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Why Ellison lost his bid for DNC chair, and what comes next for him and the Democrats

REUTERS/Chris Berry
Rep. Keith Ellison and newly-elected Democratic National Chair, Tom Perez, speaking with the press on Saturday.

After four months of debates, public forums, national media scrutiny, and hard campaigning around the country, Rep. Keith Ellison will not become the chair of the Democratic National Committee, losing his chance to serve as the Democrats’ standard-bearer in their fight against President Donald J. Trump.

On Saturday in Atlanta, the voting members of the DNC met to select a new chair, and in the end, they went with Tom Perez, the former Secretary of Labor under Barack Obama, who picked up the support of a majority.

The easy frame for the contest between Ellison and Perez was that it was a referendum on the direction the Democratic Party should take after its stunning defeat in the November election. Ellison was considered the champion of a more leftward direction for the party; Perez was the continuity choice, and the favorite of loyalists to Obama and Hillary Clinton.

With the race over, and Perez at the helm of the DNC, the party appears to have made its choice. What does it mean for the Democrats, and for Ellison’s future?

Vote months in the making

Though he formally announced his candidacy shortly after the November 9 election, Ellison had been laying the groundwork for a bid months before, after the July ouster of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz left a vacancy at the head of the DNC.

Ellison entered as a clear front-runner, the only candidate with any kind of national profile. Though Ellison picked up support from establishment figures like Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrats aligned with Obama and Clinton wanted an alternative, and successfully persuaded Perez to enter the race by mid-December.

That cemented the interpretation of the race as a proxy battle between the supporters of Obama and Clinton and those of progressives like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Both Ellison and Perez rejected that frame, even though their respective supporters did not, and the two waged a friendly campaign in which they largely declined to criticize each other.

For most of the race, no candidate emerged as a favorite, and in the days leading up to the vote, Ellison and Perez’s camps predicted strong showings to the press with conflicting counts of support among delegates.

That uncertainty led many to expect a lengthy, multi-ballot vote, with potential for some negotiation or even the emergence of a lower-tier candidate. But, gradually, others dropped out, and Perez locked up the race in rather short order.

After falling short by just one vote on the first ballot, Perez picked up 235 votes on the second ballot, clearing by 10 votes the threshold needed to become chair. Ellison got 200.

Why did he lose?

After his victory, Perez moved to name Ellison as deputy chair of the party, a position that had not previously existed in DNC leadership. Ellison accepted, though he will also retain his 5th Congressional District seat, which he had pledged to give up if he won the election to chair.

Perez’s gesture was seen as an olive branch to Ellison and his supporters, and the new chair plans for the post to be more than just symbolic. On Sunday, Perez praised Ellison’s skill as a communicator, and told the Star Tribune he wants the congressman to be “the face of the Democratic Party.”

Still, defeat stings for Ellison, and for his supporters. Why did he lose? It depends on who you ask.

Those in the press who followed the DNC race closely said that its collegial tone and aversion to even the appearance of infighting made it difficult for Ellison to distinguish himself from Perez. Their politics were largely similar, but Ellison could have made Perez’s support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — anathema to the Democratic base — a bigger issue, and perhaps could have gained support from a debate on the topic, said the Washington Post’s David Weigel.

The length of the three-month race may have also played a role, giving Perez time to enter the contest and chip away at Ellison’s initial support.

Others believe that Ellison’s Muslim faith and views on Israel and Palestine sank him. The Intercept was quick to attribute Ellison’s defeat to a “scorched-earth smear campaign” by some Democrats, who targeted Ellison’s religion and his past ties with the Nation of Islam, a group he now denounces.

But for most of the Minnesotan’s backers, his defeat had a larger explanation: in a choice between a representative of the Sanders-Warren left and a representative of the Obama-Clinton era, Democrats ultimately chose continuity.

To them, that is proof that the Democratic Party is unwilling to learn from the mistakes that cost it the 2016 election, and will have a difficult path to winning elections again.

Rep. Keith Ellison addressing the audience prior to the election on Saturday.
REUTERS/Chris Berry
Rep. Keith Ellison addressing the audience prior to the election on Saturday.

Online, the reaction to Perez’s victory was frustrated and defiant. Matt Bruenig, a popular left-wing writer, summed up the consensus, blaming the Obama-Clinton camp for recruiting Perez “in order to fight an internal battle against the left faction of the party.”

