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Keith Ellison is the first DNC deputy chair in history. Now he just has to figure out what that means

REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry
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.

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.

REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry
Perez quickly moved to publicly state that he wanted Ellison to be the face of the party, even though he was not elected chair.

“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.

Christopher Aluka Berry
Earlier this month, Ellison spoke at Netroots Nation, a conference for political progressives.

“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.”

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by John Ferman on 08/21/2017 - 01:49 pm.

    What about the home folks

    I can understand the Democratic party’s predicament and its need for Keith. But there are only 24 hours a day and every Ellison hour elsewhere means one less hour watching out for the folks in his 5th District..

  2. Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/22/2017 - 08:08 am.

    More Missed Votes

    Ellison already comes in first place for missed votes by House members from Minnesota districts. In fact, he has missed more votes than the next two runner-ups (also Democrats) combined.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/22/2017 - 08:14 am.


    “President Trump, who I’m pretty sure could not pass a junior-high-level test on U.S. history” Eric Black

    Based on the controversial, narrow minded, uneducated, racist statements of K.E. – I think that Mr. Ellison could not pass such a test as well.

    Of course, we cannot talk about the past controversies regarding Mr. Ellison. He gets a pass while Mr. Trump is attacked daily on the pages of MinnPost.

    I hope someone, somewhere, does not build a statue for Mr. E. How did such a controversial politician get such post in the DNC?.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 08/22/2017 - 08:47 am.

      For example . . .

      “Based on the controversial, narrow minded, uneducated, racist statements of K.E.”

      Which statements were those?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/22/2017 - 09:15 am.


      Who says you can’t talk about Ellison’s past? Do you want to talk about his history of unpaid parking tickets? Yes, he didn’t pay his parking tickets. Do you want to talk about his affiliation with the Nation of Islam? Yes, he has admitted it and denounced them. Ellison has his skeletons. They aren’t a secret.

      The reason Trump gets discussed more – aside from the fact he is the president – is the fact that Trump’s corruption and dishonesty dwarf Ellison’s and pretty much any politician ever. This is a man who bragged -on the record – about sexually assaulting women.

      And oh, I’m highly confident Ellison would crush Trump on any history test. Trump’s continued telling of his made-up Phillippines story makes it pretty clear he can’t tell fact from fiction.

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/22/2017 - 11:16 am.

        You forgot the Racism

        Two excerpts:

        “(CNN) Prominent Democratic donor Haim Saban on Friday described Rep. Keith Ellison, who is running to head the Democratic National Committee, as an “anti-Semite.”

        Saban, who gave millions to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, spoke about Ellison at the Brooking Institution’s Saban Forum, an annual gathering between American and Israeli political leaders,”

        ” However, the ADL this week criticized 2010 comments Ellison made, which the group described as implying US policy in the region favored Israel at the expense of Muslim-majority countries, remarks ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt described as “deeply disturbing and disqualifying.”

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/22/2017 - 01:14 pm.

          Mercy Sakes!

          Don’t you mean “you forgot the allegations of racism?”

          One Prominent Donor called Rep. Ellison an “anti-Semite.” My goodness, if one accusation doesn’t disqualify a person for office, what will?

          Did you consider the later events surrounding those remarks? At a Huffington Post debate a few weeks after Mr. Saban made his remarks, attendees were asked to

          “raise your hand if you think that Saban should apologize for those remarks.” Reportedly (it’s not clear in the video) all those on stage except Ellison and Fox news commentator Jehmu Greene raised their hands. Ellison then rose to say:

          ‘I just think everybody should know that Haim and I did have a phone call, I won’t disclose what we talked about, but it was amicable, and we’re going to get together and build on our relationship. So I don’t want everybody to think that that was the last word, it wasn’t. And I think we’re on the road to recovery in that regard. So I just wanted people to know that.’”

          Funny, isn’t it, how many people (including many in Israel) came to Rep. Ellison’s defense, because One Prominent Donor said it, and we should believe him.

          How about that ADL statement? You know, the one that was a response to a recording released by the noted anti-Islamist Steven Emerson? Do you suppose it could have been edited, and taken out of context? How about the opposition to the ADL’s statement by other Jewish groups?

          Incidentally, did you read the entire CNN post you referenced, or just the part highlighted in the “I Hate Democrats and Liberals” websites? This was an interesting paragraph:

          “A CNN KFile review of Ellison’s past writings and public statements this week reveal his repeated defense of Farrakhan and other black leaders against accusations of anti-Semitism in columns and statements to the press. But none of the records showed examples of Ellison making any anti-Semitic comments himself.”

          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/22/2017 - 02:34 pm.

            I provided the link so everyone could read it.

            “Ellison has publicly stated that he was unaware of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. That is not a credible statement. Everyone was aware of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. Farrakhan did not try to hide it. Indeed, he proclaimed it on every occasion. Ellison is either lying or he willfully blinded himself to what was obvious to everyone else. Neither of these qualities makes him suitable to be the next chairman of the DNC.”

            Link provided so that you may read it all.


            Lying or clueless, you decide.

