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Last May, as Donald Trump was locking up the Republican nomination, a prophetic clip began circulating among portions of the left. It was a nearly one-year-old segment of ABC’s Sunday show This Week, featuring Rep. Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat then on the verge of winning a sixth term. “Anybody from the Democratic side of the fence who’s terrified of the possibility of a President Trump better vote, better get active, better get involved,” Ellison warned, “because this man has got some momentum and we better be ready for the fact that he might be leading the Republican ticket.”
Ellison made his prediction in July 2015, shortly after Trump had launched his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” His fellow panelists laughed along with moderator George Stephanopoulos, who offered Ellison a lifeline. “I know you don’t believe that,” he said. But Ellison insisted, “Stranger things have happened.”
Now, Trump is president, and Ellison, who saw it coming, is after a new job: running the Democratic Party. He announced his candidacy for Democratic National Committee chair in mid-November, and he and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez are the front-runners for the position, which the nearly 450 members of the DNC will vote on in late February. Ellison, an early and vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders who campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton last fall, is running to unify a fragmented party. Sanders backs him. So do Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader. So does the AFL-CIO. Win or lose, the 53-year-old Ellison, a Muslim, African American co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is poised to hold a position of influence in the party during one of the darkest moments in its history. Democrats are out of the White House and in the minority in Congress, and they’ve lost their window to reshape the Supreme Court. They control both the governor’s mansion and legislature in just six states; with another round of redistricting looming, the electoral map is only poised to get worse.
The role of the DNC chairman is to run a political machine that helps to elect Democrats throughout the country, not to dictate the party’s policy priorities. But Ellison’s blueprint for defeating Trumpism is nonetheless rooted in the anti-establishment politics of Sanders. The DNC has become the “Democratic Presidential Committee,” he argues; short-sighted focus on big-dollar fundraising and swing states has weakened the party on a county-by-county level. Change starts with shifting the party apparatus toward assembling a multicultural army of organizers, focused on the communities likely to bear the full brunt of the new president’s policies. Ellison says the proof that this can work is in his district. Emphasizing door-to-door engagement over TV advertising, Ellison boasts he’s juiced turnout in his safe Democratic seat to some of the highest levels in the country. Even as the Upper Midwest goes red, Minnesota Democrats have scored victories at the state level, bolstered by Ellison’s Minneapolis machine.
Republicans are eager to take him on, because in many ways, the story of Keith Ellison is the story conservatives wanted to believe about another cerebral African American community organizer from the Midwest—Barack Obama. Raised Catholic in Detroit, Ellison converted to Islam, dabbled in black nationalism, and marched with the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan—all before his first bid for Congress in 2006. His past dogged him in that run, and it has continued to be an issue in the DNC race: Billionaire Haim Saban, one of the Democrats’ biggest donors, has trashed him as an “anti-Semite.”
As a young activist in Minneapolis, Ellison learned to build coalitions outside the scope of party politics. He also learned the limits of what such activism could achieve without political power. For Ellison, it was a time of experimentation, education, and sometimes radical dalliances that ultimately imbued in his politics a hard-edged pragmatism. Many Democrats underestimated the extent to which Trump’s religious intolerance and ravings about “inner cities” would appeal to broad, largely white swaths of the electorate. They banked on the arc of progress to knock him back. Ellison, who built his career battling racist institutions, knew better than to make that mistake.
Ellison was the third of five boys raised in a big brick house in a mixed-race enclave of Detroit known as Palmer Woods. His father, Leonard Ellison Sr., was a psychiatrist, an atheist, and a hard-ass who quizzed his sons on current events and drove them to Gettysburg to walk the battlefield every Easter. Leonard was a Republican, not an activist. While he once helped to integrate a sailboat race run by an all-white Detroit yacht club, he mostly believed in nudging a racist system through relentless achievement. The Ellison boys were expected to become either doctors or lawyers. They all did.