He argued that supporters of Ellison’s vision should leave the party behind, once and for all. “The left should focus its energies on organizing under alternative institutions that, if they engage with the Democratic party at all, only do so in order to attempt hostile takeovers of various power positions.”

Minnesota reacts

Ellison himself urged the opposite: “I’m asking you to give everything you’ve got to support Chairman Perez,” he told his supporters after the election on Saturday.

On Twitter, Ellison — who did not give interviews after the dust settled on Sunday — has said the real battle comes now, as Democrats gear up to fight Trump. “Democrats are united,” he wrote, in a rebuke of the president’s claim that the race was “rigged” and that Perez won because Clinton “demanded” him.

Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College, expects Ellison to take on an increased role in battling Trump. “Trump has activated and incensed the left wing of the Democratic Party, and Ellison is the one leading that charge,” he said. “That may fuel future political ambitions for Ellison.”

Prominent Minnesota Democrats, moderate and progressive, lined up to back Ellison’s bid. Disappointment resonated on Sunday, but they have high hopes for their man.

According to Jeff Blodgett, a Democratic organizer and former aide to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, Perez will be a good chair. Ellison, though, “would have added a grassroots energy which we need right now.”

“Tom Perez would be smart to use Keith substantially as the work goes on to rebuild the Democratic Party,” Blodgett said.

Former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, who finished up a stint as DNC vice-chair this weekend, told MPR that Ellison is “the leading voice of progressives who want to engage in the system and make it better.”

Others did suggest that if Ellison’s progressive message doesn’t resonate in the party going forward, they’ll have to take it somewhere else.

Bernie Hesse, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189 who supported Ellison, said “us grunts will continue to push, and I see a labor caucus emerging to either demand a true labor or working class agenda, or we will leave to restore a true labor party movement.”

“We don’t have much to lose.”

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 02/27/2017 - 11:23 am.

    As stated many times here at

    Minnpost, it is about message not messanger! The Dems have lost seats by the hundreds in every election from 2010 til present. Folks want income growth not income redistrution. Folks want jobs not Govt handouts. Folks want their children educated not indoctrinated . Folks want criminals put in jail, illegal aliens or not! Folks want a Mid East policy they can understand…..

    The worst messanger selling the best message still works. The best messanger selling a terrible message (Obama) falls on deaf ears!!

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/27/2017 - 02:20 pm.

      Sadly

      “…Folks want income growth not income redistrution. Folks want jobs not Govt handouts. Folks want their children educated not indoctrinated . Folks want criminals put in jail, illegal aliens or not! Folks want a Mid East policy they can understand…”

      Sadly, folks will get none of those things from the current administration.

      Instead of income growth, there will be income redistribution, but—as has been the case for most of the past generation—it will continue to be redistributed from the middle and lower reaches of the income pyramid to those at the top.

      My guess is that neither jobs nor handouts will be forthcoming from the Trump administration and the current Ryan/McConnell Congress. Both are focused on cutting taxes, but the largest cuts, by far, will be for those who need tax cuts the least, and Congressional Republicans are already licking their collective chops over which federal programs they can cut first and most. Trump’s understanding of economic policy approximates that of a Gerbil, so he will be of little help to ordinary Americans in that regard.

      I certainly agree that parents want their children educated instead of indoctrinated, but of course, that’s far more likely to happen in a public school than in a private or parochial one.

      I know of no law-abiding citizen who does not want criminals put in jail. Sometimes, it’s the definition of “criminal” that causes some disagreement. I’d like to see a lot of investment bankers and others in the finance industry (e.g., the recently retired-with-a-golden-parachute CEO of Wells Fargo) taking up cell space for several years instead of they guy growing pot in his basement. I’d much prefer that people didn’t smoke pot, but those who do have done far less harm to the society than investment bankers and the former Wells Fargo CEO.

      I agree that we need to control our borders. I also think children should not be held responsible for the actions of their parents, and people who were brought here illegally as children, grown up in the society, and kept their noses clean, ought to be able to become citizens without undue hassle. Both Smith and Schoch are immigrant names…

      Neither party has a Middle East policy that makes sense. We’ve shot ourselves in the foot numerous times so far, without learning anything from it, and ongoing conflicts there suggest rather strongly that we, Republicans and Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives, don’t have the faintest idea what we’re doing, what our goal is or ought to be, nor how to achieve that goal once we figure it out. We’ve mostly acted as a seriously inept imperial power, to the detriment of both the Middle East and ourselves.

