the Christian, Zionist, and Jewish community to make it illegal to support any kind of boycott of Israel or to even talk about that, to make it illegal for people on campuses to talk about it. I’m wondering if you have any sense of how your office might deal with that kind of suggestion, should it happen in Minneapolis.

KE: Well, look, I am not a part of the BDS movement. I don’t support the movement, but I also do oppose people being prohibited or punished or sanctioned from offering their own views on what they believe is right. I think that it is important for people on campus to be able to express their First Amendment rights about issues they believe are critical and important. And I would not be able to support any effort to sanction or punish people because of their concerns that they want to raise about the conflict in the Middle East. I just think it’s the wrong approach.

Personally, I believe we should try to get more dialogue between people. I think we should get more conversation going on between people. But if somebody wants to be a BDS supporter, I think they have a right to do that.

ML: Yes, that’s exactly our position, by the way, at Tikkun. We don’t support BDS but we do support the right of people to articulate it and push for it, if that’s what they believe is good. We think it’s a destructive strategy that is not actually helping the Palestinian cause, but in any event, I appreciate what you say on this.

KE: But I do think it’s important – I mean, look, why spend all our time fighting about this issue? Let’s try to create more justice everywhere around the world, including the Middle East, including in the Holy Land. Let’s try to figure out how we can increase democracy and human rights everywhere.

ML: Right, well that leads me to another point which is that one of the things that we have been saying at Tikkun was that the Middle East would be served by a Global Marshall Plan. And you introduced a resolution into the Congress this year and several times in the past years, which is deeply appreciated –

KE: It’s going to happen, Rabbi, it’s going to happen, one day –

ML: I think so! But that Global Marshall Plan is really an answer to the question of – first of all, how do you deal with immigration? Answer: make those countries that people are coming from safe enough and prosperous enough so that they don’t have to come to the United States. They’ll be able to feed their children before they starve to death, or before they have to prostitute their children in order to make it possible. And similar in the Middle East, if it were possible for Israel to act in a generous way towards the Palestinian people and create a Marshall Plan for the area – along with assistance from the United States – we’d go a long way towards reconciliation. That, right now, is a distant possibility. I just want to thank you for introducing the Global Marshall Plan into the Congress over the course of the years.

KE: Well, thank you. May I say that I will talk to my successors about the importance of the Global Marshall Plan. This is a tradition that we have to carry on, we have to continue to fight for.

And I might also mention to you, Rabbi, and everyone listening, that, look, the so-called or what we used to call the “First World,” the developed part of the globe, relies for its prosperity – let’s be honest – on low wages, low levels of civil and human rights enforcement, and low levels of environmental protection in what we used to call the “Third World.” In fact, our prosperity is based on the want that is experienced in other parts of the world. It’s important to understand that we should give something back because if there’s prosperity all over the globe, then why would anyone want to leave a place where they speak the language, they have their family, they know the culture, just to go to another place to be discriminated against and mistreated? It doesn’t make any sense. They’re leaving because – take for example Mexico. Since NAFTA, Mexican wages have dropped between 9 and 13%. Now some people have said to me, “Oh, Keith, that’s too bad for them.” My answer is, no that’s too bad for us because that means those people are going to be a low-wage sector not only in Mexico but here in the United States. And the undocumented worker is an exploited worker. We just have to say that the 12 million undocumented people in the United States are here because somebody wants them to be be. They want them here to do the work but they don’t want them to get any rights. They don’t want to pay them fairly, they don’t want them to be able to bargain collectively, they don’t want them to be able to get occupational safety and standards, and that is what’s really going on.

And these trade agreements allow capital to travel over borders. And all capital is is people who happen to own something we call a corporation, which is a legal arrangement that gives them special rights. And labor, which is a regular person, cannot travel back and forth across the border. So corporations – certain people who get certain rights – can go back and forth across the border seeking out the lowest wages but people, regular people, cannot go back and forth across the border seeking out the highest wages. So what it creates is an imbalance, it creates an injustice, and it creates the need for something like a Global Marshall Plan. Yes, we need to have fair trade rules, yes we need to make sure we raise labor standards everywhere, not reduce them – we need to raise environmental standards everywhere, not reduce them. But we also need to rebuild the part of the world that so many of us rely on to get everything from cheap flowers to cheap strawberries to cheap this to cheap that. We need to understand our interconnectedness globally.

ML: Yes. Now you know we’ve proposed this other thing called the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution. I just wondered if you might comment on two parts of it. One part, the first part, says that all money should be banned from politics at the state and national level except money that is allocated equally by the state legislature on the state level or by the Congress on the national level, equally to the major parties and to other important candidates. The second part –

KE: I agree. I’m for that.

