Will Keith Ellison Move the Democrats Left?
"Here’s the interesting thing about Islam,” Keith Ellison, the Minnesota congressman currently running for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, said. It was a sunny, gelid afternoon just after Christmas. “The Prophet Muhammad—peace and blessings be upon him—his father dies before he’s ever born. His mother dies before he’s six. He’s handed over to a foster mom who’s so poor, the stories say, her breasts are not full enough to feed him. So he grows up as this quintessential orphan, and only later, at the age of forty, does he start to get this revelation. And the revelation is to stand up against the constituted powers that are enslaving people—that are, you know, cheating people, trying to trick people into believing that they should give over their money to appease a god that’s just an inanimate object. And those authorities came down hard on him! And his first converts were people who were enslaved, children, women—a few of them were wealthy business folks, but the earliest companions of the Prophet Muhammad were people who needed justice. I found that story to be inspiring, and important to my own thinking and development.”
Ellison, fifty-three, is stocky, with a wide, square head, pinkish-brown skin, and wavy, close-cropped hair. We were sitting at the back of a dimly lit restaurant in St. Paul, and he was wearing a red-and-black checked flannel shirt and faded bluejeans. He had spent most of the day calling members of the D.N.C., and would do more of the same after the meal. The D.N.C. consists of four hundred and forty-seven unelected Party functionaries—state Party chairs, obscure assemblypersons, former big shots—each possessed of his or her own local concerns. The vote for the chairmanship will take place on February 25th, in Atlanta, and so Ellison is usually on the phone, agreeing, promising, making moans of understanding. If he wins the race, he will resign his seat in the House, and continue to spend much of his time this way.
Ellison is the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress, and I had asked about his religion, and its bearing on his conception of politics, because I couldn’t quite figure out how someone with his background—he came to politics through the roar of student activism: protests, marches, rallies—would be happy in the role he was so strenuously seeking. Like many a Christian politician before him, Ellison had found a way to apply the particulars of his faith to certain timeless American themes—justice, equality, the ability to transcend the circumstances of one’s birth. But he had also managed to sketch the sometimes pious self-image of the party he hopes to lead: sure, a few wealthy donors here or there, but largely a coalition of the vulnerable and the cast aside, arrayed against the powers that be.
The Democrats’ calamitous defeat in last year’s elections—not only losing the Presidency but remaining in a rut in both chambers of Congress and ceding further ground to Republicans in state houses, governors’ mansions, and mayors’ offices around the country—deepened a well of intra-Party bitterness that had become evident long before Election Day. In December, 2015, Bernie Sanders and the former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who were both running for President, accused the D.N.C. and its chair, the Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, of favoring Hillary Clinton. During the primaries, the D.N.C. established a joint fund-raising vehicle with the Clinton campaign, an arrangement that is usually delayed until a presumptive nominee has emerged. And it was later revealed, in e-mails allegedly stolen by Russian hackers and disseminated by WikiLeaks, that Donna Brazile, who now serves as the D.N.C.’s acting chair, had shared with the Clinton campaign questions from an upcoming debate on CNN—Brazile’s employer at the time.
Ellison is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the putative left-wing answer to the brinksmen of the Freedom Caucus on the right, and he was an early and fervent supporter of Sanders’s Presidential campaign. Like Sanders, he consistently opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal sought by the Obama White House in its final two years which was attacked by populists in both parties. (President Donald Trump recently withdrew the U.S. from the T.P.P.) Ellison announced his candidacy for the D.N.C. chairmanship six days after the Presidential election. Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, predictably endorsed him—but so did establishment figures, such as Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, and his predecessor, Harry Reid. One of the early objectives of Schumer’s leadership has been to placate the increasingly powerful Sanders, whom he made a member of his leadership team, and Schumer has said that he endorsed Ellison because Sanders recommended him. This may have been a canny bit of political maneuvering, but it also indicated to Sanders’s supporters that the populist wing of the Democratic Party was poised to lead the opposition against Trump.
The race for the chair has often echoed the acrimony and confusion of the Presidential primaries. Ten candidates are competing for the job, though few have a national profile. Ellison’s chief rival, Thomas E. Perez, was formerly Barack Obama’s Labor Secretary. Perez has consolidated support from much of the Democratic establishment, and increasingly appears to have seized the role of front-runner. Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has positioned himself as a compromise candidate, saying, of the 2016 Democratic primary race, “I don’t know why we’d want to live through it a second time.” All the candidates agree that the D.N.C. is a shambles. Raymond Buckley, the Party’s chair in New Hampshire, and another hopeful, declared, at a Party forum in Baltimore, “For the last eight years, I’ve been a vice-chair, and I don’t know what the hell is going on in this party any more than any of you.”