If his trajectory was ordained by his father, Ellison’s worldview bore the imprint of his mother, Clida, a devout Catholic from a Louisiana Creole family. The congressman’s maternal grandfather was a voting rights organizer in Natchitoches. Clida was sent to a boarding school for safety; the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross outside their house. Clida’s family tree—with roots in the Balkans, France, Spain, and West Africa—was a prism for understanding the absurdity of the South’s racial caste system. Ellison’s younger brother, Anthony, now a lawyer in Boston, recalled Ellison struggling with their mother’s revelation that some of their Creole ancestors had owned slaves. During visits to a family cotton farm in Louisiana, Ellison brought notebooks and a tape recorder and spent hours interviewing relatives.
Ellison’s political awakening, which he credits to reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X at age 13, came during a period of racial turmoil in Detroit. When riots started after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Ellison, then five, hid under his bed as National Guard personnel carriers cruised past his block. Over a two-and-a-half-year period in the early 1970s, one Detroit police unit that formed after the riots was accused of killing 21 African Americans. Ellison feared crime and the people tasked with stopping it. After graduating from high school in 1981, he majored in economics at nearby Wayne State University, moving out of his leafy neighborhood and into a one-bedroom apartment in the city’s crack-ravaged Cass Corridor.
Ellison’s first brush with controversy came a few months into his freshmen year. After joining the student newspaper, the South End, he persuaded the editor to publish a cartoon featuring five identical black men dribbling a basketball alongside a man in a Klan robe who was clutching a club. Above it was a question: “How many Honkies are in this picture?” It was meant to poke fun at racial caricatures, but students didn’t see the humor. An African American classmate stormed into the newspaper’s office to confront him—a scene Ellison breezily recounted in a follow-up column mocking the outcry. His critics were “still living in the Jim Crow era,” Ellison wrote. The firestorm made the pages of the Detroit Free Press.
In the months to follow, friends noticed a change in Ellison. “He seemed to be a little more introspective, a little more circumspect,” says Mary Chapman, a Detroit writer who worked on the South End. “Maybe he grew up.”
Or maybe he found religion. Ellison had drifted from his mother’s Catholic church, but it had left a void. In his 2014 memoir, My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, Ellison writes that he began attending a mosque when he was 19—drawn by a billboard he passed on his commute. Clida Ellison described the reveal as more confusing than shocking. “He announced one day that he was going to mosque,” she said, “and my next question was: ‘What’s mosque?'”
Increasingly, he devoted his energy to anti-apartheid activism, and his columns took on a new urgency. When Bernie Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder after shooting four black men on a New York City subway, Ellison warned, “It won’t be long before police officers, old ladies, weekend survival gamers, and everyone else considers it open season on the brothers.”
He read a lot of Frantz Fanon, the Marxist anti-colonialist writer from Martinique, and in 1985 he attended a campus speech by Louis Farrakhan, the controversial Nation of Islam leader who blended calls for black empowerment with lengthy diatribes against Jews, gays, and other groups. “I remember talking to him and being surprised at how far left he had gone,” says Chuck Fogel, an editor at the South End who lived next door to Ellison. But there was an air of experimentation to everything he did. In high school, Ellison had formed a short-lived ska and thrash-metal band called the Deviants. Now, Ellison would fiddle with his guitar incessantly, studying different variations of “Johnny B. Goode,” Fogel recalls. Sometimes it was the Chuck Berry version. Sometimes it was Jimi Hendrix. “He was trying on things and searching.”
Many democrats view Ellison as the kind of organizer the moment demands, capable of harnessing the resurgent movements of the left—racial justice and economic populism. But critics have flogged a consistent narrative about his past, one that has haunted him since his first run for Congress in 2006. The case against Ellison has its roots in his time at the University of Minnesota Law School, where he began making a name for himself as a fierce critic of police and a Farrakhan defender. It was a radical identity he outgrew, one that friends insist doesn’t represent the Ellison of today, but one that fundamentally changed his idea of how politics worked.
Detroit had been a hub of black culture and political power. The Twin Cities were not. When Ellison arrived in the fall of 1987, the University of Minnesota had few tenured black professors. The state had just one black legislator. In an interview at the time, a young Ellison described the climate as “extremely isolating.”
