The politician André Carson burst onto the national scene on March 11, 2008, when he won a special election to become the U.S. representative for Indiana's Seventh Congressional District, a seat held by his grandmother, Julia Carson, for eleven years until her death the previous December. A liberal Democrat, he is one of the youngest representatives in Congress and only the second practicing Muslim.
Born on October 16, 1974, in Indianapolis, Carson was raised by his grandmother in a struggling section of that city. According to a biographical statement on his congressional Web site, "a young André passed by drug dealers and gang members on his way to school," an experience to which he attributes his interest in law enforcement and education. After graduating from Arsenal Technical High School, he attended Concordia University Wisconsin, where he received a bachelor's degree in criminal justice management, and Indiana Wesleyan University, which granted him a master's degree in business management. While Carson has done some work in the field of business marketing, his interest in law enforcement has dominated his career. From 1997 to 2006 he worked for the Indiana State Excise Police, a division of the state's Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, as a local board investigative officer enforcing restrictions on alcohol and tobacco sales to minors. He then moved to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, working in the Intelligence Fusion Center as part of an antiterrorism unit.
Carson's political career began in August of 2007, when he won a place on the City-County Council of Indianapolis and Marion County. As with Carson's election to Congress the following spring, the city council election took place under unusual circumstances. After Patice Abduallah, a Democratic incumbent, was discovered to reside outside the district he represented, a violation of council rules, Democratic district leaders held a special caucus to select a replacement. Carson's victory gave him a seat on the council, but only until the next general elections. When these were held several months later, in November of 2007, he won a full term. In taking his seat, the Associated Press quoted Carson as saying, "We need leadership to represent people across religious, social and economic lines." His efforts to provide that leadership on the council were cut short, however, by the sudden death of his grandmother, U.S. Representative Julia Carson, on December 15, 2007.
Julia Carson was a popular and highly respected figure who served six terms in Congress and never lost a major election. Her death put Democratic leaders in a quandary as they deliberated over a possible successor. According to congressional rules, any candidate they chose would have to face a Republican challenger in a special election. As her grandson, André Carson had several advantages as a candidate; most voters would recognize his name, and some would vote for him simply because they had voted for his grandmother in the past. On the contrary, he was vulnerable to a charge of inexperience, because his months on the city council represented his only service as an elected public official. Given this lack of experience, some Democratic officials worried that his relation to Julia Carson might even work to his disadvantage. As the political analyst David Wasserman told Politico, "Any time you have a candidate that has very little experience but is related to the person he's looking to succeed, the nepotism issue will weigh in the minds of voters. Here is a substantially higher burden of proof for a guy like Andre Carson to assert his suitability and qualifications for this office." After protracted discussions, however, Indiana Democratic leaders decided Carson's advantages outweighed his weaknesses and selected him as their party's candidate in the March 11, 2008, special election. As it turned out, Carson enjoyed a substantial margin of victory over his principal opponent, Republican Jon Elrod, winning approximately 52 percent of the vote to Elrod's 44 percent.
Carson's campaign focused on two issues highly resonant with Democratic voters nationwide: providing health care coverage to uninsured Americans and ending the war in Iraq. As of June of 2008, he had generally followed the lead of Democratic leaders in the House, joining with them, for example, in a successful override of President George Bush's farm-bill veto (May 21, 2008). As the winner of a special midterm election, however, Carson had only a few months to serve before he ran again in the general elections scheduled for November of 2008. Preparations for these included participation in a Democratic primary on May 6, 2008. While incumbents generally have little trouble in primaries, Carson was seen as vulnerable because of his inexperience. Among his seven opponents were Woody Myers, a former state health commissioner, and two state representatives, David Orentlicher and Carolene Mays. Despite heavy spending by Myers, in particular, Carson managed to fend off the challengers and secured the Democratic nomination for November.
Though it was not a major issue in the special election or the primary, there are signs that Carson's religion might play a factor in the November race. A convert to Islam, Carson is only the second practicing Muslim to serve in Congress; the other is Keith Ellison, a Democratic representative from Minnesota. Particularly problematic for Carson's campaign in this regard was the presence at his grandmother's funeral of Louis Farrakhan, the extremely controversial leader of the black Muslim movement known as the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan, who spoke at the funeral, advocates a militant version of Islam, and he has been widely and repeatedly accused of anti-Semitism. For his part, Carson firmly disassociated himself from Farrakhan, telling Nathan Guttman in the Jewish Daily Forward, "I didn't necessarily coordinate the funeral. I greatly differ with him [Farrakhan], and in Congress I will stand up and fight any discrimination, no matter what it's base is." While Carson's district is heavily Democratic, Indiana in general is a conservative state, particularly on religious issues. If Carson focuses attention on his voting record, he will have a good chance of retaining his seat. If, however, his faith becomes a major issue, his tenure in Congress may be a short one.
At a Glance …
Born on October 16, 1974, in Indianapolis, IN; raised by grandmother, Julia Carson; married Mariama Shaheed; children: Salimah. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Muslim. Education: Concordia University Wisconsin, BA, criminal justice management, 2003; Indiana Wesleyan University, MBA, 2005.
Career: Indiana State Excise Police, local board investigative officer, 1997-2006; Indiana Department of Homeland Security, antiterrorism specialist, 2006-08; Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council, representative, 2007-08; U.S. House of Representatives, representative for the Seventh District of Indiana, 2008—.
Memberships: Kennedy-King Park Advisory Board, Indianapolis, IN; Citizens Neighborhood Coalition, Indianapolis.
Addresses: Office—U.S. House of Representatives, 2455 Rayburn HOB, Washington, DC 20515.
Associated Press, August 29, 2007.
Jewish Daily Forward, February 28, 2008.
New York Times, May 6, 2008.
"André Carson: Representing Indiana's Seventh Congressional District," http://carson.house.gov/ (accessed June 17, 2008).
Cebula, Judith, "Second Muslim Elected to Congress," Reuters, March 11, 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSN1164415020080312 (accessed June 17, 2008).
Kraushaar, Josh, "Andre Carson Faces Complex Path," Politico, February 18, 2008, http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid_2E679830-3048-5C12-002F2780017038E6 (accessed June 3, 2008).
—R. Anthony Kugler
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