Keith Ellison spends his ‘snow days’ trying to rally Minnesota’s disheartened Democrats

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison spent his Washington, D.C., snow days back in Minnesota, trying to inspire Democrats who have become discouraged by a health care debate that seems to have become stuck in a deep drift.

“I’m still confident we will have a health care bill by this spring,” said the 5th District congressman during a Friday conversation in his office in the Urban League building in north Minneapolis. “The bill that comes out likely won’t look much like one I would have written. I’m for a universal plan. But it will start us on a trajectory to real change.”

Even in the giddy (for progressive Democrats) first days of the Obama presidency, when sweeping changes seemed possible in health care, Ellison was trying to warn his constituents that health care reform would not be easy.

Then, and now, he compared health care reform to the civil rights movement, which evolved slowly.

“You don’t move from all bad to all good,” he said. “It never works that way. Look at the great social changes in our country. They always come in pieces. We may look at civil rights coming in one sweeping gesture with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But we forget the 1957 civil rights act, the 1960 civil rights act. The great speech Hubert Humphrey gave at the Democratic Convention in 1948. All of these things had to happen before you could have the sweeping change of 1964.”

The health care reform bill that Ellison believes will emerge this spring will be a small step before another small step before another small step.

“If we can get a bill passed, I think Americans will feel the change and they’ll see it’s good,” said Ellison. “Then we will be on an irreversible course.”

He worries that reform supporters will give up
The great threat to reform, Ellison believes, is that supporters will throw in the towel.

“I’ve been telling people, ‘You can’t give up now,’ ” said Ellison. “It’s in our grasp.”

Ellison does understand the discouragement. Even he’s felt it.

Rep. Keith Ellison
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Rep. Keith Ellison

He said he was as appalled as anyone at the deals Senate leadership had to make with some Democratic senators to try to achieve 60 votes.

“Senate rules are dysfunctional,” he said. “But don’t forget, we passed a bill in the House. Nancy Pelosi was a great leader.”

He even was discouraged by the president.

“Hindsight is 20-20, but it’s clear that the White House needed to be more involved,” said Ellison, who worked so hard to help get the president elected.

Even now, he believes that the president is wasting valuable time trying to bring Republicans into the health care process.

“He can go to their [Republican] meetings, and we all know he can out-reason them and out-talk them,” said Ellison. “But I can’t believe he really thinks he can get them to change their votes. Out-talking them is a lot different than getting them to push the green button.”

Ellison understands why “entrenched money” [the insurance industry] is fighting reform with such energy.

He’s a little more perplexed about why so many of the so-called Tea Partiers have joined the fray against health care reform.

“The people I see at their events would seem to be the people who would benefit [from reform],” he said.

In an effort to understand that Tea Party anger, and perhaps try to re-focus it, Ellison has taken to studying an awful racist from the 1890s, Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, who was a governor than a long-serving senator from South Carolina.

“He was a populist who talked about economic injustice, but only to white farmers,” said Ellison. “That’s relevant because in times of great economic stress, people look for somebody to blame. In his time, it was the big banks and ‘those people [blacks].’ He’d say, ‘You hard workers are being dragged down by bankers and those people.’ ”

What does Pitchfork Ben have to do with the Tea Party movement, which has played a big in helping to stall health care reform?

“I don’t believe the Tea Partiers are racist, though at their events it doesn’t look like a multicultural movement,” said Ellison. “But it’s a movement built on anger. That’s not a bad thing. People have a reason to be angry. From what I’ve seen, the right has given them a bomb and that makes them feel better in the short term, but it doesn’t really help them with the issues that make them angry. We [Democrats] need to let them see that we all do better when we all do better.”

Ellison works to rekindle political passions
So while the snow brought Washington to a standstill, Ellison moved around the district, trying to re-ignite political fires.

“The level of excitement about his election has worn off,” said Ellison. “I keep hearing, ‘I wish he was more this,’ or ‘I wish he was more that.’ I keep saying we shouldn’t forget what he has accomplished. He changed the environment internationally how people look at us. He’s working on the stuff in the Mideast and in the Muslim world, but it’s hard slugging. The Recovery Act has been a success. He signed S-Chips [the bipartisan insurance program for poor children which had been vetoed by President Bush]. The economy is improving. There have been accomplishments.”

But health care reform is stuck.

“I’m saying, ‘Buck up, people, we’re just getting started,’ ” Ellison said.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Kimbers Cadieux on 02/15/2010 - 09:47 am.

