Nationally, Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid to chair the Democratic National Committee is drawing headlines because of the Minneapolis congressman’s past — particularly his prior association with the Nation of Islam and his comments on the U.S.-Israel relationship.
But in the 5th Congressional District, people are also focusing on the future: what might happen if their representative in Washington takes on the intense, time-consuming duty of chairing the Democratic Party?
In recent weeks, Ellison has been pushing hard to be chosen as the next chair of the Democratic Party. Does he want that job enough to give up his current job as representative of the 5th District? Should he even have to make that choice?
Two tough jobs
Democrats are pining for an energetic new DNC chair to help them move on from a disastrous 2016 election, which saw Democrats lose the White House and fail to recapture Congress, leaving them shut out of government for the first time since 2006.
It will be an important position: with no Democrat in the White House, the next chair will be the closest thing to a public face that the party has.
There will be intense pressure on him or her to lead the process of overhauling Democrats’ campaign messaging, determining strategy for 2018 and 2020, and strengthening fundraising and organizing capacity.
Being a party chair entails long hours of travel, phone calls, and maintaining relationships with important parts of the party coalition, like labor.
In that sense, it’s not unlike being a member of Congress, and done right, the jobs of party chair and congressman are taxing and time-consuming.
Still, some leaders in the 5th Congressional District — many of whom are Ellison’s allies in this heavily Democratic area — aren’t sounding concerned that their representative in Washington might be taking on such a big job.
Beyond legislative obligations, U.S. House members also have very local roles, acting as resources for their constituents, and they operate district offices that help them navigate the federal bureaucracy.
Members are also expected to maintain close working relationships with key district leaders, like city council members and state legislators.
R.T. Rybak, a former Minneapolis mayor and current DNC vice-chair, and who currently chairs the Minneapolis Foundation, supports Ellison’s bid, whether he decides to keep his seat or not.
Realistically, Ellison could have less time to work on issues facing the district, Rybak said.
“Obviously it takes a lot of the congressperson’s time,” Rybak said of the DNC post, “but on the other level, it elevates the congressperson’s position. So there’s an upside and a downside to it.”
Though his schedule might be more packed, as party chair, Ellison would have more levers to pull, more contacts to plug, to get something important done in his district if necessary.
Jacob Frey, who represents Ward 3 on the Minneapolis City Council, also supports Ellison, and doesn’t see a new post at the DNC as a roadblock to his work in the district.
Like Rybak, Frey said that Democrats’ marginalized position in the minority in Congress limits how much they can accomplish — and how much work is on their plate.
Ellison has already proven an effective partner in city council work, Frey said, citing his staff’s help in advancing the project to redevelop the huge post office by the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.
“The federal government can be an opaque and daunting entity, and on several occasions, he’s helped penetrate the enterprise so we’re able to effectively get things done,” Frey said.
In 2015, Ellison’s office completed over 900 claims from constituents asking for help navigating the federal government, an above-average number for a U.S. House member.
Ellison, of course, has his critics in the district. One of them is Jeff Kolb, who serves on the city council of Crystal, a town of 22,000 just to the west of Minneapolis.
Kolb, a Republican, believes Ellison should resign his seat if he wants to be DNC chair, arguing it would be bad for the district to have its representative in such a partisan post.
As a member of a district city council, Kolb is also concerned about Ellison’s ability to fulfill his duties in the district, particularly for a community like Crystal, which Kolb says gets overshadowed by Minneapolis in CD5.
He shared dissatisfaction with Ellison’s effort in CD5, mentioning Crystal officials who received form letters after sending reports of city problems to the office.
“I don’t think he’s doing much more than the bare minimum today,” Kolb said. “I’d hate to see what that looks like for us when he has another full-time job on top of that.”
Some Democrats who support Ellison’s bid also believe the next DNC chair should not hold any other office.
People are in the mood for a full-time chair, said Javier Morillo, head of the local SEIU and himself a former DNC member.
“I was initially saying loudly to anyone who’d listen that he can do both jobs,” Morillo said. “As I’ve talked to other people, as I thought about it more myself, I think there’s a very strong desire for a full-time chair.”
Rybak said that Ellison would be able to balance his duties as chair with his responsibilities as a congressman, but added he believes Ellison “would be more effective if he could do it full-time.”
Over the years, DNC chairs have often been governors or legislators at some point, but rarely simultaneously: of the 11 chairs or co-chairs the party has had in the last 20 years, three held elected office at the same time.
Fairly or not, part of the desire for a full-time chair stems from the failures of the last chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat who began chairing the committee in 2011, resigned on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, pushed out over outrage she used her post to give Hillary Clinton an edge in the primary over Bernie Sanders.
Emails released by WikiLeaks showed Wasserman Schultz and top DNC staffers talking about how to stop Sanders, and disparaging his aides.
But was Wasserman Schultz’s problem the fact she was a sitting member of Congress? Rybak, for one, doesn’t think so.
“Some people say that the reason Debbie Wasserman Schultz was unsuccessful was because she was sitting in Congress, and that’s not true,” he said. “Keith Ellison and Debbie Wasserman Schultz both work in the same big white building in Washington, and that’s where the similarities end.”
Making a decision
Can Ellison do it all?
Publicly, he has expressed some doubt: at a forum for chair candidates last Friday in Denver, Ellison said he is “in the process of deciding this issue of whether I can perform both roles.”
But an Ellison spokesman told MinnPost, “Keith believes wholeheartedly he has the energy and ability to serve in Congress and as the Chair of the DNC at the same time. He wants to continue having conversations with DNC members about different leadership models.”
The fact that he is publicly weighing giving up his seat, some say, is an indication he realizes that holding it would be a major roadblock to becoming chair.
And he’s clearly been serious about his campaign. Ellison had been working party leaders and activists for months before announcing his bid, which he kicked off with a strong fundraising effort and endorsements from key Democrats like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Despite the backlash over Ellison’s past, which caused the Anti-Defamation League to come out in opposition to his bid, he remains a front-runner for the job. Though more candidates could still enter the race, his most prominent rival, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, withdrew last week.
Javier Morillo thinks Ellison “will choose to do one or the other… Now that he has put out there that he may consider stepping down, those are going to be his options.”
To others, if anyone can hold both roles, it’s Ellison.
State Rep. Frank Hornstein, who represents House District 61A in Minneapolis, said Ellison already travels a great deal as-is, speaking at fundraisers and labor events around the country. Hornstein says that Ellison still convenes meetings several times a year with the state legislators in CD5.
“He’s very much in demand even as it is,” he said. “I haven’t noticed that his current responsibilities have interfered with his legislative work.”
The 447-member DNC will meet on February 23 to select the next chair, so Ellison has some time to decide what he wants to do.
But for Morillo — who admires Ellison and says has gone above and beyond to be a partner to labor in the district — the choice is clear.
“If he asked me,” he said, “I’d say, be chair, and we’ll miss you as congressman, but you’ll do great things as DNC chair.”
Correction: This article previously misidentified R.T. Rybak’s position in the DNC. He is currently a vice-chair through February.