Frustrated at being left on the sidelines by conservatives, liberals like U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison look to focus attention on corporate greed.
WASHINGTON -- Amid talk of a new liberal movement to counter the Tea Party, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison sprinted onto a stage with a chant, not a speech.
"Jobs, not cuts! Jobs, not cuts! Let me hear you!" the Minnesota Democrat yelled at a liberal conference last week. "We're going to go to Capitol Hill, and we're gonna raise some hell today!"
Across the nation, unabashed liberals like Ellison have grown increasingly frustrated at being on the political sidelines -- a bitter pill after Democrats swept into power in the election of 2006 and took the presidency in 2008. Now Ellison is part of a mounting chorus of activists trying to build a movement focused not on big government, but on what they see as the ills of Wall Street and corporate greed.
After being eclipsed by the energy and staying power of the Tea Party on the right, liberals may be forming an organic counterweight in the Occupy Wall Street protests erupting across the country. What started in New York with a few hundred people has swelled to tens of thousands in downtown Manhattan and spread across the country, including Minneapolis, where hundreds gathered over the weekend to "occupy" the Hennepin County Government Center plaza.
The clamor is music to Ellison's ears. He and other leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have toured the country for months to rally popular opposition to Republican tax and budget cuts, to little avail. He visited the Minneapolis protests last Friday.
In the leaderless Occupy Wall Street protests, liberal stalwarts like Ellison see the signs of a changing tide.
"These people are outraged," Ellison said. "We gotta be mad all together so we can restore the American dream."
Van Jones, a former Obama adviser who was a key player in the liberal "Take Back the American Dream" conference in Washington last week, said the left should channel protesters' anger to form a Tea Party of its own.
"I'm not mad at the Tea Party," Jones said. "I'm not mad at them for being so loud. I'm mad at us for being so quiet the past two years."
More mainstream Democrats are embracing the protests, like state Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, who tweeted Wednesday that she would be at the Occupy Minnesota event "in spirit." Established labor groups, such as the Service Employees International Union, are joining the cause, too. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started an online petition supporting Occupy Wall Street.
Matthew Kerbel, a Villanova University political scientist, said it's too early to know if the protests will have political staying power. "This is going to have legs if you start to see the narrative change about the reason why we're in the dilemma that we're in economically," said Kerbel, who has written a book about the online progressive movement.
A growing movement
For the first two weeks, the public paid little attention to the Wall Street protests, which began innocuously Sept. 17, when a mostly college-age crowd began camping out in a park near Manhattan's New York Stock Exchange.
But the movement soon ballooned, swelling to 10,000 in New York and drawing support from unions and others. Minnesota's Service Employees International Union issued a statement supporting the protests that began in Minneapolis last Friday.
"This debate, Occupy Wall Street, is bringing a voice back to the working people and middle class people," Melin said.
Liberals like Ellison acknowledge that it's difficult to know what direction the protests will take. Their goal is to channel into the anger and frustration, as the Tea Party did on the right, but there is no concrete plan as the protests continue to evolve.
"I think this is sustainable," Ellison said. "If you look at the Wisconsin thing, you look at this -- there's a liberal swing."
Dismayed at actions by Gov. Scott Walker to strip collective bargaining rights, thousands of protesters stormed the Wisconsin capitol earlier this year, camping out in its rotunda for days to protest Walker's actions.
Back on the street
The Occupy Wall Street protests have no leader or stated goals, nor do they align neatly with Democrats. Many liberals express open discontent with President Obama over the loss of the public option in the health-care debate and his compromise with House Speaker John Boehner in this summer's debt-limit fight.
When Obama was asked about Occupy Wall Street, he said the protesters "are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works."
Republicans, meanwhile, have decried the protests. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called them "growing mobs." GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney labeled it "class warfare."
Ellison said liberals realize they went dormant after Obama's election, allowing the Tea Party to seize momentum and shape the debate. "We fought so hard to get Obama in the White House and take the majority, and I think people thought that was going to do it," Ellison said. "It took a reminder for us to really get back on the street."
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723 Twitter: @StribHerb