WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison stands at the forefront of the political resistance to President Donald Trump, balancing congressional duties with a top leadership position at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) as the party tries to win back control of the House in November.
Despite the elevated profile, the six-term congressman from Minneapolis has shown recent signs of restlessness. He unsuccessfully sought the appointment to Al Franken’s U.S. Senate seat, then briefly toyed with leaving Washington to run for attorney general in Minnesota.
Ellison has also seen the downside of being a national political player, as he once again faced scrutiny for associations with a controversial religious figure.
“Of course,” Ellison said, asked if he was frustrated in the House. “We’re in the minority and we have a particularly obstructionist majority.”
Still, Ellison said he is running for re-election in 2018 to the Fifth Congressional District, which includes Minneapolis and several Hennepin County suburbs. He’s also traveling the country to mobilize voters and unite factions as deputy chairman of the DNC, trying to flip the 24 seats needed for Democrats to take the House.
The demands of his DNC job have not made Ellison absent from Congress. He was lead author of a bipartisan measure the House passed unanimously in February, dubbed the Credit Access and Inclusion Act, that allows utilities and landlords to report on-time payments to credit rating agencies. The goal is helping people who have little credit history build their scores.
Ellison is also lead House sponsor of Medicare for All — the single-payer health insurance legislation that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is championing in the Senate. Ellison had prominently backed Sanders in the last presidential election.
But Ellison’s interest in other political jobs surfaced several times in recent months. In addition to vying for the appointment to the U.S. Senate after Franken’s resignation late last year — Gov. Mark Dayton went with now-Sen. Tina Smith instead — Ellison also considered a run for Minnesota attorney general when it looked like the incumbent, Attorney General Lori Swanson, would run for governor.
“It’s been the state attorneys general that have been protecting Americans’ rights in the Trump era,” Ellison said, pointing to the work of Swanson and others who have fought Trump’s ban on new immigrants from certain Muslim nations, tried to enforce protections for undocumented youth under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, sued pharmaceutical companies amid the opioid crisis and made efforts to protect net neutrality following federal deregulation.
Soon after Ellison’s interest became public, Swanson opted out of the governor’s race and announced a re-election bid.
That interest is telling, a GOP official said.
“The congressman has repeatedly said his agenda is to resist the president and his goals for a brighter future for all Americans. … His restlessness in Congress stems from the knowledge that the tides are changing, and the fringe positions of his party will no longer sway the American people,” said Minnesota GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan in a statement.
Ellison’s own desire to push back against Trump is harder in a town where Republicans control Congress.
“I think there are people like Keith who go to Washington filled with a lot of ideas and a lot of passion for making a difference in people’s lives … and they quickly realize how broken government is,” said Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin, who called Ellison a friend. “I think he obviously enjoys being a congressman, but I think it’s frustrating for him and others to not be able to actually move a progressive agenda forward in such a divided town.”
The DNC is embarking on an ambitious effort to build Democratic political power. Many Democrats are emboldened after Conor Lamb’s surprise victory in a western Pennsylvania special congressional election in a district where Trump did well in 2016.
Ellison, who visited the district on Lamb’s behalf, said there’s always a tension between chasing “the hot race” and building the foundation of the party at the grass-roots level. He visited Pennsylvania Democrats in January, speaking to activists in the Philadelphia suburbs, visiting a mosque and addressing a black caucus.
Pennsylvania Democratic Party Executive Director Sinceré Harris said Ellison directly addressed concerns that the Democratic Party is too willing to take black voters for granted. Ellison is “bridging certain divides that still exist and talking to progressive groups that the Democratic Party in recent years has had a little bit of trouble in quite frankly having an open dialogue with,” Harris said.
In February, Ellison met with Democratic leaders in Alabama, among other stops, where he talked about the DNC’s new “I Will Vote” program — which aims to galvanize black voters — to a group of college Democrats.
“For a long time, the South has not been noticed because we were voting Republican and so they just kind of crossed [it] off. ... He’s someone who believes that all 50 states are players,” said Nancy Worley, chairwoman of the Alabama Democrats.
Along with the higher national profile that comes with his party job, Ellison recently once again found himself fielding questions about associations with minister Louis Farrakhan, the longtime leader of the Nation of Islam, described as an anti-Semite and a proponent of “anti-white theology” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In March, Ellison — the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress — published an essay on the website Medium with the headline: “I Have Fought Against Hate My Entire Career.” Ellison’s earlier dalliances with Farrakhan have long been public record: As a law student in the 1980s, Ellison defended Farrakhan in a published article; in 1995, he organized buses from the Twin Cities to Farrakhan’s Million Man March.
“A huge number of Black men from all across America came to Washington to alert lawmakers to the social and economic problems facing our communities,” Ellison wrote, saying it was only after the march that “Mr. Farrakhan’s disparaging views on Jewish people, women and the LGBT community became clearer to me.” Of his law school writing, he explained that of the many writers and speakers he familiarized himself with at the time, some have “stood the test of time. Others have proven to have no answers.”
In a 2016 interview posted on Facebook, Farrakhan says at one point that Ellison and another congressman, Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana, had visited his hotel room during a trip to Washington. “And we sat down and talked like you and I are talking,” Farrakhan said.
Carson later admitted meeting with Farrakhan. Ellison, in his Medium post, denies it. He said he and Farrakhan had a “brief, chance encounter in Washington” about a decade ago. They also were both at a Washington dinner in 2013 for the Iranian president but did not talk, Ellison wrote.
While Ellison has at least considered alternatives to staying in his House seat, one fellow House Democrat said sticking around could also bring benefits. U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin said that as House Democratic leaders reach an age when they’ll retire, “a lot of us are talking to Keith about considering running for one of the top spots. … Keith is the progressive who is best positioned in Congress to do that.”
The two top House Democrats, Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, are both 78. Ellison is 54.
After acknowledging the difficulties of being in the legislative minority, Ellison noted that it’s a “tremendously great time” to be a progressive Democratic lawmaker, and he reiterated his commitment to the job.
“I think this is an awesome job and I feel honored to have it. … If my plans change, you’ll be the first to know.”