When the Africana Student Cultural Center sponsored speeches by Farrakhan and one of his associates, tensions erupted on campus between Jews and African Americans. Ellison, who had taken to calling himself “Keith Hakim,” published a series of op-eds in the student paper, the Minnesota Daily, defending the Nation of Islam leader. The center also invited Kwame Ture, the black-power activist formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, to give a speech, during which he called Zionism a form of white supremacy. Ellison, then a member of the Black Law Student Association, introduced him.
In the hopes of mending fences, the university organized a series of conversations between black students and Jewish groups. Ellison could be deferential at these meetings. He thanked Jewish students for sticking up for black students’ right to host controversial campus speakers—even if they had denounced those speakers—and suggested working together on common political causes. But he also insisted the charges that Ture was racist were unfounded. Michael Olenick, a Jewish student who clashed with Ellison and who was the opinions editor at the Daily, recalled Ellison maintaining that an oppressed group could not be racist toward Jews because Jews were themselves oppressors. “European white Jews are trying to oppress minorities all over the world,” Olenick remembers Ellison arguing. “Keith would go on all the time about ‘Jewish slave traders.'” Another Jewish student active in progressive politics recalled Ellison’s incredulous response to the controversy over Zionism. “What are you afraid of?” Ellison asked. “Do you think black nationalists are gonna get power and hurt Jews?” (Ellison has rejected allegations of anti-Semitism. “I have always lived a politics defined by respecting differences, rejecting all forms of racism and anti-Semitism,” he wrote recently. He declined to be interviewed for this story, and his office did not respond to detailed questions from Mother Jones.)
Ellison addresses the Democratic National Convention. Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
At law school, Ellison was already laying a foundation for his shift to politics. He was becoming known as an organizer, with a flair for publicity. At the beginning of 1989, two incidents solidified his growing reputation. On January 25, as part of a series of raids on suspected crack storehouses, police tossed a stun grenade through the window of an apartment building in North Minneapolis. Two elderly black residents died in the resulting blaze. No drugs were found, and none of the men arrested at the building were subsequently charged. A grand jury declined to indict the offending officers.
Ellison and a few students organized a protest over the lack of prosecutions, but the day before their rally, another incident happened at the downtown Embassy Suites. The hotel was a hangout spot for college students, and on that night two parties were happening on the same floor. One was a kegger hosted by a group of white students. The other was a birthday party attended by African American students. It was a low-key gathering; one woman had brought her toddler. But when police responded to a noise complaint about the kegger, they busted up the birthday instead.
Partygoers alleged that the cops had called them “niggers.” One student at the party, a Daily reporter named Van Hayden, told me an officer had dangled him over the edge of the sixth-floor railing. He left in handcuffs, with a broken nose and a few bruised ribs.
The next day, after the students were released, they joined Ellison at the demonstration against police brutality. A few days later, Ellison led about 75 people in a march to City Hall, where they stormed a City Council meeting, forcing officials to yield the floor to Ellison for a 10-minute speech. By then, Ellison was organizing several protests a week and holding press conferences to pressure Minnesota’s attorney general to launch a state investigation into the raid. Ellison demanded “public justice.” “It was a mini-Ferguson before anyone had heard of Ferguson,” Hayden told me.
Ellison and his chief collaborator, an undergraduate named Chris Nisan who was active with the Socialist Workers Party, attracted the attention of Forward Motion, a small socialist journal. Their interview ran with a photo of Ellison clutching a megaphone, a headband wrapped around his forehead. “People are coming face-to-face with their own oppression,” Ellison said. He was alarmed by the rise of white supremacist David Duke. “Eight years of mean-spiritedness of the Reagan era have encouraged fascist and racist forces to come out again. A Ku Kluxer was just elected in Louisiana. We see a rise in police brutality all over the country.” Ellison envisioned a unified front of young black people, white progressive students, organized labor, and American Indians pushing back against the evils of capitalism and white supremacy. “The more the right attacks, the more we have to respond.”
