ATLANTA – National Democrats, still reeling since President Donald Trump’s victory but also seeing a burst of energy and enthusiasm to take on the new administration, are looking for a leader who can channel that vigor into election wins.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the Minneapolis DFLer running this weekend for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is putting his political career on the line to be that person.
With two days left until Saturday’s vote, Ellison was holed up Thursday in an Atlanta hotel room to meet with voting DNC delegates, trying to convince them he’s the right person to lead the party at this uncertain time. For the six-term congressman, it’s the culmination of four months of politicking for the job — traveling to more than 30 states, making speeches and attending rallies, debating the other contenders and working the phone constantly.
“I’ve won 13 of my own elections and gotten multiple people elected around the state and around the country,” said Ellison, who has vowed to resign from Congress if he wins. “That’s what this race is all about. That’s what we’re doing.”
The race between Ellison and his chief competitor, Obama administration Labor Secretary Tom Perez, has been viewed as very close in the final days before voting.
Perez, among the most liberal members of Obama’s cabinet, has been embraced by many Democrats close to the former president, including an endorsement by former Vice President Joe Biden. But Ellison also secured plenty of high-profile endorsements, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer.
Ellison and Perez have advocated a “50-state strategy,” arguing that Democrats can’t afford to write off vast swaths of the country that have reliably voted Republican in recent elections. Both pledge to engage progressive voters in these areas to get involved by challenging Trump and his policies.
“I’ve raised more money than anyone, and I have 30,000 separate contributions,” Ellison said. Noting his early endorsement of Sanders for president, then subsequent embrace of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Ellison added: “I think I’m the unity candidate.”
Originally from Detroit, Ellison was elected to Congress in 2006 after several terms in the Minnesota Legislature. He was Minnesota’s first black member of Congress and the first Muslim elected to Congress. In November, he was the first candidate to jump into the DNC race, just four days after Trump won the White House and Democrats suffered some of their worst electoral losses in the party’s history.
Ellison opened a DNC campaign office in Washington, D.C., began making calls and started flying around the country to meet with DNC members. The 448 voting delegates are state party leaders and other Democratic activists from the 50 states plus several U.S. territories.
As the race heated up, Ellison faced new questions about past connections to the Nation of Islam, which has been subject to accusations of anti-Semitism. And some liberals questioned the validity of his much-touted claims of boosting voter turnout in Minneapolis, pointing out that the district’s boundaries changed in 2010 in a way that might have affected turnout more than anything Ellison did.
At a DNC candidate forum this week, Ellison said he is not anti-Semitic, and he took time to blast the recent defacing of Jewish cemeteries as “deeply offensive.” He defended his turnout efforts, noting that 13,000 additional voters showed up in 2014 compared with 2010 — both midterm elections where Democrats historically see lower voter turnout.
The DNC chairman candidates have tended to agree that the party failed last year because it lacked a sharp message that spoke to struggling middle-class and lower-income Americans. Opposition to Trump isn’t enough, they argue — the party must give voters reasons to support Democrats.
“The conventional wisdom was that if you are a progressive, or a person of color or a low-income person, that you’re going to vote for a Democrat,” said Dan McGrath, executive director of the progressive grass roots group TakeAction Minnesota. “In part, what this last election proved is you do have somewhere else to go: You can stay home.”
Delegate vote totals remain very fluid in Atlanta, with lots of horse-trading behind closed doors and at hotel bars up and down Peachtree Street. Just this week, one candidate backed out and endorsed Ellison. On Thursday, another backed out and endorsed Perez. DNC officials expect several rounds of voting on Saturday, with 224 votes needed to win.
“This is really, truly a critical choice that the DNC members are going to make,” said Ken Martin, DFL Party chair, who has been helping Ellison’s campaign. “They need to make sure we’re opening up the party in ways that we haven’t before. We see it in the streets, in the actions and protests in the country. Millions of people are yearning to stand up and resist Donald Trump and our party needs to be a part of that.”
The race between Ellison and Perez has been close and feisty. But the two men are friends and have been striving to keep it collegial. They even had dinner together last week in Washington, D.C. “I believe we’re going to win, but if we don’t, I’m going to try and help out whoever does,” Ellison said. “We’ll see what happens.”