WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison will vacate his congressional seat if he wins the chairman job at the Democratic National Committee, he told the Star Tribune Wednesday morning.
Ellison conceded Wednesday that a full-time chair is what the party wants after the losses of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. He said he came to the decision after difficult soul-searching and hearing from the more than 400 voting members of the DNC who said they wouldn't vote for him as long as he was a sitting member of Congress.
The previous chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was a Florida congresswoman.
"Serving my neighbors in Congress and fighting for them has been the best job I've ever had," Ellison said, in an e-mail. "Whether it was for immigration reform, worker's rights, gender equity, or social justice, we stood side by side so that every person in America ... is treated with respect and given every opportunity to succeed. Until the DNC Chair election, I plan to continue doing just that."
The specter of an open House seat in such a DFL-saturated area — Ellison's Minneapolis-based congressional district is considered among the most liberal in the country — has already set off a frenzy among politicians who are interested in running to fill the job. Two who have confirmed their interest in Ellison's seat are state Sens. Scott Dibble and Patricia Torres Ray, both Minneapolis DFLers.
Should Ellison step down, a special election would be held next year. Gov. Mark Dayton would set dates for both a special primary and then a special general election.
Ellison was re-elected in November to his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He serves as co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and is a reliable liberal voice on cable TV and around Minnesota. He was the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, and he also served in the Legislature from 2003 to 2007.
The 447 voting members of the DNC will cast ballots for their party leader on Feb. 23 in Atlanta, with a simple majority needed to win. Should Ellison win, staffers say he would resign his seat on Capitol Hill the following week.
Ellison is vying for the job against two other people so far, the state party chairs for New Hampshire and South Carolina. More contenders can still get in.
The job will be a tough one. The DNC chair will be among the highest-ranking party leaders to challenge President-elect Donald Trump and Republican majorities in the House and U.S. Senate.
He will be in charge of fundraising, crafting a massive get-out-the-vote strategy and figuring out paths to bigger victories in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election.
Since announcing he was going for the post, Ellison has been dogged by his past associations with the Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan. The group has been dubbed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Ellison helped organize the Minnesota delegation to the Nation of Islam's Million Man March in 1995, hoping to advance positive change for black men. Later in the '90s, he distanced himself from the organization, disavowing its "anti-Semitism, homophobia and ... chauvinistic model of manhood."
For Ellison, 53, the decision to vacate his beloved congressional seat for the DNC job comes at a time when he must have some certainty he can win. Party officials have said privately that their biggest worry with Ellison's bid was that he wanted to continue to serve in the House and that the party needed someone devoted to the post full time.
"I have learned one thing: Democrats are ready for a massive comeback," Ellison said. "Whoever wins the DNC chair race faces a lot of work, travel, planning and resource raising. I will be 'all-in' to meet the challenge."