Meanwhile, the turmoil of Trump’s first month as President has alternately panicked and emboldened the Democratic base. The activist surge on the left, most spectacularly demonstrated at the Women’s March, in Washington, D.C., and in other major cities, and during protests at nearly a dozen airports after the executive order to temporarily ban people from seven majority-Muslim countries, has stoked a conviction that the Party must be more forceful in combatting Trump. Democrats in the Senate have been conspicuously more strident in their opposition to his Cabinet nominees in the days since the airport protests. The rhetoric of the marches has seeped into the D.N.C. race as well, though to less certain effect. There seems to be a mismatch in expectations between the lofty hopes of the marchers and the more mundane work that awaits on South Capitol Street, where the D.N.C. is headquartered. Even with the Trump Presidency in disarray, there is no guarantee that the Democrats will make a strong comeback in the midterm elections of 2018 and the Presidential race in 2020—the real, albeit less glamorous, job of the D.N.C. in the years to come.
Ellison gained an advantage in the race by announcing his candidacy early, in November, but he has faced several obstacles in the months since: recurring questions about his more radical past; a palpable if rarely articulated uneasiness about his faith; and, perhaps most perplexing, the shadow of Bernie Sanders, whose support accounts for both the initial strength of Ellison’s run and the intensity of the opposition that has gathered against him.
Ellison was born in Detroit, one of five boys in a middle-class family. His father, Leonard, was a psychiatrist, and his mother, Clida, a social worker. When he enrolled at Wayne State University, in 1981, campus activists were protesting apartheid. Ellison had read the novel “Cry, the Beloved Country” in high school; soon he was a leading campus petitioner on behalf of divestment from the South African government. He studied economics and wrote for the college newspaper. At the time, Warith Deen Mohammed was a prominent political figure. He had taken over the Nation of Islam after the death of his father, Elijah Muhammad, and had steered its membership away from racial separatism and toward mainstream Sunni Islam, changing the organization’s name to the American Society of Muslims. Under his influence, Ellison, who had been a mostly non-observant Catholic, converted, at the age of nineteen.
In 1987, Ellison married Kim Dore, whom he’d met in high school—they divorced in 2012—and enrolled at the University of Minnesota’s law school, where, along with other students of color, he protested against the lack of diversity in the school’s faculty and staff. On a walk around campus, he and Kim noticed a scrawl of racist graffiti on a pedestrian bridge. Ellison contacted the law school’s black students and the university’s Progressive Students Association and organized an effort to paint over the graffiti. One student was arrested on painting day, and Ellison called the local newspapers to let them know what had happened. In 1989, following an incident in Minneapolis, Ellison organized protests against police brutality. After graduation, he took a job at a law firm, then became the executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis.
In the summer of 1993, Ellison met Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota senator who died in a plane crash in 2002. Wellstone is a key figure in Minnesota’s long liberal tradition; while I was there, everyone I spoke to invoked him. “He really changed my idea of what a politician could be,” Ellison said, his face brightening. “ ’Cause he was a very unpolitical politician, right? I mean, this guy would come down to community events, he was present—he really kind of set the template for what most Minnesota politicians want to be.” Wellstone believed that political change depended on good policy, grass-roots organizing, and electoral victories. “You need all three,” Ellison said. “At the end of the day, if all we ever had was Bloody Sunday, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but we weren’t talking about the Voting Rights Act, people’s lives would not have changed much.”
Ellison ran for the state legislature in 1998, and lost, but in 2002 he ran again and won, just weeks after Wellstone’s death. In 2006, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In that election, his district, which is nearly two-thirds white, had the lowest turnout in the state; in Ellison’s recent reëlection, it had the highest. The work of organizing, Ellison told me, “isn’t just about winning elections. It’s about building community. It’s a way for neighbors to talk about stuff, when neighbors don’t usually talk.” Ellison is not a policy wonk; he talks about such imperatives as “raising the minimum wage, putting money into the schools, staving off environmental disaster” in long, rolling clusters, and often ends by declaiming the point of the whole thing: “Just improving the quality of people’s lives!”
