February 7, 2017

MOTHER JONES: Keith Ellison Is Everything Republicans Thought Obama Was. Maybe He’s Just What Democrats Need.

The role of the DNC chairman is to run a political machine that helps to elect Democrats throughout the country, not to dictate the party’s policy priorities. But Ellison’s blueprint for defeating Trumpism is nonetheless rooted in the anti-establishment politics of Sanders. The DNC has become the “Democratic Presidential Committee,” he argues; short-sighted focus on big-dollar fundraising and swing states has weakened the party on a county-by-county level. Change starts with shifting the party apparatus toward assembling a multicultural army of organizers, focused on the communities likely to bear the full brunt of the new president’s policies. Ellison says the proof that this can work is in his district. Emphasizing door-to-door engagement over TV advertising, Ellison boasts he’s juiced turnout in his safe Democratic seat to some of the highest levels in the country. Even as the Upper Midwest goes red, Minnesota Democrats have scored victories at the state level, bolstered by Ellison’s Minneapolis machine.

Republicans are eager to take him on, because in many ways, the story of Keith Ellison is the story conservatives wanted to believe about another cerebral African American community organizer from the Midwest—Barack Obama. Raised Catholic in Detroit, Ellison converted to Islam, dabbled in black nationalism, and marched with the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan—all before his first bid for Congress in 2006. His past dogged him in that run, and it has continued to be an issue in the DNC race: Billionaire Haim Saban, one of the Democrats’ biggest donors, has trashed him as an “anti-Semite.”

As a young activist in Minneapolis, Ellison learned to build coalitions outside the scope of party politics. He also learned the limits of what such activism could achieve without political power. For Ellison, it was a time of experimentation, education, and sometimes radical dalliances that ultimately imbued in his politics a hard-edged pragmatism.

Don’t discount Ellison’s considerable organizational abilities on the basis of his radical politics.

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