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Why does Chuck Schumer support Keith Ellison for DNC chairman? Because of Bernie Sanders.

Sen. Bernie Sanders  (I-Vt.) stands behind Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Nov. 16 on Capitol Hill. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) says he’s backing a Minnesota congressman to lead the Democratic National Committee for a simple reason: because Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) likes him.

Schumer, in an interview Friday, said he’s supporting a bid by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) to run the DNC because he comes with the support of Sanders, a key liberal voice in the Senate who also earned a spot this past week on Schumer’s new 10-senator leadership team.

Schumer is set to become the first New Yorker and first Jewish man to serve as a Senate leader and has been a staunch defender of Israel throughout his four decades in public service. But Ellison has been an outspoken critic of Israel and its relationship with Palestinians in the past.

Earlier in his career, Ellison apologized for or withdrew a number of controversial statements, including likening former president George W. Bush’s consolidation of power after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to the rise of Adolf Hitler, to defending the leader of the Nation of Islam, to labeling his own 2012 reelection opponent a “lowlife scumbag.”

Keith Ellison would be a bold pick for DNC chair — and a controversial one

Some of those moves would seem to put him at odds with Schumer, his strong support for Israel and the strong support he enjoys from Jewish voters across New York.

“I’m not worried about the Israel stuff even though he and I disagree,” Schumer said Friday when asked about Ellison’s past statements.

Schumer said that Ellison, who would be the first Muslim to run the DNC, came highly recommended by Sanders. The two senators have known each other for years. Both grew up in Brooklyn and attended James Madison High School, although at different times. (That same school also graduated Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).)

After the Democratic presidential primaries that Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton, “Bernie said we need an organizing tool. We can’t win the wars,” Schumer said. “Our issues are right, although they should be bolder and more progressive, he would say, but we need organizing and not just during presidential campaign. So we thought maybe the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] should do some of that, assuming Hillary was going to win. When the DNC [chairman’s job] opened up, he called me and said we need to make the DNC not a fundraising and political organization but a true organizing tool. I said, you’re exactly right.”

Whether that’s exactly how it transpired may be up for dispute, but either way, Schumer, Sanders, outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and other top Democrats have quickly endorsed Ellison’s bid.

The DNC has yet to set a date for the chairman’s election, which is expected to happen sometime next year.

Other Democrats are also in the running, including former Vermont governor Howard Dean; Henry Munoz III, the DNC’s finance chairman; outgoing Labor Secretary Tom Perez; and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley said this week he’s no longer going to run for the job.

Party rules currently dictate that the DNC chairman must be a full-timer. Former chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was able to hold the job on a part-time basis while serving as a Florida congresswoman because President Obama appointed her to the job and, well, presidents get to break the party rules.

Dean has cited the full-timer rule as a reason why someone like Ellison shouldn’t be picked to serve. But Schumer said Friday that Ellison shouldn’t need to step down from his House seat to lead the party.

“No, I don’t believe that. He’s a very good organizer, and I think Bernie will have a lot of say in the DNC, which I welcome, and they will find good full-time organizers,” Schumer said. “I said to [Ellison], the number one person you should hire who is the executive director should be the best organizer we can find, and he agreed.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Schumer and Sanders attended high school together. They both attended the same high school but not at the same time.