He frequently uses the word “solidarity,” attempting to eschew the debates over identity politics that have proliferated since the Presidential election. In a widely read Times Op-Ed, the liberal political theorist Mark Lilla wrote that Hillary Clinton tended, especially when discussing domestic affairs, to “slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop.” By presenting the image of America as a collection of categories, Lilla argued, Democrats had encouraged working-class whites to do the same, and to vote as a bloc for Trump. Former Vice-President Joe Biden made a similar point both during and after the campaign, saying that the Democrats had not shown white working-class voters “enough respect.” Conversely, Sally Boynton Brown, one of the candidates for the chairmanship, who is white, made headlines when she said, at a Party forum, that the D.N.C. needs to teach volunteers “how to be sensitive and how to shut their mouths if they are white.”
Ellison offers an idealistic synthesis, drawing on Wellstone’s approach—which bears some resemblance to Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s Beloved Community, a semi-utopian vision that insisted on the inextricability of economic justice, civil rights, and antiwar sentiment. Ellison’s advantage in promulgating this sixties-descended, peace-and-love brand of liberalism is, perhaps, the matter of his own identity: no one is likely to accuse a black Muslim who fought his first political battles over apartheid and police brutality of shunting the concerns of minorities to the margins.
“You and me are black,” Ellison said to me. “You may or may not agree with me on this, but I think that when black people get in a closed room together we kind of think that we’ve probably got it harder than anybody else. We think, maybe Native Americans got it hard, maybe Latinos got it hard, but we figure white folks all got it made in the shade, you know. But, as it happens, that ain’t true. It happens that everybody’s got problems. They’re not that different, and what we really need is human solidarity.”
Shortly after Ellison announced his candidacy, in mid-November, Fox News published an article on its Web site with the headline “Who Is Keith Ellison? Left-Wing Congressman with Past Ties to Nation of Islam Wants DNC Job.” Other conservative outlets ran pieces with similar insinuations, and, on December 1st, CNN published a detailed report on writings, mainly from Ellison’s law-school years, in which he defended the demagogic Louis Farrakhan, who broke with Warith Deen Muhammad’s reform movement in the late seventies and reclaimed the “Nation of Islam” designation for his own newly separatist group. Ellison never joined the Nation of Islam, but he was known in Minnesota, even during his early state-legislative campaigns, for his friendly relationship with it. He adopted the sorts of monikers that people associate with the Nation: Keith X. Ellison, Keith Ellison-Muhammad. “Minister Farrakhan is a role model for black youth,” he wrote in an op-ed for Insight News. “He is not an anti-Semite.” When Nils Hasselmo, the president of the University of Minnesota at the time, criticized a student group’s decision to invite Stokely Carmichael to campus, citing Carmichael’s bizarre assertion that Zionists had aided Nazism during the Second World War, Ellison wrote that Hasselmo had taken offense at the assertion “without offering any factual refutation of it.”
Youthful zeal doesn’t quite suffice as an explanation—Ellison was in his late twenties when many of the writings in question were published. It’s true that, in the early nineties, the Nation of Islam was near the center of black activist politics; Ellison often reminds reporters that Barack Obama attended Farrakhan’s Million Man March. And Ellison’s friendliness toward the Nation might have been as pragmatic as it was heartfelt; for all his idealism, he is clearly ambitious, and, even today, many black activists tend to leaven their criticisms of Farrakhan with nods to his efforts on behalf of black equality.
In 2006, when opponents of Ellison’s congressional campaign called attention to his writings, he distanced himself from the Nation and renounced Farrakhan as an anti-Semite and a bigot. He told me that he’d thought it was a settled matter, and seemed perhaps naïvely surprised that it had become an issue for him again. Hours after the CNN story ran, the Anti-Defamation League released a statement saying that the old writings were “disqualifying” in the D.N.C. race, and the Democratic mega-donor Haim Saban called Ellison “an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual.”
“It’s almost as if there’s this intangible resistance to Keith, from what I read in the media,” Steven Belton, the head of the Minneapolis Urban League, and a friend of Ellison’s, told me. In November, Jonathan Weisman, the Times’ deputy editor in Washington, tweeted, “Defeated Dems could’ve tapped Rust Belt populist to head party. Instead, black, Muslim progressive from Minneapolis?” In a Washington Post column that appeared in December, Garrison Keillor suggested that a “black Muslim Congressman” had as much chance of connecting with “disaffected workers in Youngstown and Pittsburgh” as a ballet dancer or a Buddhist monk.
