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Rep. Keith Ellison on why he’s backing Bernie Sanders for president

Sanders and Ellison have a history and a shared vision, so it’s not a shocker the congressman will back his Senate colleague.

Ellison: “[Sanders] and I share a really strong vision in terms of how working and middle class people can be successful. I plan on helping Bernie out and campaigning for him.”
REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Keith Ellison is, officially, feeling the Bern: today, the Fifth District representative announced he is formally endorsing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.

“He is a very, very strong candidate,” Ellison said in a phone interview with MinnPost. “He and I share a really strong vision in terms of how working and middle-class people can be successful. I plan on helping Bernie out and campaigning for him.”

Ellison named a variety of issues upon which he and Sanders agree — primarily, raising the minimum wage, ending mass incarceration and fighting the oil industry. On one of Sanders’ biggest obstacles — his proud identification as a socialist — Ellison pushed back: “People will go based on substance and not labels. Republicans will try to make distractions about labels. … Bernie has never run away from his belief system,” he said, adding that the late Sen. Paul Wellstone shared the same quality.

Could Sanders compete in a general election against a Republican like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush? “I think Bernie’s going to stack up well,” Ellison said. “People respect authenticity.”

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That being said, Ellison did not say that Sanders was a lock for the nomination: He said that he believes the Vermonter is a legitimate candidate, but also acknowledged that, even if he doesn’t win the nomination, Sanders’ candidacy presents a major opportunity to advance progressive issues.

Thus far, Ellison and Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona — co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — are the only members of Congress to formally endorse Sanders. (Sanders is the only Senate member in the group of progressive lawmakers.) Ellison said more congressional progressives may jump into the Sanders camp: He says he’ll tell people, “If you think Bernie’s values line up with yours, support him.”

Meanwhile, the party’s front-runner, Hillary Clinton, has racked up the endorsements from prominent Minnesota Democrats. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tim Walz have endorsed her. Rep. Betty McCollum is all but certain to join them. Earlier in October, the Clinton campaign released a list of their Minnesota supporters, which included bold-faced names in the state party establishment, like Gov. Mark Dayton and Lieutenant Gov. Tina Smith.

Recently — and perhaps prompted by Sanders’ strong poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire — Clinton has come out with progressive stances on issues important to the party base. Last week, she voiced her opposition the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — a top issue for the progressive movement right now, and something Sanders and Ellison have worked very hard to defeat. In September, Clinton also announced she would oppose the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Over the summer, Clinton went to Capitol Hill and met with Ellison and the Progressive Caucus; afterward, Ellison told MinnPost that Clinton was “speaking our language.” More than two dozen members of the caucus have officially endorsed her candidacy.

Why not get behind Hillary, then? Ellison was diplomatic, and had only good things to say about the former secretary of state: “She’s doing some good things, and at the end of the day, I’m supporting the Democratic nominee.” He emphasized, however, that his support of Sanders is a conscience decision, and he made clear that he believes Sanders to be the strongest candidate for the working and middle classes.

Sanders and Ellison have a history and a shared vision, so it’s not a shocker the congressman will back his Senate colleague. “Bernie is a friend of mine,” Ellison said. “Bernie is a warm guy. He is a straight shooter. … He has a very broad breadth of support.”

Tomorrow night, Sanders will get a chance to address his biggest television audience yet when he, Clinton, and the other Democratic presidential contenders take the stage for the first Democratic presidential debate. Ellison says he’ll be watching.