In this perilous and challenging new era, Democratic Party officials are scrambling to catch up with the progressive grassroots resistance and demands for real change. Activists, organizers, and engaged citizens across the country have been channeling major dam-bursting energy and creativity into opposing the Republicans’ cruel agenda, and have already racked up some initial successes.
That’s what makes Saturday’s election for the chair of the Democratic National Committee so critical. There’s only one candidate who’s been ahead of the political curve and is best positioned to turn this unprecedented, people-powered momentum into electoral victories for Democrats across the country: Keith Ellison.
New Hampshire State Party Chair Ray Buckley, a leading contender for DNC chair, added new vitality to Ellison’s bid when he recently dropped out of the race to endorse him. Buckley highlighted “Keith’s commitment to the states and a transparent and accountable DNC,” and his ability to “successfully unite and grow our party.” But he concluded his endorsement of Keith with the most crucial point of all: “we need an organizer who has won elections.”
Given the day-to-day organizing, coordinating and outreach needed to be a successful DNC chair, Keith’s record in Minnesota is instructive. Within his congressional district, Keith’s team has led massive door-knocking campaigns—not during election seasons but during off years—to generate thousands of face-to-face conversations with constituents that show, in Keith’s words, that “we don’t just care about you when we want your vote. We care about you and want to have an ongoing, durable relationship with you.”
Building the nuts and bolts of small-d democracy—through pizza parties, coffee klatches, and Labor Day picnics—“isn’t just about winning elections,” he adds. “It’s about building community. It’s a way for neighbors to talk about stuff, when neighbors don’t usually talk.” Keith is that rare policymaker who’s just as comfortable developing bottom-up political culture at a picket line, a public school, or a VFW hall as he is advancing legislation.
Why does this matter for the Democratic Party’s progressive future? Ellison’s grassroots organizing brings his constituents together, and the ideas and concerns that they co-develop through that process rise to the top of his own policy agenda. That’s the foundation of the political force he has built, which has amassed stunning electoral victories. By raising the number of people who voted for him from 150,000 to 250,000, Keith helped create a Democratic political firewall that has prevented any statewide Republican from taking office in Minnesota in recent years.
This commitment to the interplay between grassroots organizing, good policy, and electoral victories—Ellison believes “you need all three” for real political change—gives him the foresight and public service commitment that so many of his peers in the Beltway have lacked. Famously, while most pundits were laughing off Trump’s candidacy, Keith was trying to warn people to take the threat seriously, astutely recognizing Trump’s momentum.
And while Keith was a strong, early backer of President Obama in 2008 and 2012, he took a principled stance against the Trans Pacific Partnership, a pro-corporate trade deal that may have inadvertently cost Hillary Clinton the presidency. As Bernie Sanders’s appointee to the DNC’s platform drafting committee, Keith fought valiantly but unsuccessfully to enshrine opposition to the TPP in the party’s agenda, knowing how important the issue was to working people’s concerns and the turnout that Democrats needed.
As it turned out, Trump’s margin of victory in the election-deciding states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania was far less than the number of workers in each state whom the U.S. government had certified as having lost their jobs due to trade.
The reasons behind Ellison’s political success and prescience is simple: “I don’t care about odds,” he said. “I care about what’s right and what’s wrong.” Anyone who was involved in the struggle against South African apartheid—as Keith and I were—can attest to the power of this course of action. At a moment when so many voters have expressed their disapproval with a political establishment that they don’t trust, it is time to allow Keith’s refreshing principles help rejuvenate the entire party.
For decades, I have been fighting for workers internationally, and over the past four years, alongside the United Auto Workers in America’s Deep South. We’re standing with ordinary people who want good wages, workplace safety and the right to organize the local Nissan auto plant in the majority-black town of Canton, Mississippi. It’s these folks, in the crosshairs of the Republican agenda, who are on Keith’s mind and policy agenda every day. Keith’s diverse background as a Black Muslim Midwesterner, combined with a lifelong commitment to dignified livelihoods for all, will contribute to a DNC that can empower Canton’s multiracial rank-and-file workers.
Ellison’s vision for a Democratic Party is the only tried-and-true approach to building lasting progressive change—there are no shortcuts. Only a genuine dedication to building a fair economy will galvanize the Democratic Party’s grassroots and bring together millennials, blue-collar workers, and people of color, drawing many millions more into the political process.
Keith “was born to organize,” explained civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis. “We need his leadership. We need his vision. We need his commitment and his dedication now more than ever before.”
In order for Democrats to succeed in taking on Republicans and their destructive agenda at the local, state and national levels, we need fresh and energetic leadership with a deep connection to the grassroots. In short, the DNC needs Keith Ellison.