People in Alabama aren’t exactly used to seeing top Democratic Party officials come through. But on a recent Sunday in Birmingham, there was Rep. Keith Ellison, at a meeting of members of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.
Since February, Ellison has been the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, after losing the race for chair to Tom Perez, Barack Obama’s former secretary of labor. Immediately after the vote, Perez extended an offer to Ellison to be his deputy — a position that had not existed before at the DNC.
Why? There’s plenty of reasons, but the one most Democrats cite is that the party has more work to do than ever. After a disaster of a 2016 election — which put an exclamation point on the party’s long-term organizing and strategy failures — Democrats find themselves shut out of the White House, in the minority in both chambers of Congress, shut out of 35 state governorships, and in control of just 12 state legislatures.
This is a big reason why Ellison found himself in Birmingham, a city in a state that’s been deep-red for decades. “When I got the call to invite me to Alabama,” he told MinnPost, “the person on the call said, ‘I know you’re probably not going to come, but we thought we’d ask.’”
“Why wouldn’t we come?” he asked. “‘We figured y’all wouldn’t come down here,” was the response.
Democrats are trying to rebuild a national organization precinct by precinct, and state by state. Ellison finds himself a point person for this mission: he’s jetting all over the country ahead of a crucial 2018 election for Democrats, as they seek to capitalize on the chaotic presidency of Donald Trump. It’s a pivotal moment for the party, and the biggest moment in the Minneapolis congressman’s 10-year career in Washington.
Defining a role
For a period after the 2016 election, it seemed plausible that Ellison would be the Democratic Party’s most prominent public face in the age of Trump. He announced his bid for chair shortly after the election, but he’d been laying the groundwork for a bid for months, ever since Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned the post.
Ellison touted the support of key Democrats like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with hundreds of Democratic Party officials, from activists to lawmakers to state party chairs and committee members. He was a clear front-runner, until Perez entered the race in January, backed by top Obama officials who were reportedly unsatisfied with the prospect of Ellison as the party’s next leader.
When voting members of the DNC met in Atlanta to select their next chair, Perez edged Ellison, 235 votes to 200. To some, it was a clear re-run of the Democratic Party’s acrimonious 2016 primary — the anointed establishment pick pushing aside the progressive grassroots’ favorite.
After Ellison’s loss, some of his backers were not encouraged by his appointment to the new position of deputy chair, arguing that the process and party were broken beyond repair. Perez quickly moved to publicly state that he wanted Ellison to be the face of the party, even though he was not elected chair.
Whether or not he is actually the “face of the party” is impossible to judge, but supporters say Ellison has been working hard to carve out a niche for himself and to define his newly-created role. To hear them — and him — tell it, he’s been doing a little bit of everything: traveling around the country making connections with state parties, advancing organizing initiatives and taking part in key hiring decisions as the DNC tries to rebuild.
Ellison’s travel schedule has been packed: since February, he has traveled to 19 different states for DNC work, meeting with Democrats everywhere from Texas to Michigan to California. He and Perez are spearheading the Democrats’ so-called “Resistance Summer,” a drive to recruit volunteers, register voters, and organize ahead of the upcoming elections.
“Tom and I agreed on the essentials… We’ve got to get out and be engaging at all levels everywhere,” Ellison said. “There should not be any ZIP code that can legitimately say that the DNC has ignored us. Sioux Falls is going to feel the love, so is Queens, so is Fort Lauderdale, so is Minneapolis.”
“We cannot allow any party unit trying to organize to think DNC leadership is unconcerned,” he said.
To that end, the DNC is rolling out a program to re-invest in state parties. Starting in October of this year through the 2018 midterms, the DNC is aiming to give $10,000 every month to each state party, which it says represents a one-third increase in funding over 2016 levels. The party is also starting a $10 million grant program, in which state parties will compete for funds to develop data and outreach tools.
Winning in new places
Democratic officials are the first to admit they have a lot of work to do to rebuild after a long stretch of election cycles in which the national party overlooked state parties and local-level organizing in favor of a big-donor, battleground-state approach that emphasized presidential politics over everything else.
The DNC has badly needed to hire staff in key areas; according to the Hill newspaper, when new leadership took over, the party had just three full-time fundraising staffers. Perez wants 30.
Despite Trump’s woes and the GOP’s struggles to pass important legislation, the national Republican Party has far outpaced the DNC in terms of fundraising. In the first half of 2017, the DNC raised $38 million — only half of what the Republican National Committee raised. The RNC currently has nearly six times the amount of cash on hand as the DNC does.
However, the party’s separate committees in charge of House and Senate elections are faring much better. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has kept pace with its GOP counterpart, with each raising $60 million so far in 2017. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has raised $29 million, just edging the GOP side.