      I do agree with the last sentence, except, of course, I’d switch it around a bit to argue that the worst messenger with the better (maybe not “best,” but certainly better than “You’re on your own”) message was Obama, and that the current administration qualifies—in spades— as the one with both the worst message and the worst messenger.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 02/27/2017 - 02:40 pm.

        Ray, if you are talking about Trump

        being a poor messenger, I agree. The point you miss is that the Dem message from 2008-2016 has lost over 1,000 seats to the GOP message. Add to that the GOP has 33 Governorships now. How, if the Dem message is so good, could so many Americans in so many different states across the country, not hear it?? I know the liberal take on it is “so many Americans are too stupid to understand they are voting against their best interests” (that mindset might explain a lot if you think about it). You could have the best messenger (Obama) touting the bad message and still get pounded at the polls. Yes, we all saw it for past 8 years….

        Again, not messenger, it’s the message !!

      • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 02/28/2017 - 12:19 pm.

        First indications are there are more opportunities coming.

        Companies are starting to hire many more people than they have in the past. What we have had over the last 8 years was nothing short of an America second mentality Obama was a good speaker, most times in front of the teleprompter. But if you look at the last 8 years of record numbers of people out of the workforce, the liberal banner of income gap widened considerably, the number of government handouts is at record levels, and not to mention nearly half of the country either paid none or received more money from the government at also record levels. And let’s not get into the record levels of debt from Obama and what the Dem controlled Congress did despite continual record number of revenues…yes, the traditional Republicans have not done much better.

        Keep name calling the current administration as much as you like. But the guy understands business more than almost anyone. Dealing with the government on anything stinks to no end. There is way too much of it. Our country is so dependent upon government it’s crazy. This just can’t continue. Now we have a guy that wants to put America first. Yes, some of the way he is going about it grates many. But if you think about it, we need someone there to make tough choices. For way too long, our politicians have always made the easy choice…usually with other peoples’ money. We’ve never held them accountable. Now we have a guy that is different and we have people that do nothing but bring out personal attacks against him.

        He might not be the best guy, but our country can’t be running as it has been. The poll numbers show that. But yet we still keep sending those back. We can only blame ourselves for that. Elect people who actually improve the country than themselves and we won’t get politicians you hate to high heaven.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 02/27/2017 - 12:35 pm.

    Part messenger, part message

    With a more popular messenger as national candidate, either Sanders or Joe Biden, I believe the Democrats would have won the presidency and not suffered so many losses in the Senate. Hillary was unpopular at the outset, and the electoral message became clear in the primaries.

    What Democrats ought to study and consider is the way Republicans have gotten people to vote against their best interests using social issues. Here in Minnesota a majority of voters in nearly all the counties went for Trump, and he lost the state by only a narrow margin. The DFL urban voters barely made the difference. I don’t see how electing Keith Ellison as national party chair would have changed this growing pattern of big city Democrats versus everyone else.

  3. Submitted by John Boyt on 02/27/2017 - 01:37 pm.

    Democratic Rush

    Until the guys doing roofing and siding in my neighborhood are listening to the democratic equivalent of Rush Limbaugh, there will be little joy in Dem-ville. The right’s propaganda machine has brainwashed the once rural democratic vote into voting against its own interests. Many of these rural voters will be cutting off their noses to spite their faces over the next four years. They’ll be the lucky ones though as they won’t have to smell what’s left.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/28/2017 - 09:19 pm.

      How do you know?

      Why are you so sure that you know what those roofers need? Do you think they don’t know their own interests?

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/27/2017 - 04:43 pm.

    What is the message?

    In the months leading up to the election, I read a lot of commentary about the Republican Party that could be republished today with just changing the party names. Most Republican leaders were trying to distance themselves from Trump in anticipation of the expected crash landing. The Republican Party looked like a dead party walking in the election run-up. But Donald Trump changed all that and all the big shots, (e.g. “lyin’ Ted” and Mitt Romney crawling to Trump to do what exactly? How have they changed and what exactly is the message? The Republican party promises a bill to “replace” the ACA but we haven’t seen that yet. Trump promised he would protect Social Security and Medicare but his nominees for his cabinet after the election are people who have worked to gut these programs.

