Keith Ellison’s Quest for DNC Chair

Robert Borosage

Rep. Keith Ellison offers a lifeline to a Democratic Party that is struggling to stay afloat. The question is whether party officials realize that they are sinking and accept it. When the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee select a new chairman in Atlanta on Saturday, they will decide whether they want the lift or would prefer to keep floundering.

Clearly, Democrats are in dire shape. They are locked out of power in Washington, with Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress. During the Obama administration, they lost nearly 1,000 state legislative seats, and Republicans now control 67 of 98 partisan state legislative chambers nationwide. From Kansas to Wisconsin and North Carolina, the right is driving an agenda that will expose Americans to the pillage of a new robber baron era. Democrats are losing elections in significant part because their own voters aren’t showing up at the polls. And now as millions of Americans take to the streets to resist the madcap extremism of President Donald Trump, it isn’t at all clear whether Democrats will end up as leaders or targets of that opposition.

Not surprisingly, every candidate to head the party echoes the same lines. All call for a 50-state strategy, as opposed to targeting a few swing states. All vow to rebuild the party from the bottom up, rather than letting it continue to serve largely as a money conduit for presidential candidates. All vow to pursue an inside-outside strategy and to mobilize the grassroots. All want to increase small-donor support for the party, even while sustaining deep-pocket support.

Of all the candidates, only Keith Ellison is the real deal. Ellison was elected to Congress in 2007 after a long history in the hotbed of movement politics. His mentor and friend was the late Paul Wellstone, the rare political leader who understood that politics was about people and passion, and brought grass-roots organizing into the electoral arena.

Political Engagement

Ellison, who represents a majority-white district, was the first African-American elected to Congress from Minnesota. He is also the first Muslim elected to serve in Congress. He doesn’t simply talk about ways to build grassroots support, or about inside-outside strategies, he has created them. When he was first elected, his district had the lowest turnout in the state. Now it has the highest. He’s used his office to build political engagement.

That’s one of the reasons New Hampshire Party Chair Ray Buckley dropped out of the DNC race to endorse Ellison, saying,

Many candidates have spoken about these issues, but Keith’s commitment to the states and a transparent and accountable DNC has stood out. He knows elections are not won and lost in the Beltway, but on the ground across the country.

Ellison also understands the importance and power of social movements. He doesn’t fear them; he engages them. As co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (with Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona), he reached out constantly to engage activists and movements, making the CPC the legislative vehicle for citizens in motion. That understanding of citizen movements led Ellison to be one of the first to endorse Barack Obama’s underdog presidential candidacy in 2008 and Bernie Sanders insurgency in 2016.

This commitment to inside-outside politics has been central to many of Ellison’s political victories. For example, he joined Sanders in support of striking government contract workers, organized by Good Jobs America, who were fighting for a livable wage. With Ellison and Sanders turning up the heat, and the workers standing up, they eventually pushed Obama to issue executive orders raising the minimum wage for government contractors and cracking down on wage theft and other employer violations of basic rights. Similarly, Ellison and the CPC helped lead the opposition to the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP). The CPC put forth the principles of a sensible, worker friendly trade policy. Joining with a broad coalition of union, environmental and consumer groups, they eventually torpedoed the treaty, even before Donald Trump came to office.

The Unity Candidate

In the DNC chair race, all the candidates talk about the need to unify the party. But for the party establishment, unity is too often a watchword for continuing business as usual. Trump poses an existential threat, they argue, so we can’t afford to debate among ourselves. Join together — stand with us once more — and we’ll get it right the next time. So there is no leadership battle in the Senate or House. The same consultants and the same operatives pocket the big checks. Some criticize Ellison as the candidate of Bernie Sanders, who after all hasn’t even joined the party.

In fact, in this race, Ellison is the unity candidate. Only he has the history and credibility to engage the outraged base of the party that is fed up with business as usual. Only he has the possibility of bringing the youthful energy of the Sanders insurgency into the party. Ellison was an invaluable Sanders surrogate in the primaries. He then helped lead the effort to draft a unity platform at the Democratic convention, turning out the one of most progressive platforms in the party’s history. He then stumped for Hillary Clinton in the general.

This is reflected in the support he’s garnered. As a staunch progressive, he won the early and enthusiastic endorsement of Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren. But he also gained the support of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, of Rep. John Lewis and Rep. Louis Gutierrez. Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president who was a fierce Clinton supporter, has pushed hard for Ellison, as have other pro-Clinton union leaders like AFSCME’s Lee Saunders, NEA’s Lilly Eskelsen Garcia and SEIU’s Mary Kay Henry.

The party establishment, of course, isn’t ready to cede control of a party that it has essentially abused for the last eight years. After some arm-twisting, Thomas Perez, Obama’s former Labor Secretary, threw his hat in the ring. He quickly became the establishment proxy. Obama praised him publicly, Joe Biden endorsed him and many of the Clinton operatives threw their weight behind him. Perez now claims to be the leader in the race.

The Establishment Candidate

Perez is a good progressive. He was an excellent Labor secretary and an effective head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division before that. But the contrasts with Ellison are clear. Bizarrely, for a candidate to head a political party, Perez has virtually no electoral experience (He did a short stint on the Montgomery County Council over a decade ago). He’s a Washington lawyer, a skilled and valued insider. He hasn’t built a grassroots operation while in political office.

He also will have a hard time unifying the party. While Ellison was stumping for Sanders, Perez was suggesting to John Podesta, as revealed in the Wikileaks emails, that the campaign whitewash Sanders, use a Clinton victory with minorities in Nevada to change the “narrative” from “Bernie kicks ass among young voters to Bernie does well only among young white liberals.” Ironically, Sanders won the Latino vote in Nevada, but the attack continued anyway.

Perez also echoed the Clinton scorn for Sanders’ support of a single payer health care plan. Surrogates necessarily recycle the talking points of the candidate they support. But these comments and others hardly help establish him as a unifying figure.

A Perez victory will mean, inevitably, that many of the same operatives, pollsters and consultants continue to run the party. That influence was apparent as Perez launched his campaign with the slogan, “A progressive with results,” an embarrassing replay of the insulting slogan Clinton trotted out to contrast herself with Sanders.

Some, of course, have questioned the wisdom of the party electing a black Muslim to lead it as it tries to win back the votes of white working-class voters. Haim Saban, the rabid pro-Israeli, billionaire Clinton supporter, has assailed Ellison for his position on Israel, but support from Schumer, J Street and others have largely put that canard to bed. Ruling out a strong leader because of Trump’s racist politics makes no sense. Democrats need to recapture the passion of their own disaffected voters. They need to champion an agenda that stands up for working people. Keith Ellison has won election after election in a majority-white Midwestern district doing just that. Of the candidates in the race, he provides the best hope for the change the party desperately needs.

More Than a Flesh Wound

Democrats bring to mind the old Monty Python skit of the Black Knight. Full of bluster, he refuses to allow King Arthur to cross the pitiful stream he guards. They fight; his arm is chopped off. “Tis but a scratch,” he says. He loses another arm. “Just a flesh wound.” The bluster continues, as he tries to kick King Arthur. He loses a leg and finally another leg. As Arthur rides off, the Knight accuses him of cowardice. Come back, he says, I’ll bite your face off.

Democrats have lost a lot of limbs over the last years. They don’t need to repeat the same bluster, and fight the same ways. They need to change. Keith Ellison offers them a new possibility. They would be fools not to accept that offer.

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