Less than two weeks after Saban’s comments, Tom Perez announced his candidacy for the D.N.C. chair. Perez, like Ellison, was a civil-rights lawyer. He was Labor Secretary in Maryland, and, before serving in Obama’s Cabinet, worked under former Attorney General Eric Holder. Onstage, he has a twitchy energy, punctuating his speech with noticeable pauses. His entry into the race turned it into a proxy battle, with Ellison representing the left-leaning Sanders-Warren wing of the Party and Perez serving as an avatar of Obama-like technocracy.
On December 16th, during a press conference, Obama declined to endorse a candidate outright but spoke at length about Perez, whom he called “wicked smart.” Since then, Perez has been endorsed by a series of apparent Obama surrogates, most notably Holder and Biden. But Perez bristles at the suggestion that he is the favored candidate of the Democratic establishment. “I’ve always believed that, rather than focussing on labels that aren’t accurate, and labels that are, frankly, loaded terms, it’s important to focus on facts, and focus on a person’s actions that really define his values,” he told me.
There are superficial similarities between Ellison and Obama, two black Democrats in their mid-fifties who talk a lot about organizing. On a deeper level, though, there are stark differences between them. Obama held the title of organizer only briefly, between his time at Harvard Law and his election to the Illinois state legislature; Ellison spent nearly two decades at the heart of Minnesota’s activist culture before reaching Washington. When Obama was elected, there was speculation about what might come to constitute a New Black Politics, led by such figures as Obama, Cory Booker, Deval Patrick, and Artur Davis—largely polished men with Ivy League pedigrees. More recently, Obama has named Kamala Harris as a potentially powerful future Democratic leader. Ellison has a plainer persona; when he’s not wearing jeans, he dons boxy suits. Obama is convinced of the power of institutions to organize and preserve American ways of life. Ellison prefers a bullhorn and a wilderness of painted signs.
When I met with Ellison after Christmas, I asked him if Obama’s apparent preference for Perez was due to policy differences—perhaps Ellison’s outspoken opposition to the T.P.P. had irked the President. (Perez supported it.) Ellison said that what he heard when he listened to the press conference was: “Everybody running is a friend of mine, and I’m not getting involved.” He told me that he couldn’t support the T.P.P., because it was like NAFTA, and “NAFTA hurt Minnesota.” Ellison called on Obama, early last year, to curb the aggressive deportations carried out under his Administration. “On the deportation stuff, I’ve got families coming to me telling me they’re being split up—so I can’t support all those deportations,” Ellison told me. He added, “Those are really the only two issues, I think, where we split. But I think the President is a fair man. I think he’ll stay with what he said, which is that he won’t be involved in the D.N.C. race.”
Several people I spoke to, however, described an Obama acutely interested in its outcome. In the fall, Obama and Holder announced a new project aimed at retaking state legislatures so that Democrats can reverse the effects of Republican gerrymandering—and the former President feels an obligation to place the Party, which he’d expected to turn over to Hillary Clinton, in trusted hands. Ellison’s connection to Sanders is worrisome for many of those in Obama’s orbit, as well as Clinton’s, and Sanders hasn’t helped ease their concern during the D.N.C. race. When Biden endorsed Perez—“He knows how to explain why our party’s core beliefs matter to the immigrant family in Arizona and the coal miner in West Virginia”—Sanders quickly issued an acerbic reply: “The question is simple: Do we stay with a failed status-quo approach or do we go forward with a fundamental restructuring of the Democratic Party?”
On a Wednesday evening in January, two days before Trump’s swearing-in, Ellison and his opponents came together in Washington for a debate. The city bore the physical marks of the impending Inauguration: tall, metallic black gates traced a border around the Capitol; vast panes of white plastic flooring covered the half-bald grass of the National Mall. Crowds of pilgrims from around the country, their numbers dotted with bright-red “Make America Great Again” caps, flowed through Union Station and posed for pictures near the foot of the Washington Monument. The forum, sponsored by the Huffington Post, was held at George Washington University. College kids walked down E Street in packs of four and five, talking loudly about “fascism” and “that man.”