Ellison and Nisan’s protests did win a victory, albeit a limited one. Four of the five students arrested at the hotel were acquitted of their misdemeanor charges, and Minneapolis set up an independent, if weak, review board to investigate police brutality claims. In 1990, Ellison helped launch the Coalition for Police Accountability, which organized community meetings and published a quarterly newspaper, Cop Watch.
As the city’s crime rate soared in the early ’90s, some residents took to calling it “Murderapolis.” Black residents found themselves in the crosshairs of anti-crime initiatives and city politics. Ellison was still leading protests against the police, but he was not just on the outside. Two years out of law school, he ran for a seat on a city commission that controlled $400 million in development funding. Ellison’s slate stunned observers with its organization, bringing in three busloads of Hmong residents to vote in a race few people knew existed. North Minneapolis now controlled seven of eight seats.
Around this time, Ellison began attending a book club led by a prominent history professor at Macalester College who placed an emphasis on reclamation—the idea that whatever gains African Americans made would have to come through their own efforts. “The same way that our ancestors laid something down for us, we got to lay something down for the people who come next,” is how Resmaa Menakem, a friend of Ellison’s who was also in the club, described the theme. In practice, this meant building institutions—schools, civic groups, nonprofits—capable of boosting and protecting the community.
During Black History Month in 1993, Menakem and Ellison guest-hosted a segment on the black community radio station KMOJ about James Baldwin and Malcolm X. It evolved into a weekly show called “Black Power Perspectives” that lasted for eight years. The callers forced Ellison to think and argue on his feet and at times keep his emotions in check. Islam was a particularly volatile subject. White supremacists frequently called in, and Ellison once got so agitated he had to leave the studio.
Ellison’s fiery disposition sometimes got him into trouble. Bill English, a longtime Twin Cities activist, recalled almost coming to blows with Ellison during a nonprofit board meeting in the early aughts. “We went down to nose-to-nose, and people walked up to us and separated us, and a day later he called me and apologized profusely,” he says. English was nearly 70 years old at the time. During his 2012 race, Ellison and his ex-Marine Republican opponent got into an exchange on a radio show so heated that the moderator interrupted to call for a commercial break.
In 1993, after a pit stop at a white-shoe law firm, Ellison landed a job as executive director of the Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit focused on providing indigent defense in the city’s African American, Hmong, and American Indian communities. (One of the group’s founders represented Russell Means and Dennis Banks after their 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee.) Ellison still didn’t shy away from controversy. He partnered with a former Vice Lords gang leader named Sharif Willis to tackle police brutality—an effort that fell apart when Willis held 12 people up at gunpoint at a gas station. (Ellison has called the alliance “naive.”) But he made a name for himself on tough cases. His aggressive legal tactics were a lot like his approach to political organizing. “Some lawyers will spend most of their time in the back room trying to convince not only their client but also the prosecutor to make a deal—Keith was kind of the opposite,” says Bill Means, Russell’s brother and an early supporter of the Legal Rights Center. “He’d be filing motions five, six at a time on a traffic case.”
Ellison’s aspirations as a community leader led him into an alliance with the Nation of Islam. If reclamation was the idea animating Ellison as he entered his 30s, Farrakhan was black America’s leading evangelist for it, commanding huge crowds for speeches that could last hours. In 1995, Ellison and a small group of pastors and activists he’d worked with on policing issues (including the leader of the local NOI chapter) organized buses to take black men of all religions from the Midwest to attend Farrakhan’s Million Man March.
