Rep. Keith Ellison, the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has replaced former congressman John Conyers Jr. as the sponsor of the Expanded & Improved Medicare For All Act. Early Wednesday afternoon, Ellison asked for and received unanimous consent to take over H.R. 676, the single-payer health bill that has become a focus of left-wing energy and is supported by most of the Democratic caucus.
At the same time, Ellison (D-Minn.) is facing a new round of questions and attacks about his former support of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam — questions that dogged him in his first race for Congress and his near miss run for DNC chairman last year, even after he condemned Farrakhan. (Ellison flirted with the idea of running for attorney general in Minnesota this year but said Wednesday that he will seek reelection to the House.)
In an interview, Ellison said that none of his colleagues raised concerns about the Farrakhan story, which has lit up in conservative media and on cable news, as he campaigned to take over H.R. 676. There was no obvious candidate to take up the bill after Conyers (D-Mich.) resigned in disgrace last year; what had been known as “the Conyers bill” had become problematically labeled. But Ellison’s fellow Democrats had no worries about his name replacing Conyers on the legislation.
“None of my colleagues ever asked me about that, only reporters,” Ellison said. “I am telling you — no one cares. I’ve been all over Minnesota, all over Alabama, all over Missouri, all over Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and nobody ever asked me about this. People ask me about wages, about pay, about health care, about guns, about immigration. They ask me all kinds of challenging questions. But for some reason, some folks in the Fourth Estate think that this Farrakhan thing needs to be inquired about instead.”
The support from Ellison’s colleagues clashed mightily with the attention he’s gotten from Republican groups, which have sought to portray him as too toxic to help his party in swing states and swing districts. In January, after the owner of a photo showing Barack Obama with Farrakhan acknowledged that he had concealed it before the 2008 election, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial on the Democrats’ “Farrakhan problem,” spotlighting Democrats who had attended Nation of Islam events. On Tuesday, the Republican Jewish Coalition called on Ellison, and any other Democrat with “Farrakhan ties,” to resign from Congress.
“My political opponents keep pushing this out there in order to try to smear and distract from the key issues, but there’s no relationship,” Ellison told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last month.
Meanwhile, the congressman was asking colleagues to support him as the new sponsor of the left’s signature legislation and finding no resistance. His pitch: He could and would lead a campaign for the legislation, separate from his DNC role but building on the success he’d had as a far-traveled advocate for the party.
“Until the platform committee of the DNC adopts this, it’s really more of a congressional effort and a community effort, so we respect the difference,” Ellison said. “But I am going to talk about it as a member of Congress. We’re going to be working on this thing as a team. One of the consistent applause lines we’re all hearing is: We need Medicare for all. There’s a lot of folks who feel that it’s time for us to organize around that. It’s a better policy, at a better price. People in labor, people all over the country, they’re going to be driving the public conversation, raising the dialogue about this.”
On Tuesday night, as Texans voted in the first round of primaries, supporters of the Medicare-for-all approach made gains. In the 23rd and 32nd districts, both of which saw crowded Democratic races, the candidates who made it to May 22’s runoff were all supporter. Ellison wasn’t surprised.
“Here’s the problem: We’re at a point in American history with more income inequality than at any point since the Gilded Age,” Ellison said. “So you’re seeing more support for Medicare for all. Of course you are. If you run to the center, you’re not meeting the needs of the average voter. Millennials are the most screwed voters out there, and the last thing they want is a giant debt load from health care coming on top of their debt load from college. What some people think is a really progressive position is just what the rest of the industrialized world does.”
Ellison is now the lead House Democrat on that message, as well as the second-most visible member of the DNC. In the latter role, he had been attacked by Republicans since last year. And he has come to care less and less about it, at one point tweaking the GOP by tweeting a photo of himself with “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.” The media questions he had gotten about Farrakhan — which increased when Farrakhan said that Ellison had distanced himself because “when you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door” — did not reflect what he heard from Democrats.
“I’ve said all I need to say about it,” Ellison said.