New Minnesota members of Congress sworn inby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Fifth District DFL Rep. Keith Ellison became the first Muslim sworn into Congress on Thursday. Amid a flurry of media attention, Ellison took his ceremonial oath of office holding a copy of a Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
Besides Ellison, Amy Klobuchar, the first women elected U.S. Senator from Minnesota, took office along with two other new members of the House.
Washington — Reporters and photographers jammed a House reception room in the Capitol building where newly elected members re-enact their swearing in.
Many of the press people practically tripped over each other as they jockeyed for position to get the shot of Minnesota's new congressman, Keith Ellison holding the Quoran.
It was over as quickly as it began. The pictures were taken. History was made. Ellison left and so did a lot of the reporters.
Ellison's decision to hold the Quoran for his ceremonial swearing in drew sharp criticism from some people, including a Virginia Republican ongressman.
Ellison's office said he was getting dozens of request for media interviews from throughout the world. Ellison staffers say they've been giving priority access to the new congressman to local reporters.
Ellison told Minnesota Public Radio News, he enters Congress focused on learning the ropes and working on behalf of his constituents in Minnesota. Despite all of the early attention, Ellison says he's going to try to start out slow in Congress.
"In the beginning, I'm going too figure out where the bathrooms are, how to get my letterhead straight, how to operate on committee. I'm going to build some relationships and I am going to be about as ordinary as I can possible be. I'm going to throw some roots down, and try to make sure that I am strong in the district and that my constituent services are strong," he said.
The focus on Ellison's ceremonial swearing in has largely overshadowed reporting on foreign relations implications of having a Muslim in Congress.
Many see opportunities in Ellison that have nothing to do with Minnesota or his 5th Congressional District. They view his religious status as something they can use in their efforts to forge critical friendships throughout the Islamic world.
"There will inevitably be a great deal of attention focused on this congressman," according to Steven Simon, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations.
"This is a windfall for American public diplomacy," he said. "The operation within the State Department, led by Karen Hughes, to improve America's image as more Muslim friendly, if I can put it that way, overseas so yes this is a good thing and they will ... use it assiduously."
Simon also says some other American Muslims, like Ellison, will likely see opportunities for themselves in U.S. government now that Ellison has paved the way.
Although Ellison is now very purposely placing distance between himself and world affairs, he says once he's settled into Congress, he would welcome opportunities to get involved in foreign affairs.
"If it should come to pass that my particular perspective as a Muslim and my particular experiences can help the country and would require me to go around and build friendships around the world, I would be honored to do it, but we're just going to take everything in good time," he said.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale predicts Ellison will be "a star." And Mondale agrees with having a Muslim in Congress could help U.S. foreign relations.
Mondale answered a couple questions as he prepared to escort another Minnesotan into the Capitol. Mondale predicted Sen. Amy Klobuchar, now the holder of the seat which belonged to Mondale's mentor, Hubert Humphrey, will be an effective senator.
"It's historic the first woman in Minnesota's history to be a United States senator, but it can't be explained on that basis," Mondale said. "She won by such a huge comfortable margin it's really a mandate for her and what she has been proposing be done for our country. I mean, she's a wonderful talent and got all of this hope and energy. That's why everybody is so happy here today."
It paled in comparison to the media attention showered on Ellison, but Klobuchar and her entourage -- Vice President Mondale, Senators Norm Coleman and Mark Dayton -- had a lot of people looking as well as they made there way into Capitol with a considerable contingent of reporters in tow.
Moments before she was formally sworn in, Klobuchar spoke to supporters packed into a reception in the Russell Senate Office Building, across the street from the Capitol.
Klobuchar, about to enter the new Democratic congressional majority, vowed to work with Republicans to pass legislation to benefit working Americans, She also talked about bringing a Minnesota ethic to Washington.
"This means that Washington stops passing laws that favor the few, stops passing laws that tilt the playing field against the middle class," she said. "This means real ethics reform and creating a better world where the decisions of our leaders aren't governed by trips to Scotland and fancy steak dinner, but instead puts the interest of the people first."
Republican Norm Coleman, who became Minnesota's senior senator on Thursday, said he looks forward to working with Klobuchar.
Two other new members of the state's congressional delegation who did not get the kind of attention Klobuchar and Ellison did, were also sworn into office.
Republican Michele Bachmann became the 6th District congresswoman and Democrat Tim Walz was sworn into to represent the state's 1st Congressional District.
- All Things Considered, 01/04/2007, 5:19 p.m.