In his book, Ellison describes the event, held in October 1995, as a turning point in his flirtation with Farrakhan. After filling those buses and attending the march, he was struck by the smallness of Farrakhan’s message compared with the moment. The speech was rich in masonic conspiracies and quack numerology about the number 19. What was the point of organizing if it built up to nothing? Ellison says he was reminded of an old saying of his father’s, which is attributed to former House Speaker Sam Rayburn: “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”
Ellison has said that he was never a member of the Nation of Islam and that his working relationship with the organization’s Twin Cities study group (the national organization’s term for its chapters) lasted just 18 months. He has said that he was “an angry young black man” who thought he might have found an ally in the cause of economic and political empowerment, and that he overlooked Farrakhan’s most incendiary statements because “when you’re African American, there’s literally no leader who is not beat up by the press.” In his book, Ellison outlines deep theological differences between the group and his mainstream Muslim faith. But his break from Farrakhan was not quite as clean as he portrayed it. Under the byline Keith X Ellison, months after the march that he described as an epiphany, he penned an op-ed in the Twin Cities black weekly Insight News, pushing back against charges of anti-Semitism directed at Farrakhan. In 1997, nearly two years later, he endorsed a statement again defending Farrakhan. When Ellison ran (unsuccessfully) for state representative in 1998, Insight News described him as affiliated with the Nation of Islam. Two organizers who worked with him at the time told me they believed Ellison had been a member of the Nation. At community meetings, he was even known to show up in a bow tie, accompanied by dark-suited members of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation’s security wing.
Minister James Muhammad, who in the 1990s led the Nation of Islam’s Twin Cities study group, confirms that Ellison served for several years as the local group’s chief of protocol, acting as a liaison between Muhammad and members of the community. He was a “trusted member of our inner circle,” says Muhammad, who is no longer active in the Nation of Islam. Ellison regularly attended meetings and sometimes spoke in Muhammad’s stead, when the leader was absent. An Ellison spokesman declined to answer questions about the congressman’s role in the study group and instead replied in an email, “Right wing and anti-Muslim extremists have been trying to smear Keith and distort his record for more than a decade. He’s written extensively about his work on the Million Man March, and has a long history of standing up against those who sow division and hatred.”
It was only in 2006, as his run for Congress floundered, that Ellison repudiated Farrakhan. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come up,” he told the Star Tribune, when pressed. In a letter to a Jewish community organization, he conceded that Farrakhan’s positions “were and are anti-Semitic, and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did.” Now he considers the matter settled. Last fall, his aides canceled a scheduled interview with the New York Times when they were told that questions about Farrakhan would be raised.
Critics in the Twin Cities view the relationship in cold political terms—Farrakhan was a useful affiliation for Ellison up until he wasn’t. “Keith was able to climb up some steps by talking about his respect and love for the honorable minister,” says Ron Edwards, a Minneapolis media fixture and a former director of the radio station where Ellison co-hosted his show. “People don’t forget that.” Spike Moss, an organizer who worked with Ellison on the Million Man March, called his reversal “the ultimate betrayal.” Farrakhan even recorded a Facebook video responding to Ellison this past December. “If you denounce me to achieve greatness,” he said, “wait until the enemy betrays you and then throws you back like a piece of used tissue paper to your people.”
Menakem attributes the various identities that his book club buddy and radio co-host adopted over the years—Keith Hakim, Keith X Ellison, Keith Muhammad—to “him becoming conscious and him trying on different ways of being before he settled on who he is,” he says. “He’s always remaking himself,” says Anthony Ellison, the congressman’s younger brother. “The Keith Ellison from 20 years ago is not the Keith Ellison today.”
After a decade mostly working outside elected politics, Ellison says he decided to run for the state House after testifying at a hearing on sentencing reform and seeing no black legislators. “We oftentimes had these debates and discussions about ‘out of the streets and into the suites’—that was the term that was used to describe the swan song of the civil rights movement,” says August Nimtz, one of the few black professors at the University of Minnesota and a longtime acquaintance of Ellison’s. “He made a decision and thought he could make a difference by being on the inside.” After a false start in 1998, he won election as a state representative from North Minneapolis on his second try in 2002. A few years later, he jumped into the race to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Martin Sabo in 2006.