            The DNC was clearly in a position that they could not give Ellison the job nor deny him the job. So they made a new job and gave him that. The recent financial state of the DNC (debt and lowest monthly income in a decade) indicates that ship is still listing to the left.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/22/2017 - 04:23 pm.

              Alan Dershowitz?

              Please. I put him in roughly the same category as Powerline. This piece is either lazily written or deliberately misleading.

              The “public statement” referenced was taken out of context, if you look at the link. In fact, the link doesn’t even supply the entire document that the good professor’s screed cites.

              Certainly, that isn’t “clueless.” What was the other option?

              • Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/22/2017 - 05:24 pm.

                Radical Views & Antisemitism

                People like myself, who are less familiar with Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam than Ellison, are well aware of the radical views and anti-antisemitism.

                Judge for yourself why Ellison was so unaware.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/22/2017 - 01:19 pm.

      Why Do You Think He “Gets a Pass?”

      No, Rep. Ellison’s past is not discussed as frequently as the statements of President Trump. Neither, as you have pointed out, are the misdeeds of Hillary Clinton. Why? Could it be because a member of the House of Representatives or a former Secretary of State is not in the news as often as the President? Could it be that the President of the United States has more influence over policy, and a greater reach, than either of them?

      Is anything that has been said about President Trump here inaccurate? Or is it just insufficiently laudatory?

      “How did such a controversial politician get such post in the DNC?” It was required by Agenda 21. Look it up.

  4. Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/22/2017 - 08:35 am.

    The new DNC leadership is not quite getting the job done, using fund raising as a yardstick.

    The Hill:

    “The DNC raised just $3.8 million in July, compared to the $10.2 million raised by the RNC in the same month. While the GOP has no debt, the DNC added slightly to its debt in July, which now sits at $3.4 million.

    The Democrats haven’t raised that little money in a July since 2007, when the party raised $3.4 million.”

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 08/22/2017 - 03:27 pm.

    Ellison’s alleged anti-Semitism

    What qualifies one as “anti-Semitic” nowadays? Former President Jimmy Carter was accused by many as being anti-Semtici” when he (rightly in my opinion) called out the Likkud dominated State of Israel of pursuing a policy of apartheid with respect to Palestinian settlements on the West Bank. I’m dubious of allegations of anti-Semitism, especially when they come from Americans who seem to place loyalty to Israel and the Likkud Party above their loyalty to this country.

    So far, the DNC has done little to assure me that it’s prepared to embrace a more “progressive” or even “liberal” stance that does not also kowtow to the plutocracy in this country. The “Clinton-wing” of the DNC, the DLC, or whatever, has failed to deliver, having blown elections despite having raised and spent billions on them. It lost the June election in Georgia despite having spent a fortune there. The problem evidently was the lack of a coherent message and an inexperienced candidate who lived outside the district. 2018 is approaching fast. That election and the one in 2020 are the Democratic Party’s to lose. Will the Democratic Party adapt in time to fill the leadership vacuum in this country?

  6. Submitted by Howard Miller on 08/22/2017 - 08:04 pm.

    from the Mn 5th

    he’s my House Rep. I’m glad, because he promotes policies that will strengthen American households on Main St, not just Wall St. He made some important errors years ago, received the bath of fire from all sides. I figure he’s paid his price, knows better now. His energy is infectious, and he’s doing the best for us in the Mn 5th by building the national Democratic party back to where it can win some elections again. Good for Rep. Ellison.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/25/2017 - 08:45 am.

    The meaning is obvious

    It’s an attempt to tuck him (and fellow progressives) away in a corner where he can’t have any real impact. The question is: “Will it work, or will he find a way to break out?”

  8. Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/26/2017 - 09:58 pm.

    The obvious meaning

    The couldn’t give him the job and they couldn’t send him away empty handed. They made up a job, a title without a job description, and gave him that. Call it good, a bone for the Ellison wing of the party. It comes as a surprise that he is playing along.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/28/2017 - 02:05 pm.

    Ellison would have been a better choice for chairperson.

    The Democrats blew it again. Whether or not this is a fatal blow to their future electability remains to be seen but they’ve once again handicapped themselves unnecessarily (like the did when they put Clinton on the ballot).

    Ellison has superb instincts and communication skills, and the progressive agenda he promotes connects with, motivates, and energizes voters. That agenda is also happens to promote the most effective and rational policy solutions for every major problem.

    As for these attacks by Dershowitz and others, these are by-and-large attempted character assassinations with little substance that Ellison handles quite effectively. Every politician has a history and the fact that Ellison’s was radical in some regards doesn’t surprise anyone who understands progressives. The historical frictions between the black and Jewish community are no secret and few if any people who’ve tried to navigate those frictions have done so without error.

    We saw and see the same kind of attempts at character attacks on Sanders himself, but ultimately the attackers end up discrediting themselves more than the subjects of their attacks in the end.

    The Democrats most certainly could have made Ellison their chair, but the Party elite blocked it. The question is whether or not the Party will manage to get organized around a progressive agenda that will propel it into power, or wallow in denial and “centrism” while the nation dissolves?

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