ML: That would get money out of politics in a real way. Not the weaker plans that say Congress should be allowed to do this because Congress is often bought off by the very interests that we want to take out of politics. So the first part is that. Second part is a little bit more controversial, and it says that corporations with incomes above fifty million dollars a year should have to get a new corporate charter once every five years. We’re not talking about mom and pop corporations here, we’re talking about the big corporations –

KE: So far, so good-

ML: – They have to prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens who get to hear testimony, not only from the people where they are located but anybody all over the world, any community who has been affected by the operations of that corporation gets to testify before this jury. Or to send it- they don’t have to do it the way we’re doing it, they don’t have to show up they can do it on the Internet. And the corporations have to prove to the jury that they actually are working in an environmentally responsible and socially responsible way or they face the possibility of losing their corporate charter. What do you think about that?

KE: Let me tell you this. I like the concept and here’s why. A charter is in effect a public license to operate a corporate entity – it wasn’t always a part of our world that there were these things we now call corporations.

ML: Right.

KE: It was really kind of from an outgrowth of the 1860s that the corporate entity began to develop. It is a license, and if it’s a license why shouldn’t that license be associated with things that licenses are often associated with. If I have a driver’s’ license that means I’m going to operate an automobile responsibility, I’m going to insure, I’m going to obey traffic laws. If I have a license to sell peanuts, I’m going to sell them on the place and time, manner, and location that the license allows for. Now a charter is really just a license to operate a public entity. And before the 1860s they had licenses, they had charters, but they were limited in time and scope and for a certain kind of purpose. You could start a corporation to build a bridge, to build a windmill, to do certain kinds of specific duties because people then knew that if you gave an entity the kind of power a corporation has it could cause trouble. Well, we’re in a world now where corporate responsibility, I think, is something that we’re in much greater need for.

ML: Yeah.

KE: And look, there might be people listening to me and saying, “Oh, Keith doesn’t like corporations.” Wrong. I used to own one. I ran a law firm and I had a corporation that owned the company. I don’t have a problem with the concept of a corporation, I have a problem with the lack of accountability. And I do think corporate licenses should be limited in duration and scope. There needs to be a showing that you are abiding by the public interests as defined by public representatives – what you’re talking about.

ML: Mmhmm.

KE: So look, I’m not here to say that every detail is…you know, I don’t know, I’m going to study it. I’m going to tell you that I like the idea of limiting a corporate charter and time. I like the idea of a corporation needing to make a case to a group of citizen jurors that their corporate charter should be renewed. I like that. I like the concept.

ML: Okay, great. One variant that we’re proposing also is because that concept would require a constitutional amendment, there’s no way that the Supreme Court as it is or is likely to be in the next twenty years is going to approve anything serious about giving corporations responsibility without there being an amendment to the Constitution that imposes on a Right-wing court requirements that are really spelled out in detail. But a short step in this direction is to require the state or its localities, when they have a contract to offer and they offer it to corporations to bid on, to require a social and environmental impact report from those corporations, then award the contract to that corporation which can fulfil the terms of the contract in a reasonable price but, amongst those, has the best record of environmental and social responsibility. So it would require that whoever is offering the contract, whether it be the city of Minneapolis or whether it be the state, allow for that process in which you’d be rewarding those corporations which have the best record of social and environmental responsibility.

KE: You know, here’s the thing, you can’t have it both ways. If the Supreme Court and people who claim that a corporation is a person, with the rights of a person – actually a corporation has way more rights than a person as you know –

ML: Right, yes.

KE: But the fact is that they want these sort of rights, there’s going to have to become responsibility. What they want is rights with no responsibility.

ML: Right.

KE: And so my thought is that there is a growing movement that the corporate entity has played such an inordinate role in the lives of people that it’s going to have to take on more responsibility than just profits for its shareholders. There’s going to be more that they’re going to have to do. There’s going to have to be some responsibility, environmental responsibilities, responsibilities for workers, responsibilities of all kinds. I mean you cannot simply allow a creation of human beings, which a corporation absolutely is, to simply have greater power than other human beings. As I mentioned before, it is true that all a corporation is is a group of people who get a license from the government to do certain things. And what it has grown into is that they get a license to do things that no human can ever do. Human beings die, corporations don’t. Human beings can go to jail, corporations don’t have a body to go to jail. People have consciences, corporations have no conscience. In fact, you can sue a corporation if it acts like it has a conscience nowadays. And so the bottom line is that this is a growing movement and people are going to expect more from the corporate entity than they have in the past in part because of the role that corporations play in our lives, which is deciding everywhere from what the budget is going to be to what our tax rates are going to be to the standard and quality of our water, our air, human rights, all these kinds of things corporations have a say in. Therefore they are going to have to have some responsibility too, and I am all good with that.

ML: Yes, yes, great. So now to one or two questions about the politics of the situation. First of all, you’ve been the vice chair –

KE: Deputy chair.

ML: The deputy chair. Okay.


