DETROIT ― Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) rallied hometown supporters and made his case to lead his party on Thursday, toeing the line between criticizing Democrats’ failings and calling for them to come together under a Donald Trump presidency.
“We cannot, as Democrats, form some circular firing squad,” he said. “We need unity more than ever.”
Ellison, who is running for chair of the Democratic National Committee and will give up his congressional seat if he wins, grew up in Detroit. He held Thursday’s town hall at the Baptist church where his brother Brian Ellison is a pastor.
His opponents for the DNC position, which is currently held by Interim Chairwoman Donna Brazile, include Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Idaho Democrat Sally Boynton Brown, South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison and New Hampshire’s Ray Buckley. Several hundred members of the committee will vote on the new chair during their February meeting.
Ellison has racked up high-profile endorsements from progressives and labor unions, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions. But he faces serious competition from Perez, who has President Barack Obama’s indirect support, the endorsement of a couple of unions and a strong reputation from his time running the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.
The first Muslim to be elected to Congress, Ellison’s bid for DNC chair has made him the target of a smear campaign that accused him of anti-Semitism over recently released remarks on Israel. He has also been criticized for, years ago, supporting Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whom he has since denounced.
According to Politico, some of Perez’s support comes from Democrats wary of the controversy and concerned Ellison is too connected to identity politics. But Ellison dismissed the contentious theory that identity politics is costing Democrats voters.
“The idea that somehow we’ve got to go talk to the white working class or we can talk to people of color is a ridiculous notion that must be rejected,” Ellison said. Instead, he said Democratic issues like social security and better wages have universal appeal.
“There’s not some magic transformation that takes over you once you leave the countryside and come to the city. We can talk to each other,” he added, using the example of finding common ground with relatives who own guns or live in the South.
Thursday’s town hall felt a bit like a family affair, with an audience full of Ellison’s actual relatives and local influential members of the party.
Ellison’s occasional pandering to the hometown crowd ― including a riff on why it’s time to axe the term “Rust Belt” and digs aimed at Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos, Trump’s two cabinet picks from Michigan ― were rewarded with bursts of laughter and applause.
The event also underscored his familiarity with a region that unexpectedly swung red in the recent election, and Ellison criticized Democrats for being out of touch with voters on the ground.
“The way Democrats campaign is, you look at all the red states and get rid of them. Look at the blue states, ignore them,” and then typically solely focus on likely voters in swing states, Ellison said. “When you ignore people they have a tendency to do what? Ignore you right back.”
Ellison said that if he’s put in charge, he’ll start by holding listening sessions around the country and call for daily door-to-door campaigning, beginning immediately, to form the lasting relationships that could pay off in fundraising and voter turnout later.
“If I’m elected chair of the DNC, it’s going to be a lot more work for everybody,” he said.
Ellison praised Sanders’ grassroots fundraising from small donors for his presidential campaign as a model and got a jumpstart on his potential duties, asking audience members directly if they would give $10 a month to a party that was fighting for them each day.
“So look, if this is about getting people elected, I’m the best one for the job,” Ellison said. “None of my opponents have raised the kind of money I’ve raised.”
Throughout Ellison’s speech and extensive Q&A, he returned to the unity theme. But not everyone present seemed convinced ― one supporter suggested the congressman join with Sanders and Warren to form a new progressive party, a proposal Ellison quickly rejected.
He instead called for Democrats, including himself, to take a hard look in the mirror, learn from mistakes and move forward.
“We have to tune up our vehicle, the Democratic Party,” Ellison said. “You need your spark plugs to get changed, oil is getting kind of old, tires getting kind of bald, you’ve got to take her in...”
One audience member interjected with a different suggestion.
“Buy a new car!” the man said.