ATLANTA – Rep. Keith Ellison was willing to give up his U.S. House seat to become the Democratic Party's national leader — a political gamble that the six-term congressman lost over the weekend.
Ellison fell short of the votes needed to run the Democratic National Committee in a contest here Saturday. The job went to former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who immediately appointed Ellison as his deputy.
In an interview Sunday, Perez said he had big plans for Ellison as his deputy, including letting him run point on the party's grass-roots organizing efforts.
Perez also noted he wanted to make Ellison the "face of the Democratic Party."
While serving as DNC deputy, Ellison will keep his Fifth Congressional District seat. This forces Ellison into a potentially awkward position in his home district of Minneapolis, where he will have to rebuild a local platform and repledge to serve his loyal constituents, who have re-elected him to Congress six times.
"If anything, he's helped himself," said state Sen. Scott Dibble, who lives in Ellison's district and was mulling a run for his seat if Ellison had resigned. "His work has always been about energizing folks and energizing people at the grass roots. That's why people support him so strongly in this district."
He noted that there was a welcome home party for Ellison at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Sunday.
Ellison first got into the Democratic National Committee race four days after President Trump was elected in November. At first, Ellison said he could simultaneously be a congressman and chief of the Democratic Party. He argued that he would have a robust team and he could continue voting and serving his roughly 600,000 constituents on Capitol Hill while also steering the Democratic Party nationally.
But DNC delegates had reservations about that idea. The party had just weathered historic losses up and down ballots across the country and there was a sense among the more than 440 voting members that a full-time chairman was needed to bolster the party's strength.
So former Minneapolis Mayor and DNC Vice Chairman R.T. Rybak, who was advising Ellison from the beginning, and others encouraged him to offer to give up his seat if he won. It wasn't easy to convince Ellison that was the right call, Rybak said.
"Keith never set out to leave Congress, and a number of us helped convince him that to do this job, you'd have to do that," Rybak said. "He will have no problem getting re-energized in that kind of work and I think the district fully understands that he unwillingly was going to give up his seat."
Rybak points out that Minneapolis stands to gain with an elevated politician — particularly one with a new national title as deputy chairman of the DNC.
"Now he's a very national figure who is clearly seen far and wide as a person who can energize and mobilize younger voters, especially voters of color, and he'll be called on across the country," he said.
Doug Daggett, a Republican who ran against Ellison a few years ago, said on Sunday he applauded Ellison for being willing to give up his House seat for the DNC job, but said it's fair to question his commitment to the House job now.
"Why would he be willing to give that job up?" he said. "Really, Keith is the only one who can answer that."
Ellison, who did not grant interviews on Sunday, called his work a "mission of love" and said he will always be passionate about igniting a fire in people who may not otherwise be engaged in politics.
"What about that guy on the corner, pants sagging, everybody is scared of him," Ellison said to supporters earlier this weekend. "They think he's trouble. But you might find out if you talk to him that he's the best door-knocker and canvasser that you've ever had."
Perez underscored Ellison's importance to the party's future. "We have to make sure we turn these moments into a movement. We have to make sure Democrats are conspicuously helping in all of these emerging activities, and I'm hard-pressed to think of someone better suited to help lead that effort," he said.
"He's such an eloquent spokesperson," Perez added. "We need many faces of the Democratic Party and so I think we're incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to create the synergies that together allows us to do what we need to do."