With stakes high, Minn.’s Ellison presses his case to lead Democrats

Published 10:05 am Thursday, February 23, 2017

By Brian Bakst

MPR.org/90.1 FM

ATLANTA — Soon after Keith Ellison declared himself a candidate for the Democratic Party’s top post last fall, the Minnesota congressman hopped a plane to California, one of the few remaining power bases for a party becoming increasingly isolated on the map.

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There, he held a series of one-on-one meetings with key activists and delivered a rousing speech at a party gathering where attendees were in a funk over a disastrous presidential election.

“Everything he had to say had people jumping and clapping and cheering,” recalled Sandra Lowe, one of those who got a taste of Ellison and quickly signed onto his candidacy to be chair of the Democratic National Committee.

It was a recipe Ellison would repeat in state after state: individually courting the voting members who will decide the DNC race this weekend in Atlanta while providing a pep talk to the party’s grassroots that will determine how well Democrats begin their electoral recovery.

Ellison, 53, emerged as an early frontrunner, but has since wound up in a hard-fought contest, mainly with Tom Perez, the former Obama administration labor secretary.

In the race, Ellison — Minnesota’s first black member of Congress and the nation’s first Muslim congressman — has encountered questions about his past political activism and skepticism about his ability to connect with the voters who fled the Democratic Party in recent years.

But neither Ellison, Perez nor other lesser-known candidates are seen as having a lock on the DNC post, giving the party’s winter meeting plenty of intrigue.

The decision will be made by 447 voting delegates, including state party chairs, Democratic stalwarts and labor leaders. It takes a simple majority to win. Multiple ballots are expected.

After eight years of President Barack Obama as the clear face and main messenger of the Democratic Party, his departure left a void at the top. The November election that shut Democrats out of power in Washington also touched off ample reassessment of the party’s philosophy and strategic direction in the era of President Donald Trump.