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Keith Ellison with Bernie and Jane Sanders at a rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, in January 2016. (Photo: Eric Miller/Reuters)

Keith Ellison and the Stakes for the Democrats

Bob Dreyfuss

Keith Ellison, the Minnesota congressman who’s running to lead the Democratic National Committee (DNC), won’t fix everything that’s wrong with the Democratic Party. But as the party girds itself for a years-long battle with the Trump administration while simultaneously rebuilding its grassroots base, electing Ellison is an important first step.

Unfortunately, we don’t get a vote and neither do you, unless you’re one of the 447 members of the DNC who will cast their ballots in Atlanta this weekend.

Ellison endorsed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016 and he is strongly backed by Sanders now, as well as by Our Revolution, the AFL-CIO, and a long list of liberal-left and progressive members of Congress. He was far and away the frontrunner when he announced his DNC bid last November. His main challenger, ex-Labor Secretary Tom Perez, joined the race in December with the tacit backing of President Obama and overt support from a range of Democratic establishment figures. According to DNC insiders, former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett is contacting DNC members, one by one, and urging them to vote for Perez.

So the DNC election – like it or not – has become a test of strength pitting the Sanders-led insurgent wing of the party against the Obama-Clinton wing.

Two things are at stake. First, if Perez beats Ellison, a big chunk of Democrats on the left, including those who backed Sanders in 2016, are going to feel like the party is ignoring them. “I think there’s some danger that some of the Bernie people will believe that if Keith doesn’t win, well, that’s the nature of the DNC,” Larry Cohen, chairman of Our Revolution, told ThePopulist.Buzz. “We got close to a million people to sign a petition for Keith. How do those people end up feeling like their voice counted, in a system where 447 people vote – probably half of them not coming from the grassroots in any way, or a big number anyway – how do they feel any ownership of the election?”

And second, the next chairman of the party will hold the balance, going forward, on the makeup of the DNC Unity Reform Commission. That’s a commission that has its origin in last summer’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia. In exchange for agreeing not to hold a floor fight over party reforms, including eliminating the power of superdelegates, Sanders won Clinton’s agreement to establish the reform commission.

Clinton’s team gets to name nine members of the commission, and Sanders’ team gets seven. The DNC chair, whoever it is, will control three additional votes. If Ellison wins, he can command a 10-9 majority on the commission, which will decide on the future of superdelegates and other matters. In practical terms, a victory by Ellison can have a decisive impact on making the DNC more democratic and more responsive to rank-and-file Democrats.

On the issues, it’s not easy to find differences between Ellison and Perez. Both support a grassroots, 50-state strategy for the party, both are running on a strong pro-labor, pro-civil rights and pro-immigration platform, and both say they’ll focus on engaging Democratic activists. Each touts a long list of endorsements from elected leaders, party officials, and Democratic constituent groups.

But when it comes to the party’s progressive activists, Ellison has the edge, having won the backing of key unions – including the Teamsters, steelworkers, Communications Workers of America, and UNITE HERE – and a long list of activist groups, including the political action arms of Democracy for America, 350.Org, the Center for Popular Democracy, MoveOn.Org, the Working Families Party, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and others. Ellison is also backed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Zephyr Teachout, Gloria Steinem, Walter Mondale, and Dolores Huerta ( co-founder of the United Farm Workers). Earlier this month, he received The Nation’s endorsement. “It is Ellison who combines the ideals, skills, and movement connections that will revitalize the party,” wrote the editors.

In one sense, the issue of who leads the DNC into the 2018 and 2020 electoral cycles is less important than what’s happening now on the ground, in the field. The demand for change, now that Donald Trump is in the White House, is rising up organically with the emergence of literally hundreds of resistance groups across the country and wave after wave of massive, public demonstrations, beginning with the health care protests in mid-January, the four-million-strong women’s marches on January 21, and the spontaneous protests that erupted in response to Trump’s immigration crackdown. Besides that, there are national and local groups focusing on local, state and congressional races, including Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress, Swing Left, and, of course, Our Revolution.

But if the party is to lead, or at least help coordinate the resistance movement, it’ll need to get its act together, and Ellison is best-positioned to do that. “Beyond a 50-state strategy, we need a 3,143-county strategy,” he says. As Ellison would agree, the party needs far more than a new chairman. It needs to be reorganized, from the ground up, bringing new people – including minorities, young people, and working-class activists into its ranks, rebuilding Democratic county organizations, and reducing its dependence on wealthy donors by following Bernie Sanders’ model of $27-a-pop individual contributions. That’s a tall order. If Ellison is elected, ThePopulist.Buzz will keep tabs on his progress.

On the surface, at least, judging by in a series of debates organized by the DNC and held coast-to-coast, the Ellison-Perez debate has been civil. But underneath the civility, the race has gotten ugly.

Starting in December, the party’s knee jerk, pro-Israel wing launched an all-out attack on Ellison, an African-American Muslim who has challenged the party’s dominant narrative that Israel can do no wrong. Ellison was widely celebrated in 2006 as the first Muslim ever elected to Congress. Now opposition has come from the Anti-Defamation League, mega-donor Haim Saban, super-lawyer Alan Dershowitz, and others. And they didn’t mince words.

Saban, a billionaire Clinton supporter, called Ellison “an anti-Semite and an anti-Israel individual.” Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s executive director, said Ellison’s views “raise the specter of age-old stereotypes about Jewish control of our government.” And Dershowitz declared: “I’m going to tell you right here on this show, and this is news – if they appoint Keith Ellison to be chairman of the Democratic Party, I will resign my membership to the Democratic Party after 50 years of being a loyal Democrat.”

It’s hard to see the assault on Ellison as anything other than a coordinated effort by the party’s establishment to torpedo his chances. It’s true that Ellison, for years, has been a critic of Israel’s policies and of America’s unrestrained support for Israel regardless of what it does. “The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people,” said Ellison, in a 2010 speech. “Does that make sense?” Ellison’s views on Israel reflect the fact that fully 60 percent of Democrats favor imposing sanctions on Israel over Tel Aviv’s expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank. And Ellison was endorsed early by New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer, a strong ally of Israel.

On Wednesday, CNN has scheduled a televised debate among the candidates for DNC chair.  Visit ThePopulist.Buzz for analysis of the vote this weekend.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Bob Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss is an independent journalist based in New York City and Cape May, New Jersey. For the past twenty-five years, he’s written extensively on politics and national security for a wide range of publications. His work has appeared in Common Dreams, Rolling Stone, The Nation, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, and many other magazines and websites.

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