But the huge cash disadvantage at the DNC has serious consequences for the party’s organizing efforts. As they try to close that gap, officials like Ellison are focused on outreach and showing up in places they haven’t been traveling to so often in the past.
One of those places is Idaho, where the last Democrat to win in a presidential election was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. All statewide elected officials in Idaho are Republican, as are the state’s two U.S. Senators and two U.S. House members; Trump won the state by over 30 percentage points.
Ellison went to Idaho this year for a key fundraiser for the state Democratic Party — and did so on three days’ notice, says Shelby Scott, the media director for the Idaho Democrats. After the scheduled keynote speaker had to cancel, the party put in a call to D.C. and Ellison agreed to come.
To Scott, that shows Ellison’s commitment to the idea that Democrats everywhere should feel the national party is supporting them. “People still talk about his speech, which was really exciting,” she said.
Ellison also recently traveled to solid-red South Dakota, where no Democrat has been governor since the 1970s, and Democrats hold just 16 of the state’s 105 seats in the legislature.
According to Sam Parkinson, the chair of the South Dakota Democratic Party, having Ellison in his state was a great experience, and that the state party organization is feeling “better energy” in communicating with the DNC. Ellison, he said, “offers a different point of view than has previously been [at the DNC] in the past couple of years. He’s exciting a few more people in the party.”
Ellison, Parkinson said, specifically emphasized the importance of voter registration, and the party is launching a drive this summer. The South Dakota party also won a new grant from the DNC to help organize in Native American communities, which constitute the state’s largest minority group.
“I imagine they look at South Dakota and think it’s a small, red, rural state that doesn’t hold electoral votes, why do we need to focus there?” Parkinson said. “What they’re learning is that South Dakota is a state that has elected Democrats. It just takes a little bit of help and a little bit of work.”
A big platform
Though he is continuing to define the gig, being the nominal #2 at the DNC is the biggest platform that Ellison has attained in his decade in national politics.
He also retains his seat in Congress, though he has given up his co-chairmanship of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The hectic pace of travel and media appearances that Ellison maintained as a Sanders, and then Clinton, surrogate during the 2016 campaign has only ramped up this year.
Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who took over for Ellison as co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, says, “I don’t know how he’s expanded the hours in a day.”
The intense workload, Ellison says, translates into a real seat at the table. “I don’t feel under-utilized,” he said. “I feel I am a part of the team. Even though it was not tightly defined, what Tom has said is, look, there’s a lot of work to be done. Him having a deputy is a good thing.”
Ellison’s allies were quick to put forth effusive praise for his work at the DNC so far. R.T. Rybak, the former Minneapolis mayor and DNC vice chair, said Ellison’s role is singularly important for the Democratic Party right now, given its electoral challenges and institutional flaws.
“There may not be another single Democrat in the country who is helping to forge a new, united Democratic party who’s more important than Keith right now,” Rybak said. “He could have walked off and taken his ball and went home. Instead, he accepted this role that has been critically important across the country in uniting the Democratic Party, so we don’t become the fractured mess that the Republican Party is.”
“I’m especially relieved that he’s there,” Pocan said, citing Ellison’s background in grassroots organizing. “He gets that stuff really well. My hope is he’ll be that voice… My hope is that will become a bigger and bigger part of what he does there, going back to how you win campaigns, as opposed to how you make profit for consultants.”
Pocan said that the DNC needs to be where the progressive “resistance” movement is, and argued Ellison will help get them there. “If we don’t take advantage and capture that movement, shame on us.”
‘Can’t imagine anything more important’
Greater visibility and a role at the national party cuts both ways, however. Though his public comments were frequently picked up in the liberal and conservative media before, Ellison’s status as a public face of the party has made him a bigger and more appealing target for his conservative critics.
Earlier this month, Ellison spoke at Netroots Nation, a progressive activist convention, and said North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was acting more responsibly than Trump during the stand-off between the two countries over nuclear weapons.
The comments were picked up by every major conservative media outlet; the far-right American Thinker blog posited that Ellison’s comments “flirt with treason” and “tar the party brand.” (Ellison has since walked back those remarks.)
Ellison detects an uptick in criticism of him, “but it’s not dramatic… I do notice there has been a little more than before.”
When asked if he likes his new job, the congressman answered with a quick, curt yes. He went on to talk about it as more of a duty, a chance to implement his political organizing strategy in order to get Democrats back into office — and stop a GOP agenda he deeply opposes.
“I like the fact that we’re giving people the tools they need to help progressive Democratic candidates win. Look, we live in a moment that when Democrats lose, bad things happen,” he said, referring to Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It’s beyond some sort of petty stuff. It’s real stakes nowadays,” he says. “How could anyone not appreciate pushing back against that? I can’t imagine anything more important for me to be doing.”