Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn)

Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn)

And he probably should be…

 U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, (D-Minn), a Detroit native, has rather quickly become the favored contender to lead the Democratic National Committee among the more progressive members of the party. However he is also considered to be too controversial among others in his party due to his past association with Minister Louis Farrakhan (he has since distanced himself from Farrakhan) and what some are referring to uncomfortably as his black nationalist past. Detractors have also dragged up other issues surrounding Ellison, such as reported problems he has had with tax issues and campaign finance violations that they claim make him unfit for the  position.

Not surprisingly, Ellison’s supporters angrily accuse those detractors of trying to wage a smear campaign against their candidate, pointing out that most of the issues being dragged up go back nearly two decades. The election for the new DNC chair will be held in February. Ellison’s primary challenger for the position is Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

So what to make of all this? After what happened in November, one thing Democrats have become super aware of is that they need to go back to the drawing board and retool/re-energize their party in a huge, huge way. They need to connect and reconnect with their base, and that certainly does not mean just the working-class whites who defected and decided Trump was the best choice this time around. This is not about chasing after the working class white people who left the party, but doing a better job of getting out the vote everywhere else.

Ellison was in town two weeks ago at a special event to talk about why he’s running for DNC chair. Just prior to that event, he sat down for an interview with the Michigan Chronicle at 1917 American Bistro.

What’s your main reason for taking this on?

 It’s the best chance for working people and people who have not had access and inclusion and respect in our society. The Democratic Party has been the standard for jobs and justice over the course of, certainly since the second half of the 20th century, and then this century. And yet, not enough people perceive it to be that. And so, I want to fight to make sure that it not only is that, but that people perceive it that way. I think we’ve got to be a lot more vocal in our advocacy work with people.

The Republican Party, God bless them, they’re really clear; they say we’re the party for wealthy people. If you’re a billionaire then we’re for you. And they’ve proved it. I mean, look at this [Donald Trump] Cabinet! The collective wealth of this cabinet is greater than about one-third of all Americans.

[Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos? She wants to privatize the schools. She’s not some benevolent person. She’s trying to find a way to monetize public education.

Now look, I’m in favor of people being a part of NAACP, Urban League, Black Lives Matter, Color of Change, MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, all that. I love all those groups. God bless ‘em. I want them to be successful. But when it’s election time, we’ve got to find a way to bring all that energy into one political party.

Have Democrats gotten away from their original mission?

 Well, I do think we need some retooling. We’ve got to get a lot more effective at pushing back on smears. Because they smeared Hillary Clinton. Tore her down in every conceivable way. I don’t believe Hillary is corrupt, but he [Trump] did name her Corrupt Hillary. What did we do about it? Not enough.

We have got to rebuild our trust relationship with the Democratic voter.

Who is the Democratic voter in your mind?

 Of course the white working class is the Democratic voter. So is the black working class. Latino working class. The Asian working class. So is the straight working class, the gay working class, so are the older folks working. And so are the young folks just getting out of high school.

But the overwhelming number of people in this country are folks who …can’t go more than a few months without that paycheck. Seventy-four percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. That’s the Democratic voter.

When Martin Luther King made that “I Have a Dream” speech, that speech, that whole march, was for jobs and justice. It wasn’t just for justice. It wasn’t just a civil rights march. It was a jobs march. And the Democratic party should be that instrument that connects people to their interests and to justice and respect. That’s why I’m running.

What makes you uniquely qualified to do this?

 Well, if being DNC Chair is about getting Democrats elected? There’s nobody running who’s done a better job at it than me. First of all, I got myself elected eight times. Then, there’s no Republicans who hold statewide office in the State of Minnesota. The Senators, Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, State Auditor, all Democrats. And part of the reason is, I turn out the vote in my district, and that’s a big deal. I think that nobody else running can say that. [Ellison points to the fact that when he was first elected, the 5th Congressional District in Minnesota, Ellison’s District was the lowest in voter turnout. Now it is the highest].

What is the strategy leading onto 2018?

 If I’m chair, the first strategy is a change in attitude. Turnout, turnout, turnout. How are you going to do 3 percent better than you did last year? How are you going to go from 100,000 to 103,000? How  are you going to go from 200,000 to 206,000? If everybody goes up 3 percent, and then they go up another 3 percent in 2020, that’s more than 6 percent because of compound. If we go up 7.5 percent, we’ll kill it! We’re taking back State houses, we’re taking over city councils, we’re winning governorships, we’re winning U.S. Senate races.

Will Trump be a motivating factor in getting out the vote?

 Yes, but that’s not enough. Because if people are being battered and beaten by the Republicans but ignored by the Democrats then they’ll just stay home. We actually have to make an affirmative case. So set everybody’s attention to turnout. That means turning it on during the off year.

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