Rep. Keith Ellison can’t catch a break.
Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, is running for chair of the Democratic National Committee. He is also the first Muslim to be elected to Congress.
Stung by Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the presidential election, Democrats are pondering the future and searching for a new leader and Ellison, for better or worse, has emerged as a leading contender.
Ellison is a polarizing figure. Depending on who you talk to, Ellison is either a thoughtful Muslim bridge-builder or an anti-Semite who doesn’t support Israel.
And now Ellison will face a formidable challenger: Labor Secretary Tom Perez plans to run against Ellison after White House aides urged Perez to enter the race.
Craig Kirby, a former Democratic operative who has directed numerous political campaigns across the country, said Democrats need immediate stability.
“When in trouble, it doesn’t matter the race or creed of the leader,” Kirby told me. “Democrats just need help.”
Ellison’s involvement with the Nation of Islam has become a point of contention with Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League and critics who say his past writings and comments could be interpreted as anti-Israel. Ellison also helped organize the Minnesota delegation to the Million Man March in 1995, which was led by Minister Louis Farrakhan.
“Minister Farrakhan is a role model for Black youth,” Ellison wrote in an Insight News op-ed in 1995. “He is not an anti-Semite.”
But the head of the Anti-Defamation League said Ellison’s past comments in 2010 questioning Israel’s legitimacy are troubling.
“Rep. Ellison’s remarks are both deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, said in a statement.
Ellison does have his supporters and they include Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat from Vermont.
“My friend Keith Ellison is a terrific leader and a strong progressive who knows how to get things done,” outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) said in a statement. “Now is the time for new thinking and a fresh at the DNC. Now is the time for Keith.”
But it appears that one powerful entity is not backing Ellison: The White House. According to published reports, President Barack Obama’s advisors have talked about whether Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez and former Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan would be willing to run for the job.
Ellison’s critics also say he can’t continue as a representative in Congress and run the DNC. In the past few days, however, Ellison said he will quit Congress if he wins the election for DNC chair, a strategic move he hopes will quiet the skeptics.
Only time will tell.
“Keith Ellison offers a new opportunity for the DNC to recast and re-energize itself after a devastating defeat,” said Neil Foote, a professor of journalism at the University of North Texas. “The Party will need to sharpen its message – and queue up a viable candidate for 2020.”
The DNC election is scheduled for Feb. 23.
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