    For Pete’s sake! Perhaps my representative should spend less time analyzing the anger of tea party folks and try and figure out what it’s going to take to make the Democrats grow a spine and use the majority they have before it’s gone.

    You want to light a fire? How about doing what was campaigned for instead the mush you’ve been serving up under the quise of any change is better than none or that the voting public just doesn’t understand. While I may not understand everything, I do understand I didn’t think I was voting for a party of spineless jellyfish! Grrrrr.

    Stop catering to a bunch of people who are never going to agree with you even when you do exactly what they want!

    It’s been really eye opening and very disapointing to watch what’s going on.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/15/2010 - 10:04 am.

    “What does Pitchfork Ben have to do with the Tea Party movement, which has played a big [sic] in helping to stall health care reform?”

    Very nice.

    That paragraph is a perfect example of why the Tea Party is gaining momentum, and why the left is completely incapable of dealing with it rationally.

    A large percentage of “Tea partiers” are new to political activism. Despite the desperate spin of the leftist media, the folks that showed up to “town hall” meetings last summer were not “sent” by any organized group, they simply got into their cars and showed up because they are angry.

    They saw how out of touch and arrogant their locally elected representatives really are; they encountered thuggery and intimidation at the hand of leftist labor unions…they are composing a complete picture of how the Democrat party operates.

    When they read, and listen to leftist media ascribe their genuine concerns to racism, ignorance and Machiavellian plots, political neophytes get first hand experience of how the left, impotent in the face of determined opposition, turns to mindless invective.

    And they will remember.

  3. Submitted by dan buechler on 02/15/2010 - 10:20 am.

    I love you all altho the tea party reminds me of the time we tied the tails of 2 cats together and watched them take off in opposite directions. It is highly entertaining but sad.
    (By the way no cats were ever tied together)

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/15/2010 - 10:28 am.

    We delivered the vote, we won the election. There just isn’t a whole lot more we can do. Our elected officials have to get the job. It’s just not possible for those of us who worked so hard for them in the past, to do the job for them now.

  5. Submitted by Stephen Dent on 02/15/2010 - 12:22 pm.

    I agree with the poster that said the Democrats need a spine. The lack of a public option and caving into the big insurance copmpanies will never create the type of change I was hoping (and voting) for not only with healthcare, but the war on terrorism, the economy, upgrading our homeland infrastructure…and of course, jobs…jobs…jobs. While a staunch DFLer, I am frustrated and disappointed in our elected leaders. I applaud Ellison for urging us not to give up and I see fire in Franken’s eyes, so maybe there’s hope for the future. DFL politicians…drop the wagging tail and grow a spine.

  6. Submitted by Charley Underwood on 02/15/2010 - 12:55 pm.

    As far as I can tell, I was the first person who asked Keith Ellison to run for Congress. I got the DFL statewide Volunteer of the Year award, primarily for my efforts to get Keith elected. But I was also on the cell phone with him as he walked in to vote in favor of the Iraq war appropriations, weeks after he had been sworn in. I warned him that it would be extremely hard to get peace people to support him if he caved in to Pelosi on that fake vote (spending more billions on the war in order to end it). Well, peace people are discouraged. Those who voted for Hope have now found Despair. Nobody much expects our “leadership” in D.C. to vote against the interests of Big Pharma, Big Insurance, Big War Profiteers and Big Corporate “Persons.” We are now, quite reasonably, expecting for Obama to make kissy-face with the right wing and hand out trillions to the super-rich, all while the rest of us wallow in unemployment, foreclosure and broken axles from the potholes in our roads.

    Keith, I love you dearly, but I’m not waiting for you any more. I am growing my garden and trying to help my neighbors grow theirs, since I don’t think your buddies in D.C. are doing much to re-localize our food systems. I am learning bike repair, since I don’t think you are going to prioritize transit over wars. I am getting ready to become an emergency medical technician, since I don’t think you are going to save our healthcare system.

    My days of activism are just beginning, but they won’t now include working for electoral campaigns like the one that got you elected. I truly do love you dearly, Keith, and I wish you absolutely no harm. But you guys in D.C. are now working for a big machine that is crushing the rest of us, and it is folly to hope that idealists and good-hearted people won’t notice. Come back and help us whenever you wish, and I will welcome you. But don’t get angry that I ignore your requests for campaign contributions; I need the money to buy vegetable seeds and bike inner-tubes. It has gotten to that point.