In a field that included a former state party chair and a candidate supported by Emily’s List, Ellison had to find his own base amid a steady trickle of stories about his past. One Minnesota political newsletter declared him a “dead man walking.” Ellison labored to show Jewish progressives he’d turned a page. He picked up the endorsement of the American Jewish World, the Twin Cities-based newspaper, and he addressed voters’ concerns about Farrakhan at the state’s largest synagogue. Ellison’s years of organizing and legal work formed the basis for a coalition. Fashioning himself as a lefty in the mold of progressive icon Paul Wellstone, Ellison adopted the late senator’s spruce-green campaign colors and railed against the “Republican lite” leaders of his party. He ran against the Iraq War and pushed for single-payer health care. Also critical was the mobilization of a new constituency in the Twin Cities—Muslim Somali Americans, who had begun settling in the area in the 1990s.
In that first primary, Ellison embraced the old-school tactics he aims to bring to the DNC. He ran no campaign ads; instead, he invested in paid community organizers who started their work early, months before a traditional campaign might lumber to life. Ellison often accompanied his organizers on their rounds. They targeted apartment buildings housing immigrants—Russians, East Africans, Latinos—who had little history of political engagement, and they recruited organizers who came from these communities. “You go to Keith’s campaign office and it looks like the United Nations,” says Corey Day, the executive director of the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The Minneapolis City Pages called his coalition “the most diverse crayon box of races and creeds a Minnesota politician has ever mustered.”
Ellison’s district is so blue he hardly needs to campaign to ensure reelection. But he views constant voter contact, during the election and afterward, as essential to his agenda. He cites research showing that just 58 percent of self-identified liberals vote, versus 78 percent of self-identified conservatives. If a state party can juice that 58 percent just a little, he argues, it can defeat ballot initiatives and keep its grip on statewide offices. Day credits Ellison’s organizers with beating back a Republican voter ID initiative in 2012. Michael Brodkorb, a Republican operative who unearthed some of the most damaging stories about Ellison in 2006, views Ellison’s get-out-the-vote machine with awe: “He turned political organizing into what I think most people think political organizing is.”
Heading to Washington marked another change in Ellison’s political identity. In St. Paul, “I don’t think more than a handful of close friends of his even knew he was Muslim,” Dave Colling, who managed his first congressional campaign, told me. Ellison shied away from discussing his religion during the race, telling reporters it was “not that interesting.” But as the first Muslim representative ever elected to Congress, a rising tide of conservative religious nativism ensured that his faith would remain front and center.
After Ellison told a Somali American cable-access host that he intended to be sworn into office on a Koran (he used Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy), Rep. Virgil Goode, a Virginia Republican, warned there would “likely be many more Muslims elected” unless his colleagues “wake up.” Glenn Beck asked the congressman-elect during an interview to “prove to me you are not working with our enemies.” The innuendo did not go away with time. In 2012, after they had been representing neighboring districts for five years, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann accused Ellison of working with the Muslim Brotherhood. When Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) held hearings on Muslim “radicalization” in the United States in 2011, Ellison testified in defense of his faith, crying as he recounted the story of a Muslim paramedic who died in the World Trade Center attack only to be posthumously smeared as a terrorist accomplice.
Ellison was thrown into another maelstrom when, in the fall of 2015, Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man, as he lay handcuffed on the ground. After Black Lives Matter protesters began an occupation at the fourth police precinct headquarters, Ellison flew home to meet with them. At first, he backed the encampment. With the city on edge, he moved easily between different groups, negotiating a meeting between Clark’s family and the Democratic governor, Mark Dayton.
For more than a week, Ellison hung with the BLM organizers, even as the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a photo of Ellison’s middle son, Jeremiah, with his hands up while a policeman pointed a gun in his direction. (Ellison called the photo “agonizing.”) But after several white men opened fire on the mostly black protesters, injuring five people, Ellison finally broke with the demonstrators and supported the mayor’s call to relocate the encampment for public safety. Debating with activists on Twitter, he insisted he was merely proposing a change in tactics; the goal had stayed the same. Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds, filling the role Ellison once played of the organizer chipping away at the system from the outside, dismissively referred to him as “the old guard,” and protesters held signs calling him a “sellout.” When Ellison showed up at a North Minneapolis community meeting to explain himself, Levy-Pounds refused to give him the floor and Ellison left without speaking. “It was essentially the establishment versus the community,” Levy-Pounds says. Ellison had crossed over.
