Rep. Keith Ellison seemed to be on cruise control in his campaign to be the next head of the Democratic National Committee. The Minnesota Democrat had won endorsements from Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer for the job and had emerged as the liberal favorite in a party that has become increasingly controlled by its progressive wing in recent years.
Then last week his past came back to haunt him.
Ellison has a long history of controversial remarks, many of which he has disavowed. Like the time he compared George W. Bush to Hitler. Or his defense of the Nation of Islam. Or his characterization of his 2012 opponent as a “lowlife scumbag.”
But last week another Ellison controversy emerged — and this from the much-more-recent past.
In 2010, Ellison gave a speech at a fundraiser hosted by a past president of the Muslim American Society. In it, he says he wants the “U.S. to be friends with Israel” but adds: “We can't allow another country to treat us like we're their ATM.” Then he said this:
The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people. A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. Does that make sense? Is that logic? Right? When the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million get involved, everything changes.
The Anti-Defamation League quickly condemned those views as “both deeply disturbing and disqualifying.” Haim Saban, a major Israeli American Democratic donor, said Friday that Ellison was “clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual,” adding that having the congressman as DNC chair “would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”
Strong words — particularly when you consider that the Jewish community is not only one of the most reliable voting blocs in the Democratic base but also one of the party's disproportionately large fundraising sources.
What remains to be seen is whether anyone else will fill the void created by Ellison's stumbles. Former DNC chair Howard Dean ended his candidacy on Friday, leaving only Ellison, South Carolina state party chairman Jaime Harrison and New Hampshire state party chairman Ray Buckley in the race.
If the field stays as it is, Ellison would have a major edge because of his high-profile support from liberals and his name recognition. (Neither Harrison nor Buckley are at all well known outside their home states.) But after a week like this one, you can be sure there is considerable talk among Washington Democratic poobahs aimed at finding a less controversial liberal to chair the DNC. Labor Secretary Tom Perez is most often mentioned as that candidate.
No matter what happens, Ellison is in for a far rockier road than he probably imagined when he entered the race just a few weeks ago. And even if he does ascend to the DNC chairmanship, a decent-size chunk of Democratic voters and donors will probably be none too happy about it.
Keith Ellison, for learning that the past isn't dead, it isn't even past, you had the Worst Week in Washington. Congrats, or something.