WASHINGTON – Rep. Keith Ellison left open the possibility Friday night that he will leave Congress, and his seat representing Minneapolis, to take the top job at the Democratic National Committee.
Speaking at a forum in Denver to state Democratic Party chairs from across the country, Ellison said the DNC job is more important than his congressional seat, though he continued to insist that he could do both jobs simultaneously.
“Though I love being in Congress because it allows me to serve my neighbors, I do think that it is more important to build, strengthen the DNC,” Ellison said. He added that he is continuing to have conversations with DNC voting members and will decide what to do soon.
Ellison, who was just elected to his sixth term in Congress representing the Fifth District, is vying for Democratic Party chair at a time when the party is trying to pick up the pieces from one of the most disappointing general election losses in a generation. To win the job, he must convince 224 of 447 voting members of the DNC that he is the right person to change the direction of the party. The DNC chair is responsible for fund-raising and strategy for national elections and also will be the public, daily face challenging soon-to-be President Donald Trump.
Since early November, Ellison has been calling members across the country with a pitch that he will boost national voter turnout — much as he did in his home district — and inspire grass-roots members of the party who didn’t vote last month in the general election. Hundreds of thousands of voters who went to the polls in 2008 and 2012 stayed home this year, which national Democrats blame for their poor showing in Congress and for the White House.
But Ellison faces a fierce headwind to get the job. He is running against two other popular state party chairs, one from New Hampshire and one from South Carolina. And much of the party’s leadership is worried that a full-time congressman won’t have the time needed to devote to the job of rebuilding the party from its 2016 losses.
State DFL Chair Ken Martin said he thinks Ellison would have enough time for the party — particularly since it’s the grass roots support in the states that needs invigorating.
“Right now a lot of the power is in Washington, D.C.,” said Martin, who has been helping Ellison since June on his bid. “We need to start making sure that the health of the party isn’t just in the DNC headquarters and that takes a real grass roots approach.”
Ellison, who is Muslim, has also been dogged by questions about his past relationship with the Nation of Islam. Some Jewish groups have expressed concern about his past views on Israel. Ellison was an organizer for the 1995 Million Man March, something he says he’s proud of, but he says he fell away from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan after his rhetoric didn’t bring results for African-Americans.
“Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one,” Ellison said of Farrakhan. “Anyone can give a fiery speech, but who is going to get out there and get on the ground and build something meaningful in a way that unifies all people?”