  7. Submitted by Pat Igo on 02/15/2010 - 01:57 pm.

    For heavens sake, don’t blame Ellison and McCollum entirly for this debacle. They don’t have a leader.
    A great speaker and community organizer, but not a leader. With the White House, and a super majority in both houses of congress, to read from the above that your hope and change has faded so fast is astonishing!
    Bayh of Indiana has stepped down today, following Dorgan and Dodd, not to mention Kennedy’s seat in Mass., so I think the health care insurance debate, and the change that is needed will start to happen in about nine months (November) and 2012 will bring it to it’s fruition.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/15/2010 - 02:09 pm.

    If we can’t blame the people who we have elected to get a job done who aren’t doing the job, who can we blame?

    There is one lecture I have given a thousand times. Don’t blame others for your political defeats. But we didn’t lose, we won. We simply cannot do better than that. At some point, our elected officials have to get a firm grip on the ball we worked so hard to get to him and take it in for the score. I can’t vote for Ellison. It really and truly is up to him.

    The question I am asking myself is whether the Democratic Party is capable of governing this country. And if it isn’t, is politics really worth the bother?

  9. Submitted by dan buechler on 02/15/2010 - 03:03 pm.

    Gosh you guys get a grip you can call me a left leaning centrist from South Dakota if you want but don’t call me late for Dinner. I’d advise you all to read the latest New Republic there are so many positive things Obama does in his administration that never make it into the mindset of media consumers (that’s us folks). We have an administration that is friendly to science and sound principles of public administration (and you can google books here on public administration if you want read the texts then start bitching if you want but at least you will be better informed) keep your eyes on the prize and I hate to tell you and myself it is not going to be a public option. Do you really want Romney or Pawlenty to run the country in 3 years. Do you remember who Pawlenty put in charge of education (remember yecke the kersten stylist in an administrate suit)
    (yecke was Palin before there was a palin)or even worse yet his rich lt. governor in charge of transportation and physical infrastructure) I mean these are blood and guts issues and you better hold to the pole if you don’t want to get blown away in 2012. We have competence, granted we are not moving as fast or as far left as some would wish.

  10. Submitted by dan buechler on 02/15/2010 - 03:07 pm.

    Now to you thom my dear friend on the right the three horsemen of the apocolypse are bearing down on us. Public Education. Social Services. Social Insurances (security and worker’s comp. etc) What are you gonna do you’d better get your stallions ready. As a former independent party governor candidate (who probably got covert republican financing) said Guns, God and Gays and Freedom and Liberty forever.

  11. Submitted by Charley Underwood on 02/15/2010 - 03:37 pm.

    Perhaps it is merely a certain defensiveness on my part, but I really don’t think I am being impatient. I have been campaigning for peace and progressive Democrats since Eugene McCarthy back in 1968 (campaigning in 5 states during college). I have contributed every penny and every spare moment I could over the years, giving enough to get on the short list of big contributors at one point, despite being the single bread-winner on a public school teacher’s salary.

    Frankly, enough is enough. Personally, I am in a sort of mourning for the hopes I put in the Democratic party, deeply sad that I can no longer consider it a viable conduit for either progress or even good government. It has become corrupted by money and a certain blind tribalism, which encourages us to support horrible policies and compromised candidates, simply because they are not Republican. It is well past the time that the Democratic party needs to show us the difference they keep crowing about.

    At this point, I feel anger and resentment for all the time and money the party has received from me. I wish I could have it back.

    I am not done with activism. I haven’t given up on the eventual hope of change. I have merely become completely skeptical that the Democratic party will ever do much to be an actual part of that change. So now I am working completely at the grassroots level.

    Tragically, I have complete confidence that Obama will not end the war in Iraq, but merely widen it to Afghanistan, Pakistan and who knows where. I have complete confidence that the Obama administration will continue to deliver trillions to large insurance and healthcare corporations while the rest of us watch our premiums rise, our coverage shrink and our hospitals and clinics close. I have complete confidence the the Obama administration will continue to reward the billionaire polluters, while the rest of us watch our highways crumble, our bridges fall, our energy systems fail and our civilization collapse.

    So I am quite busy, thank you, trying to figure out how to grow food, provide my own transportation and even provide my own healthcare. Because it is becoming increasingly clear that our elected leaders are not particularly interested in OUR future.

  12. Submitted by dan buechler on 02/15/2010 - 05:24 pm.

    well you could always go underground or subvert the tea partiers but I wouldn’t reccomend either option esp. these days.

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