WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison is in the political fight of his life to convince activists across the country that he is the right person to lead the Democratic National Committee after historic losses in Congress and of the White House.
Ellison’s task is enormous: Make the case that a Muslim from north Minneapolis is the leader the party needs to connect with voters in rural areas and Rust Belt states who have increasingly voted Republican.
“The average American is really upset at the status quo,” Ellison said.
He has centered his campaign on income inequality and the belief that people are working harder for less money than they did decades ago. “Hard work doesn’t necessarily pay,” said Ellison, a five-term congressman who represents Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs.
But Ellison’s campaign is facing stiff resistance from powerful corners of the party, including the White House. He has drawn criticism from party leaders skeptical that the representative of Minnesota’s most liberal congressional district can connect with a wider swath of the country, particularly the rural areas Democrats used to dominate.
“Who are we? What are we standing for? I certainly don’t feel like our leadership here [in Washington] listens to me like that,” said Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, who narrowly won re-election in the southern part of Minnesota, where Republican Donald Trump had a strong showing. “It’s left to be seen who is going to speak for the Democrats right now. I’m asking right now who that person should be.”
Ellison’s run comes at a time of deep upheaval and soul-searching among party leaders, who along with the White House have lost both chambers of Congress as will as governorships and legislatures across the country.
The former party chairwoman, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, abruptly stepped down ahead of the Democratic National Convention earlier this year after leaked e-mails showed she had favored Hillary Clinton to win the presidential nomination over Sen. Bernie Sanders.
If Ellison wins control of the party’s political arm, he would be charged with bridging a yawning gap between the older and more urban base of the party and the younger, more vocal coalition that was drawn to Sanders’ insurgent candidacy.
“I think the Democratic Party is always going to be the marriage of the civil rights community and economic populism for all,” said Ellison, who initially supported Sanders and then shifted to Clinton once she clinched the nomination.
Sanders was an early endorser of Ellison for party chairman.
For Ellison, the day-to-day work of running to head the DNC is a grueling slog through phone lists, long conversations with anxious party leaders and time in front of a computer answering e-mails.
The path to victory is far from certain. Many Democrats have said a full-time congressman can’t devote the time necessary for the top party job.
Ellison has not indicated for certain that he would keep his seat, but he said Wednesday he intends to give the party more than 40 hours a week of work.
Meanwhile, Ellison has faced renewed criticism for previous ties with the Nation of Islam, a black political movement dubbed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Ellison was an organizer for the 1995 Million Man March, which was staged by Louis Farrakhan, the longtime leader of the Nation of Islam and a virulent anti-Semite. Ellison says he has never had any bigoted thoughts or feelings and distanced himself from the movement after the march in Washington because it wasn’t effective.
“Ultimately, all they had to offer was directing anger at other people, which really isn’t productive, and that became clear to me,” he said.
DFL State Party Chairman Ken Martin, who has been helping Ellison since June with his bid, said he must show voters that Democrats are the party for all Americans.
“It’s important for the next chair to heal the wound, … bring the Sanders supporters and the Clinton supporters together,” Martin said.
Ellison believes he has the energy and the ideas to do that.
“The Democratic Party is always going to be the party that women have equal rights, but we also have to be a party that says that we’re not going to sit by when your family can barely make the rent,” he said. “We can’t sit back and allow that to happen.”