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Opinion Why I like Keith Ellison, a Bernie guy, to lead the DNC

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

Running the Democratic National Committee is one of those political jobs that looks good on paper but can be a version of hell in practice. Just ask Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). But the party needs a new leader. One who can unify its raucous factions, harness the brewing rage in the age of President Trump and replenish the talent pipeline with folks who not only can speak to the real concerns of all Americans but also can win elections.

The 447 members of the DNC will make their selection on Saturday in Atlanta. Of the eight candidates in the race, two are seen as the leading contenders: former labor secretary Tom Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). Having interviewed both men for my “Cape Up” podcast, I feel compelled to say that Ellison would be the better choice.

[Keith Ellison: ‘The Democratic Party doesn’t exist for Democrats’]

Perez and Ellison are from different wings of the Democratic Party. With his backing from former vice president Joe Biden and other former Obama administration officials, Perez is the establishment candidate. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyone who reads me knows that that’s where my politics are firmly rooted. And Perez’s work at labor and when he was the head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department in President Barack Obama’s first term makes him the kind of progressive I like. The kind who gets things done.

Anyone who reads me also knows that the Sen. Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party drove me nuts during the Democratic presidential primaries. That their standard-bearer refused to become a Democrat, was incapable of talking about issues of race and showed himself to be stunningly unprepared for a New York Daily News editorial board meeting last April made it impossible for me take the Independent senator from Vermont’s run seriously. And Ellison was one of Sanders’s earliest and most fervent supporters.

Ellison and Perez have similar visions for the party, where it should go and how it must get there. They both want the Democratic Party to reach all Americans everywhere. “Democrats have to come to grips with the idea that the Democratic Party doesn’t exist for Democrats,” Ellison told me. “It is for the American people.” Perez said, “You have to have 12-months-a-year organizing. And you have to have a presence in every zip code.” They both want to roll up their sleeves to rebuild the party, recruit candidates and take the fight to Trump on the ground and on the airwaves by being a vocal counterpoint to the Republican president.

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But it was the way Ellison and Perez talked about all this that struck me. To my ear, Ellison just sounded right. And it was his comments about Ms. McGillicuddy that drove this home.

See, here’s the thing, Democrats have to come to grips with the idea that the Democratic Party doesn’t exist for Democrats, it is for the American people. We exist to serve the American people. And that means that the election is an occasion, we come and do it every four years at the presidential level, every two in the federal level, and various times at the state and local level. But the chance to connect with Ms. McGillicutty and listen to her, that’s really what should drive us. Because if you look at Ms. McGillicutty, she’s been pouring coffee at the Denny’s she works at for years, but she believes her daughters can be a doctor. But it’s so expensive, and the debt’s so high, and she barely has any money in retirement because she hasn’t been making no money, because she works for a tip wage. And the tips don’t come in, she don’t get paid too much.
She’s hoping that this pain in her knees is nothing serious. Could be arthritis, but she doesn’t know. And her sister died from breast cancer, and she’s like, “Well, should I get a double mastectomy? Because I cannot afford to get breast cancer.” I mean these things are on people’s minds. And then, she’s like, “I’ve been pouring the coffee, serving at this Denny’s for years. Hope the plant doesn’t close down, because then all the workers who come here, they won’t be coming here.” But maybe the plant did close down, and people go from making $22 an hour to making $13, so now they’re not buying the big breakfast no more, they’re just getting a couple of eggs and sausage, you know what I mean? Sausage. I mean, it’s just really sort of this… But we don’t know that, because we’re not building relationships.

Clinton’s electoral college loss has many Democrats demanding the party focus on winning back white working-class voters and leave identity politics behind. For Ellison, the future of the party is not a battle of either-or, it’s a union of both-and.

So, this question of white working class versus the rising America electorate is really false choice. It’s a false choice. Because, hey, who’s to say Ms. McGillicuddy is not a lesbian? She could be. Every single thing I said could still be true, but she’s married to a woman, nothing changes. Her daughter could be trying to become a doctor, her son could be trying to go to the army, she could be worried about her knees, and she could go home to her wife. It doesn’t change anything. She could be black, why can’t she be black? She could be anything. McGillicutty makes you think, “Oh, maybe she’s a white working class woman of Irish descent.” I know plenty of black people of Irish descent. You know what I’m saying? So my point is, Ms. McGillicuddy in my mind is sort of this regular person, she also needs to be treated with respect.
And here, if you’re a white working-class person, you have civil rights. If you’re a woman you for sure better be worried about civil rights. If you’re 55, 45-year-old white male, why aren’t you worried about civil rights when you know that they just hired a 22-year-old guy to do your job because age discrimination, right? Or disability discrimination. I mean we all have to worry about being respected and treated fairly for who we are. So, this is a false choice they’re trying to present.

Ellison’s response took me aback. Not because what he said was outrageous, but because it was the clearest articulation of the link between the needs and concerns of white working-class voters and the “rising America,” as he called it. What gives Ellison’s view power is looking at him and his district. In 2006, he became the first Muslim American elected to Congress and the first black person from Minnesota elected to Congress. His district, which includes Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs, is predominantly white (63 percent, he told me) in a state that is overwhelmingly white (89.4 percent).

[Tom Perez on why the Democratic Party needs a dramatic culture shift]

I didn’t interview the others in the hunt for DNC chair. But roles must be found for the other candidates, such as Jehmu Greene, Pete Buttigieg and Jaime Harrison, if their quest for the job is unsuccessful. Along with Perez, they would ensure that everyone under the Democratic Party’s big tent has a voice and a role to play in its future. Ellison told me that’s in the cards if he wins the chairmanship. At a minimum, they would amplify the Democratic message to the American people.

If I’m chair … I would tell the comms department, “You guys need to be booking them all the time on what we’re talking about this week.” And I would do some, too. I wouldn’t bow out. But I would think it would be more important to marshal a cadre, a group of people who could tell the Democratic story. And then we gotta train folks at the local level, and book people on local radio to talk, and book people with local editorial boards to talk.

For his part, Ellison would be focused on the hard work of rebuilding the party. “Hey, man, this is a flannel shirts and jeans job, not a suit, tie, makeup, lights, camera, action job,” he said. That he would give up his safe congressional seat to take on this thankless task tells me he has the dedication needed to shepherd the party through the age of Trump and into an era of renewal.

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