ML: But from what – now this might be purely out of ignorance because my information comes from The New York Times and so forth, not from hearing what’s going on in the inside – but it appears as if the Democratic Party, on the national level, is doing the same thing that the current mayor of Chicago did when he was in a position to shape the candidates in 2006, which is picking people to run not because they particularly share the mainstream or certainly not the liberal or progressive side of the Democratic Party, but rather people who, in their mind, are sure winners, in part because they’re more like Republicans than Democrats! [Laughs] And I’m wondering, you know, we’re seeing this right now with some legislation in which key Democratic senators are siding with the Republicans. I’m wondering if you’ve seen any of this and what your feeling is about it because it’s hard for us, not knowing what’s really going on, to understand how you could have allowed that to happen, or I guess maybe you’ve been protesting it in some level or other. So i’m just wondering what you think about it.

KE: Well let me just tell you this. The easiest thing for me to do is to not be part of the DNC leadership because then no one could ever blame me for anything.

ML: [Laughs.]

KE: And if my goal in life is to never catch any blame then that’s what I would do. But sometimes in order to try to fix a situation, you have to get in to that situation. And sometimes the process of change happens in a nonlinear fashion. You take three steps, you lose one, you go up five steps, you lose two. This is the process of change – it’s just that way. If you’ve never actually engaged in struggle you don’t know that, but if you’ve ever tried to take a messed-up situation and make it good, you know you get setbacks. Martin Luther King, everybody celebrates him today, but he could tell you about Albany, Georgia, and how he tried to desegregate that city and he ran into a brick wall. It wasn’t accolades from there. He’ll tell you about being persecuted by J. Edgar Hoover. He’ll tell you about the struggles on the road to a better situation. And the naive and the inexperienced, they don’t know about that. They think something’s bad you get involved and it’s fixed magically overnight instantly.

ML: Right.

KE: So having said all that, let me say this.

ML: Yeah.

KE: I maintain now and will continue to maintain that the Democratic National Committee should have absolutely no role in a primary. Now I know that there have been people who have said otherwise. I have made myself abundantly clear that I will not ever allow that policy to go forward, and if I get overruled I get overruled, but I’m not going to be quiet about it. If you look at the research and you read the papers on this issue, I’ve been clear. No, we are neutral when it comes to these races. Let me also say that sometimes people confuse the DNC and the DCCC. The DCCC got in deep with certain candidates. I opposed that. I think it’s absolutely wrong and I don’t think it is the proper role of the DNC to tell any candidate that they should drop out of the race.

ML: DCCC is the Democratic Congressional – what does it stand for?

KE: It’s the Democratic House Caucus. It’s the campaign to get US house members of the Democratic Party elected. And the DCCC leadership has, on occasion, been caught telling candidates that they shouldn’t run or they should drop out of the race. I don’t agree with this. I’ve been public saying I don’t agree with this. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong. People believe that the whole system is rigged and that insiders are just pulling strings. It kills our brand when we do this. My thought is, stop it. Let the election shake out. Let the election be determined by the people who vote.

ML: Do you face any of that in your own primary?

KE: Well, you know, in my own primary I’ve been running really hard. In my own primary, no powers from above have been interfering. Individual citizens have been able to offer their views. The Democratic Attorneys General Association has not weighed in for anybody and that’s good. The DCCC has not weighted in for anybody. The DNC’s not weighed in, and it’s going to be something that individual citizens in Minnesota will be able to decide for themselves.

I’m the kind of person who, no matter how good it looks for me at the election, I don’t stop working hard. I run hard all the time. And the reason I do it is because it’s not about just winning an election, it’s about talking to more voters, inviting people to democracy, being a part of this democratic project means that people who are running for office have got to work hard and have got to talk to a lot of people. So do I feel that I have a good shot at the primary and the general? Yes, I do. But it’s only because I’ve been working super hard. But I can’t guarantee victory, and of course there’s a lot of folks, particularly on the far Right, who are not fans of mine, as you might guess, and they’re going to do all I can to knock me off. My point is that I’m working hard everyday, talking to as many voters as I can every day, putting the public interest forward every day, and praying for victory in the primary on August 14 and the general on November 6.

ML: Yeah. What’s the date again It’s August 14?

KE: August 14th is my primary.

ML: Alright.

KE: May the world know. And every day it’s a little bit closer. I think we’re about 38 days out and I’ll be very happy when it’s over and done with.

ML: [Laughs.]

KE: But, look, I have put everything into this. If I don’t win, I am not in politics anymore. I’m a private citizen at that point. I’ve what they call “bet the farm” on this and I did it because I have a tremendous passion for fighting for people. And I’ve never been one to sit in a safe seat and just relax in a safe seat. I’ve always believed that you have to follow your passions even if it involves risk and that’s what I’ve done. No matter what happens, whether I win or not, I can look at people and say, my mind and my heart told me jump into the AG’s race so I can serve more people and it came out the way it came out. And I think we’re going to win, I’m very confident, but I’m not certain, and that’s why we’re working so hard.


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