Jeremiah Ellison is more artist than politician

The Minneapolis city councilman — and son of Keith Ellison — is hoping he can go back to his old job painting murals when his time in local government comes to an end

Before he was elected to the Minneapolis City Council in 2017, Jeremiah Ellison had carved out a niche for himself as a freelance muralist and aspiring comic book artist for schools and businesses in the city. The last mural he painted — a job overlapping with the tail end of a grueling campaign — was for a pediatric dental practice called Camp Smile, which, to Ellison, evoked “the name of a dentist-themed horror movie.” 

Because he was so short on time, Ellison showed up to the gig without having planned out what he would draw and rendered a series of creepy vignettes, scattering a few anthropomorphic electric toothbrushes with arms, legs and wings around a giant toothpaste tube unfurling a colorful striped ribbon. “It came out really weird,” Ellison, 30, recalled in a series of interviews with Jewish Insider this summer. “I knew the client didn’t like it.”

Still, Ellison found the experience of unloading his ideas directly onto the final surface to be a refreshing change from the usual process of coming up with a design beforehand and then getting it approved. “It always feels really dynamic on the page,” he mused, “and then it loses something in translation when you get it up onto the wall.”

In a way, Ellison could also have been talking about his time as a city councilman representing Minneapolis’s Fifth Ward, where he was born and raised. The activist-turned-politician came to prominence as a public figure five years ago, when he appeared in a viral photo while protesting the police killing of a young, unarmed Black man, Jamar Clark. Though Ellison once defiantly addressed city councilmembers with his back to them, he has taken a somewhat more measured approach since joining their ranks in 2018.

Not that Ellison is new to politics by any means. As the son of Keith Ellison — Minnesota’s attorney general and a former congressman — he is attuned to the vicissitudes of governance. But it is one thing to watch from afar and quite another to do it day in and day out. When he was elected, Ellison hoped to focus on housing equality and economic development at the hyperlocal level. “That’s sort of where I really wanted to stake my claim,” he said. 

But he has shifted his priorities as the pandemic has taken its toll — his grandmother died from the coronavirus — and as mass protests against George Floyd’s murder have set off a national reckoning over the role of the police. In Minneapolis, Ellison has led the charge to introduce a charter amendment that would replace the city’s police department with a new public safety system, but those plans were put on hold when the city’s charter commission blocked the proposal from appearing on the ballot until next year.

His activism notwithstanding, Ellison rejects the notion that he is seeking to eradicate the police. “Abolishing the police department is certainly the goal of activists in the community,” he said. “Not that I’m against that concept. I just don’t think it’s what the council is doing at the moment. I don’t even think it’s anywhere close to that.” 

Ellison describes the effort in different terms. “We are looking to reimagine how public safety happens in our city,” he said. “But the simple fact is law enforcement, at least for the foreseeable future, is still going to be, probably, a significant part of that.”

Jeremiah Ellison speaks during the North Minneapolis City Council Candidate Forum on February 16, 2017. (Tony Webster)

Ellison talks about this issue with a fluency that suggests he was made to address the policing crisis. But in conversation with JI, he also appeared to be exasperated by some of the structural challenges ahead of him, such as qualified immunity and arbitration statutes that have protected police officers from wrongdoing.

“These are things that will drive you to a point of frustration pretty quickly when you’re realizing that you can’t hold people accountable in the way that they deserve to be held accountable,” Ellison said with a sigh, lamenting the lack of control he once possessed with a paintbrush. “I don’t necessarily feel made for this moment in any kind of way. But I do feel like it’s important that I answer the call when I’m being asked to keep my community as safe as possible.”

Despite that goal, Ellison also expressed a strong and persistent desire to give it all up and return to his old vocation, even if he is the scion of one of the most powerful politicians in Minnesota politics. In the art world, at least, his ideas would be unadulterated by the vexing challenge of legislation. “Certainly, when I’ve wrapped here, my plan, my hope,” he said matter-of-factly, “is that I can go back to drawing comics.”

***

Ellison has always defined himself as an artist, which his parents encouraged from a young age. “When he was a little kid, he used to paint and draw on the walls,” Keith Ellison told JI in a phone conversation. “We had to tape paper up on the walls so he would write on the paper and not the walls. This was when he was a tiny little boy, like two or three years old. He just kept doing it, and so we put him in an arts class.”

The class was with Juxtaposition Arts, a prominent non-profit visual arts organization in North Minneapolis. “He was our youngest student,” said Roger Cummings, a co-founder of Juxtaposition, adding that Ellison, who joined at age six, learned to develop his analytical faculties by critiquing and interpreting his classmates’ works before he had reached adolescence. 

