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Ellison Pitches Bold Vision as Race for DNC Chair Becomes Battle for Soul of Party

"We don't need to decide between social justice and economic justice," Ellison said. "We've got to have all of that."

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Sen. Bernie Sanders, and wife Jane O’Meara Sanders, at a Sanders campaign rally in St. Paul, Minnesota in February 2016. (Photo: Jeff Wheeler/ Star Tribune)

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Sen. Bernie Sanders, and wife Jane O’Meara Sanders, at a Sanders campaign rally in St. Paul, Minnesota in February 2016. (Photo: Jeff Wheeler/ Star Tribune)

With Sen. Bernie Sanders by his side, Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), who is running for chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), laid out his plan Wednesday to transform the party to one based on progressive values and speaking to the needs of all working people.

"We have got to reset the future of the Democratic Party on a basis of grassroots activism," Ellison told the rally, held at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters in Washington, D.C. and livestreamed to a national audience. "On the basis of working people striving every day to make a better life for themselves. African-Americans, white Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, and Muslims, and Christians, and Hindus, or people of no faith at all. Folks like you and me. Folks like us need to say the Democratic Party has to be democratic and that starts with getting leadership in there to fight for that."

With the news Wednesday that Labor Secretary Tom Perez would be challenging Ellison for the position, the race appears to shaping up into another battle between establishment Democrats and the ascendant, progressive wing represented by Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Putting the match-up in stark terms, NBC News senior political editor Mark Murray wrote Wednesday: "DNC chair race is turning into Obama/Clinton (Perez) vs. Bernie (Ellison)."

Reeling from the devastating results of the November election, many within the party are pointing to the failure of corporate Democrats to respond to the needs of their working class base as a large reason for the loss, and are thus advocating for an overhaul that mirrors the principles of the voters.

But, "Perez's decision is seen as an effort by the exiting Obama-era leadership to keep control of the party in trusted hands," the Washington Post reported Wednesday. South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison and New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley are also in the running.

A Politico email survey of voting DNC members taken before Perez's candidacy was made public found the majority of respondents were reluctant to get behind Ellison, despite wide popularity and a growing list of endorsements.

The news outlet attributed this largely to the fact that many establishment Dems are unwilling to support "a Bernie person," as Tennessee committeeman William Owen put it.


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Sanders took direct aim at that stale mindset as he introduced Ellison on Wednesday. "We must transform the Democratic Party from a top-down party to a bottom-up party, to create a grass-roots organization of the working families of this country," he said. "Whatever the leadership of the Democratic Party has been doing over the last many years has failed."

In a comment that Washington Post reporter David Weigel said was a "subtle swipe at Perez, who'd taken President Barack Obama's administration's position on trade," Sanders at one point said, "Unlike some of the other candidates who are running for chair, Keith knew from day one that the TPP was a disaster."

According to the Post:

Ellison, who often departed from his notes, combined a broad plan for transforming the party with an argument about how it could win back lost voters. "We don't need to decide between social justice and economic justice," he said. "We've got to have all of that. If we don't stand up for both, we won't have either one, because they'll use tribalism and manipulation to divide us... raising the minimum wage is winning as a ballot initiative, but Democrats aren't winning. They like our ideas, but they're not voting for our candidates."

Many, including Sanders, see Ellison—who has been a vocal and passionate leader during his five terms in Congress—as someone who would be able to organize and energize the base.

On Wednesday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair outlined just how he would reach those disengaged voters, saying, "We need a 3,007-county strategy. We need a town strategy. We need a precinct strategy."

"There's a whole lot of folks where, after they lose that health care, they're gonna be annoyed," Ellison said. "Can we not say rust belt anymore? I'm from Minnesota—I don't feel rusty. People in Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin don't feel rusty. We lose these states we should win because we have this strategy where we only talk to certain people. What if we talk to everybody?"

The election for DNC chair will be held February 23–26, 2017.

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