In the run-up to the 2016 election, Ellison recognized the Democratic Party was at a crossroads. With a message that foreshadowed his DNC campaign, he traveled the country imploring Democratic groups to get back to organizing. Toting a voter-turnout manifesto called “Voters First,” he barnstormed places where the party was desperate for a jump-start, like Utah and Nebraska. But he also made his pitch to party insiders at the DNC’s summer meeting in 2015, just as the Democrats were powering up their 2016 election machinery, led by a network of allied super-PACs. Implicit in his message was a critique rooted in his experience in Minneapolis: Democrats focus too much on fundraisers and not enough on organizers. They provide lip service to the working class while fêting elites. The party’s losses in November have reinforced Ellison’s belief.
In laying out his platform, Ellison, who has promised to step down from Congress if he wins, acknowledges a rot within the party. It has lost more than 900 state legislative seats since 2008, and the problem is self-perpetuating; those losses mean Republicans control redistricting, which means Democrats lose even more seats, which means they have fewer candidates to run for higher office, and so on. Former DNC Chair Howard Dean, facing a similar quandary, proposed a 50-state strategy; Ellison is offering “a 3,143-county strategy.”
Party chairs reflect the ethos of their time. Dean followed the wave of the progressive Netroots; Tim Kaine mirrored the hope and dad jokes of Barack Obama. Ellison’s candidacy and the intensity of the progressive groups backing it are in many ways a continuation of the last war, between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who the Vermont senator’s supporters claim was unfairly aided by the Democratic establishment. Ellison’s closest rival, Perez, is backed by Clintonites. But the frame elides the similarities between the two. Perez, like Ellison, was a civil rights lawyer, and he retooled the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to refocus on voting rights and police abuses. They aren’t far apart politically, and their prescriptions for healing the party aren’t too different either. When it comes to the DNC, their biggest difference may be that Ellison supports a ban on accepting money from lobbyists and Perez doesn’t. (But Ellison says he won’t press the issue if DNC members oppose it.) Ellison wants the DNC to get a greater share of its funds from small-dollar donors, and he has committed to acquiring Sanders’ historically lucrative email list for the party if he wins. Perez would like that list, too, of course, but Ellison, by virtue of his close relationship with Sanders and trust among the party’s left wing, might stand a better chance of both getting it and knowing how to deploy it.
He is pledging to bring voters who have not been active in Democratic Party politics into the fold, just like he’s done in Minneapolis. “We’ve got to give Black Lives Matter a place where they can express themselves electorally,” he said in December, while in the same breath urging the party to cast aside tired assumptions about voters in the Midwest: “Can we not say ‘Rust Belt’ anymore? Look, I’m from Minnesota—I don’t feel rusty.” Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who co-chairs the progressive caucus with Ellison, says his colleague’s strength is in rallying diverse factions around a common narrative. “He can talk about his life experience. He can talk about what it’s like to represent and be part of a multicultural, multiracial, multi-issue kind of a political activism.”
Choosing Ellison to lead the Democratic Party would be a gamble. It would mean going all in on a diagnosis that says the party’s shortcomings in recent years are not due to a rejection of liberalism by voters, but because the party has not been liberal enough. It might alienate a small but influential faction of Democratic leaders, such as Haim Saban. (At a debate featuring DNC candidates in January, Ellison said he and Saban had spoken and “we’re on the road to recovery.”) Still, Ellison is betting big on his hands-on formula. If Democrats do the work, he reasons, they just might be able to reverse their losses and usher in a new era of post-Trump progressivism. In the first days of the Trump administration, it looks like a long shot. But stranger things have happened.
Additional reporting by Ryan Felton.
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Keith Ellison Is Everything Republicans Thought Obama Was. Maybe He’s Just What Democrats Need.