    So what is the message? Or put another way, what’s the gap between what’s promised and what’s delivered? The American voter and citizen wants a lot of things but they also want honest leaders and not phonies who promise one thing and deliver the opposite: bait and switch. I’m guessing that’s what we’re seeing and I’m afraid what we’re going to get whether we like it or not.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/27/2017 - 07:30 pm.

      Examples, please

      So where did Trump “promise one thing and deliver the opposite?” I would say that if he delivered the opposite, people would not have protested all the time…

      • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/28/2017 - 10:40 am.

        Winning Republican party message

        The protests have been by those who see the direction of the Trump administration and are not happy with it. The acid test will come when Trump reveals his real agenda in his dealings with Congress, especially on the budget. Will Trump or the Republican party continue to ride their ripple of success once that happens? Congress’s approval ratings are lower than cockroaches. My point is that Trump did not win by embracing the Republican agenda of drowning the government in a bathtub for more tax cuts for the rich. If that’s what he’s going to deliver, it’s not going to be the Democratic Party’s funeral arrangements we’ll be talking about in two years.

        • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/28/2017 - 09:18 pm.

          You specifically talked about “phonies who promise one thing and deliver the opposite: bait and switch” implying that Trump fits that category; hence, my question which you didn’t answer. On the other hand, which direction of Trump the people are protesting: The ones he was talking about before election or after? It is important to know since, as you said, they are the opposite…

  5. Submitted by tom kendrick on 02/27/2017 - 09:31 pm.

    Dem chairman

    Nothing against Perez, but he is of the Obama-Clinton branch of the party that just lost a major election. The message didn’t work. These are the same folks that worked AGAINST their own Bernie Sanders. In the year of the populist, Trump beat an eminently more qualified candidate because his folks were worked up and we weren’t.

    So what’s Perez’ plan? Millions of people – Dems and independents – are ready for their marching orders. Where’s the leadership? Where’s the passion? What’s the plan?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/28/2017 - 11:34 am.

      Against

      Why is against in all caps? Yes, they worked against a candidate they did not support in a primary election. So what? You seem to imply that is something unusual or wrong with it.

      A populist won, but that doesn’t mean Bernie Sanders would have. Once the Republicans got into his past and the cost of his policies, he would have been lucky to win Vermont.

      • Submitted by tom kendrick on 02/28/2017 - 12:44 pm.

        Perez, et al

        Thanks for your comments, Mr. Terry. I only meant to express my frustration that the national Dems are operating out of some place other than where their constituents are, politically speaking. Clinton is hugely qualified but did not inspire enough passion, and it’s regrettable that that is a requirement for public office in this era, but there it is.
        I dare say (in the past tense, of course) that of all years for a Sanders kind of candidate to run, he would have done better in the end than was prognosticated a year ago.
        The fact is, the Clintonites should’ve worked to include, and not sabotage, his efforts.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/01/2017 - 01:20 pm.

      “Nothing against Perez”

      Tom Perez may have been supported by the Obama-Clinton branch, but he is closer ideologically to Rep. Ellison than many would give him credit for. I have seen him called the most pro-worker Labor Secretary since Frances Perkins.

  6. Submitted by jim flanagan on 02/28/2017 - 05:53 am.

    You need to win elections to make change

    As the tea party hijacked the Republican Party, Bernie and his socialist supporters tried to hijack the Democratic Party.

    The difference is the tea party is good at politics and the socialists aren’t. The tea party wins elections. The socialists don’t.

    The tea party is good at strategy and understands the importance of off year elections. The socialists fail to show up for off year elections.

    The tea party understands hate is a good motivator and ‘hope’ isn’t.

    The tea party would have understood the importance of controlling the Supreme Court despite lukewarm support for trump. Bernies babies decided that they could vote for a woman who gave two speeches to Goldman Sachs and voted for a war in 2003. A war brought to fruition because another socialist decided to run in 2000 and cost al gore Florida.

    Wise up socialists and leave the politics to professionals. Your only job is to vote for the democrats and stop trump.

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