Ellison was also taught that making a mural was as much an artistic statement as it was an exercise in community engagement. “What we try to do is give different levels of responsibility to young people,” Cummings explained, mentioning such extra-artistic tasks as securing the wall, talking to the business owner and creating a design that takes into account those who live and work in the area.

Even with that civic-minded training, Ellison was not immediately moved to go into public service. “When we were younger — 16, 17 — he was really adamant that he did not want to go into politics,” said Michael Lee, who is one of Ellison’s best friends from high school, noting that Ellison’s father had been elected to Congress the year after they got to know each other. Still, Lee added that Ellison had changed his mind when they spoke years later. “His understanding of public service and politics comes out of his orientation toward art and storytelling.”

Ellison, who dropped out of college after about one semester, has brought that sensibility to the city council. “He’s not locked into convention,” his father told JI. His mother, Kim Ellison, who chairs the Minneapolis Board of Education, agreed. “If he didn’t have blank paper and pencil in front of him, he wasn’t focused — that was part of everything he did or any space he was in,” she told JI. “Even now, in his office or in his house, he’ll have a whiteboard. He’s got to write down his thoughts and be able to see them.”

Lisa Goodman, a city councilmember who sits next to Ellison on the dais whenever the council meets in person — which isn’t often these days — described Ellison as a “creative, nervous doodler” who could often be seen scribbling away on a piece of paper during council presentations. “He lets out his anxiety and energy through art,” she said. 

Though Ellison and Goodman disagree on several policy issues — including the police — Goodman said that she has managed to find common ground with her young colleague despite their differences. 

Jeremiah Ellison speaks with constituents in Minneapolis. (Courtesy)

In the fall of 2019, Goodman, who is Jewish, invited Ellison, a Muslim, to a Friday night service at Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue she regularly attends in Minneapolis. “In Minnesota, Jews and Muslims are not the predominant religion, and so I found commonality with him in that, and I was really honored that he agreed to come with me to synagogue,” she told JI. “He immediately accepted my invitation, showed up on time and sat with me and prayed.”

Ellison, who serves a section of Minneapolis that was once home to a sizable Jewish population, recalled the service with a sense of appreciation. “It was very social justice–centered, and there was this strong sense of solidarity that I felt, especially sitting next to Lisa Goodman, who I had been told would be an intense political enemy.”

Ellison believes Judaism and Islam are “incredibly compatible,” given, for one, that they are both Abrahamic religions. “I also think that, politically, the two religions sort of exist under a certain level of threat in America,” he said. “It can be difficult to recognize that when you have prominent sort of, quote unquote, Islamic figures who are openly antisemitic.”

He was referring, in large part, to the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who is widely viewed as an antisemite. But Ellison’s appraisal is complicated by the fact that his father once supported Farrakhan and defended him in law school newspaper columns. 

Though Keith Ellison — who was the first Muslim to serve in Congress in 2007 — has since renounced Farrakhan, his affiliation with the controversial leader, as well as some of his past statements on Israel, have come back to haunt him, particularly when, in 2016, he ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee. While Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) endorsed Ellison, Haim Saban, the powerful Democratic donor, refused to get behind him, characterizing Ellison as “an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual.”

***

Ellison is, of course, aware of his father’s uneasy relationship with some high-profile members of the Jewish community, but he doesn’t feel constrained by it. “I think, personality-wise, my dad is a bit extroverted,” he said. “I’m more introverted, which is probably the only reason that I don’t have a bunch of controversial things that people know I said when I was in my early 20s.”

“I don’t feel any pressure because of my relationship with my dad,” he added. “I have a level of urgency to remember that I don’t know everything. At 21, I probably would have very decidedly spoken about my support for Palestine, which I still hold, without much regard for any understanding of antisemitism. Now, I’m building relationships with people in my community. I’m building relationships with my colleagues who are helping me consider things that I just quite honestly hadn’t considered before.”

Steve Fletcher, another Jewish Minneapolis city councilmember who was elected the same year as Ellison, is one of those colleagues. He described Ellison as a strong ally who was capable of detecting instances of antisemitism when they entered the public discourse. 

“I’m an advocate for smart housing and density in the urban core, and every once in a while somebody who opposed adding more dense housing would say to me, ‘Go back to New York,’ and I’m not from New York,” Fletcher recalled. “It just felt a little coded. It was something that I noticed, and that Jeremiah noticed. He picked up on it right away.”

Still, Ellison acknowledged that he has approached the issue with a learning curve. “There have been points where elected leaders who I’m fond of, who I have a good relationship with, have said things that I didn’t understand to be antisemitic,” he said, “and it’s been through conversations with people like Lisa and Steve Fletcher, in particular, where I feel like I have come to understand antisemitism a lot better than I think I really did.”