Inside the auditorium, the audience was made up of journalists, nicely dressed student-government types, and official Democrats. Howard Dean couldn’t walk two steps without being approached by an admirer. He served, perhaps, as a totem of what a new chair should aim to accomplish. Dean assumed the D.N.C. chairmanship in 2005, pledging a “Fifty State Strategy” to contest elections across the country. This put him at odds with Rahm Emanuel, then the leader of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who wanted to focus on a few targeted swing seats. In 2006, Democrats retook both houses of Congress.
A President has wide latitude in selecting the leadership of his own party committee, and during the past eight years Obama’s designated D.N.C. chairs—Tim Kaine, the recently defeated Vice-Presidential candidate, and then Wasserman-Schultz—have largely been figureheads, echoing the White House’s message and coöperating with senatorial and congressional campaign committees to contest important elections. In that time, Democrats have lost more than nine hundred state and federal seats. After amassing a remarkable army of supporters and volunteers during his first run for the Presidency, Obama directed their energies toward Organizing for America, an operation focussed primarily on Presidential initiatives. At the D.N.C. forums, that move has repeatedly been blamed for sapping the grass-roots energy that might have made the difference in local contests. Ellison declines to blame Obama, though, at least explicitly. “It wasn’t an individual failure,” he said. “It was a collective one. But, I will tell you, in my district we didn’t do that. In my district, we stuck with the grass roots.”
At the debate, each of the hopefuls praised Dean and spoke earnestly of organizing. All of them promise to pursue a bottom-up, nationwide strategy, like Dean’s. Ellison’s reformist tendencies have, amid so much amity, quietly receded. Earlier in the month, he had pledged to ban lobbyist donations to the committee, but on this night he said, “We’re going to have a democratic process on how we arrive at funding the Democratic Party. We absolutely need money, and if anybody wants to get rid of any money we’re getting I want to talk to you about how we’re going to replace it.”
The next day, I accompanied Ellison to a protest against Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education. The rally had been convened by the American Federation of Teachers, and was held outside the Anne Beers Elementary School, in Anacostia, a predominantly black neighborhood in southeast D.C. When I asked Ellison whether he’d miss this kind of direct action, he didn’t seem ready to relinquish his role on the streets, as a kind of outsider. “Well, now Trump’s in power,” Ellison said. “So the D.N.C. should be leading the resistance to that. And I don’t think that there’s any inherent magic in occupying the outsider status. I think that Democrats, and people with compassion, people who love tolerance and inclusion, we ought to get comfortable in power.”
Ellison had a cold, which was getting worse, and before he could join the throng he had to get another D.N.C. member off the phone. “I think you’re totally right,” he said between coughs. The speeches began, and Ellison moved to the top of a staircase, where a narrow lectern stood. As Randi Weingarten, the A.F.T.’s president, spoke, Ellison looked giddy, immeasurably happier than he had been onstage the night before. When it was his turn to talk, he grabbed the mike, bounded past the lectern, and stood close to the crowd. He described support for charter schools and vouchers as a reaction to the attempt to integrate public schools. “Don’t think for a minute that this plan that they’re trying to pretty up and pass on doesn’t have a lot to do with those ugly plans in the fifties and sixties,” he said.
Soon Ellison would head back home to Minneapolis—he had joined more than sixty other Democratic representatives, led by John Lewis, the iconic Georgia civil-rights leader, in boycotting the Inauguration. Obama, Clinton, and Schumer would be there, but, for many on the left, not attending had become an important symbolic gesture of opposition. A few weeks later, Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate. The Democrats, even with two Republicans joining them, simply didn’t have the votes.
On Valentine’s Day, Perez’s campaign announced that a hundred and eighty D.N.C. members had committed to voting for him, just forty-four shy of the total needed to win. Ellison questioned the number, and characterized the announcement itself as underhanded, calling it an attempt to put “a finger on the scale.” The shadow of the 2016 primaries, and the endless argument about superdelegates, loomed again.
It seems likely that the race will not be settled on the first ballot, and everyone I spoke to said that there was surely horse trading to come. The day after Perez shared that whip count, he and Ellison had dinner together at Café Dupont, in Washington. A reporter at the bar spotted them, and posted a photograph of the pair on Twitter. An hour later, Ellison and Perez offered a joint statement, keeping it under a hundred and forty characters: “Tom and Keith are friends and grabbed dinner together to discuss how to move the Democratic Party forward if either of them wins.” ♦