It was nine o’clock on Thursday morning in a low-slung, dimly lit Philadelphia hotel ballroom and Keith Ellison was feeling the good vibes.
Standing in front of the Arizona delegation to the Democratic National Convention, Ellison — hoarse from a long week of speaking and conventioneering — proclaimed, “I can feel the unity.”
The Arizonans assembled in the room weren’t the first to hear that message. This week, Ellison has been making the rounds, as many members of Congress do, to the breakfast events of other states’ delegations.
For politicians, the national convention is a rare, valuable opportunity to show face and forge connections with elected officials and party activists from around the country.
But while Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar told swing-state delegations about the need to elect Hillary Clinton and reclaim the U.S. Senate, Ellison is serving a more specific role: trying to get the supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders more excited about their party’s official nominee.
The Minneapolis congressman is one of a handful of people well-positioned to credibly make the Clinton case to Sanders supporters: Few federal elected officials endorsed Sanders during the primary, and some, like Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, say they aren’t yet ready to back Clinton.
As an early Bernie backer who’s now fully pro-Clinton, Ellison has said he feels a responsibility to get progressives fired up about Clinton — or at least OK with voting for her.
Clearly, party brass sees his persuasive potential: on Monday night, Ellison was picked to introduce Sanders before his address to the convention.
And over the course of the week, Ellison spoke to the Arizona, Wisconsin, Tennessee, California, and Florida delegations, in addition to Minnesota’s.
“I was particularly proud last night when I heard both Tim Kaine and President Obama — weren’t they both awesome? — when I heard them say, ‘Feel the Bern,’ ” Ellison said to applause in the Wisconsin delegation’s breakfast in the sprawling downtown Marriott.
“I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter, I was proud to be a Bernie Sanders supporter,” he said. “I know a lot of Bernie folks feel disappointed, even a little hurt. When, last night, the leader of our party gets up and honors those supporters by saying ‘Feel the Bern’ and referencing Bernie as somebody who brings a lot of energy and who drew people into the party, I said, this is a big tent party. This is a party that values our diversity.”
That call for unity was met with cheers from the Wisconsin delegation — a group where 48 pledged delegates went to Sanders and 38 went to Clinton.
Minutes later, on a different floor of the Marriott, Ellison told the Arizona Democrats that the convention is a “birthing process, a massive outpouring and flowering of Democratic re-invigoration.”
His message wasn’t limited to calling for party unity: Ellison also talked about the need to increase voter turnout from the top of the ticket to local elections — a point that is central to the Sanders “political revolution” — and plugged Senate candidates like Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona.
But he closed on a forceful note clearly aimed at anyone on the fence about sitting out the election to protest Clinton.
“We cannot have any Arizonans sitting out on the election. Look, not voting is not protest. Not voting is surrender. Not voting is kicking it to their side. We cannot let them think that they’re somehow bold and militant because they’re not voting,” he said, appearing to reference some Sanders supporters who have threatened to stay out of the election or vote for a third party.
“That is lame. That is the way to lose. Don’t play the spoiler, and don’t let anyone else play the spoiler.”
Some Arizonans punctuated Ellison’s words with assent — “yes!” one shouted a few times — others stood quiet. An older man wearing “Bernie for President” and “stop TPP” pins stood at the back of the room, not clapping or nodding.
As Ellison’s handlers attempted to get him on to the next event, and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe entered the room, the congressman finally wrapped up.
“As a proud Bernie Sanders supporter, my heart is with you. But I’m supporting Hillary Clinton!”
The crowd cheered.