“I’m Muslim, so solidarity with people in Palestine is something that has been a crucial part of my politics,” Ellison elaborated. “I think that understanding where that line is and when you do cross that line between being critical of the way a government functions versus assigning these characteristics, these caricatures, to a religion, a people, I think that I needed to grow in understanding what that line was myself. And I think that I have grown.”

Ellison declined to name names when asked which elected leaders he had in mind. But Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who inherited Keith Ellison’s seat in Minnesota’s 5th congressional district when he ran for attorney general, is a friend of the young city councilman and has been accused of making antisemitic remarks.

“Ilhan has had to learn the hard way what that line is between being, I think, appropriately critical of a government’s policies versus saying things that are antisemitic,” he said of the congresswoman, who endorsed Ellison during his run for City Council when she was a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives. “While I still unequivocally support Ilhan and her reelection, and want to support her in her growth as a young congressperson, I also think I understand that there’s probably still some learning and a little bit of remedy that needs to occur between her and a lot of folks of Jewish faith here in Minnesota.”

For his part, Ellison said he is still working out some of his beliefs when it comes to Israel. He declined to take a stand, for instance, regarding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. 

“To be fully honest, I wouldn’t condemn the BDS movement just because I understand, I think, the impulses of a lot of the people I know who are participating in it and who do believe in it,” he said, adding, “I would want to make sure that I fully understand the ways in which that movement could be interpreted as antisemitic, whereas I gotta acknowledge right now, I don’t fully understand where that line is as it pertains to BDS.”

Still, he expressed a strong desire to visit Israel as well as the Palestinian territories, if given the chance to do so. “It’s just an important part of the world to engage with,” he said, “and I think it’s important to sort of be on the ground. I think that you always learn more on the ground.”

Jeremiah Ellison speaking
Jeremiah Ellison speaks in front of a mural at a Minneapolis skate park.

***

For the moment, though, Ellison appears intent on staying put in his home city, where, as a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, his first term ends in 2022. While his tone suggested that he would most likely run for a second term, he also indicated he would be happy to pass the mantle to another public servant when he felt the time was right. He certainly has no intention of running for higher office, he said. “I don’t want to be mayor.”

Though such statements should be taken with a grain of incredulity — he is a politician, after all — Ellison appeared genuinely intent on getting back in touch with his artistic side and abandoning politics altogether when the time is right. 

“Without putting a date on it, I think me deciding to wrap up this position will have less to do with whether or not I think I’m ready, and I think it’ll have more to do with how good of a job I do in fostering new political talent that centers the work more than the title, that centers the community more than their own advancement,” he said. “Those are the things I care about. I’m gonna be doing well either way. I made a living as a muralist.”

Ellison regards his muraling as separate from his political endeavors. He quotes a role model, the Chicago artist Theaster Gates, to bolster his point: “I would never make a mural to solve a social problem.” 

“I think muraling is really important, but I also think that there’s a real limitation to murals that doesn’t really dishonor them,” he said. “I still think that murals are really necessary, but the thing that I always found as a mural artist was that murals are often like pins on a map. I think the best murals maybe tell a story of a neighborhood — and certainly murals that ignite that activist sort of impulse tell a story and they point to an issue.”

In his time on the city council, Ellison has nevertheless made efforts to marry his past life as an artist with his current role as an elected official, but he hasn’t yet found a spare moment to do so effectively. “I will tell you, there have been times where I’ve tried to pick up a project,” he told JI. “I’ve thought about doing almost, like, a very relatable local government explainer via comic. It gets so hard to actually sit down and write and draw when you’re in the day-to-day of this job.”

For now, Ellison is focused on the day-to-day. “I just try to do my job,” he said. “My job is to keep people safe. The police murdered George Floyd and then the police also escalated tensions with protesters until things obviously got untenable. And so that’s my focus.”

Susan Segal, who was recently appointed chief judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals and who previously served as Minneapolis’s city attorney, told JI Ellison had been a thoughtful councilman during the brief time she worked with him. “He asked questions and wanted information, and he’s a good listener, so I really enjoyed my time working with him,” said Segal, who hosted Ellison and his father for a Passover Seder not too long ago. “He was a good client in the sense that he asked for legal advice and he followed it.”

But it remains to be seen how long being a public servant will be his focus. “A few years ago, he was happy painting, doing graphic novels, painting murals, part of the whole Minneapolis art scene,” Keith Ellison told JI. “He’s been painting murals since he was literally three years old. And it’s his passion. It’s what he really is here to do.” He added, “I think Jeremiah could do more things in politics. But the question is, does he want to? And so I think, at this point in his life, he’s happy to do public service, but I think his real heart is in the arts world.”

Ellison isn’t denying his father’s assessment. “I’ll tell you, as much as I am honored to do this job,” he said, “I do like painting murals more.”

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