Commentary: Democrats, support Ellison for DNC chair

Democrats
Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.) has put his name forward as a candidate for chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

 Going by media accounts, the Democratic Party is being torn apart by factionalism, and this lack of unity is playing out in the contest for a new chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

But the Democratic Party I saw when I attended last weekend's DNC Future Forum wasn't falling apart. It was simply, for the first time in decades, having a meaningful argument. The open discussion had substance, and the atmosphere was largely collegial. Some of the questioning of the candidates for chairman stuck to party matters like superdelegates and maintaining neutrality in the primaries, but it also encompassed concerns about voter mobilization, and many candidates talked about harnessing the mass movement for resistance that's erupted on the streets since Nov. 8.

Maybe what looks like vicious and debilitating factionalism to some is simply a sign of much-needed vitality. And the leading source of that vitality is the candidacy of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.) for party leader.

Ellison has been depicted as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom he endorsed in the primaries. And Ellison shares much of Sanders' straightforward, populist program, including an immediate raise in the minimum wage, Medicare for all, and firm support for organized labor. I volunteered for Sanders in the primary - later canvassing for Hillary Clinton in the general election - and I strongly share his and Ellison's values. When canvassing, I spoke to many conservatives - Democrats and Republicans - who wished Sanders had achieved the nomination, less because of his policies than because of his transparent honesty and forthrightness. Ellison has these qualities too, which make him a promising figure for renovating the party.

What also attracts me to Ellison are his savviness about electoral strategy and his attentiveness to social movements. Democrats need to win elections. (This sounds obvious enough, but hasn't been to the party. They lost nearly a thousand state and federal legislative seats during President Barack Obama's tenure.) One of the ways to win is to get an injection of energy from movements on the street. From women's marches to airport protests, it's clear that masses of people want desperately to stop President Trump's agenda.

Someone as committed to organizing as Ellison, who has experience in winning elections (he's won eight so far), knows how to corral movement energy and channel it into a field program to knock on every door in this country. Former DNC chair Howard Dean is famous for outlining a 50-state strategy. Ellison has a more ambitious, and more refined, 3,143-county strategy - one that would funnel resources from the national party to DNC members who know the conditions in their local districts. Ellison understands these conditions, having traveled to 30 states in the last two years to help Democratic candidates. He also understands fund-raising - excess money he raised for his own campaigns went to his state's party and down-ballot candidates.

Some are worried about Ellison's avowedly left-wing politics. Marcel Groen, chair of the Pennsylvania State Democratic Party, recently told the Inquirer, "I don't think it's beneficial to the party when we veer to the left, just as it's not a benefit to the Republican Party when they go too far to the right." The issue is less where Ellison fits on the political spectrum, and more how his political stances can help mobilize organizers and voters. There's no question that the mood on the streets is against the status quo. Can those activists be turned to electoral political work? Ellison is the only candidate in the race with the experience to figure this out.

Even before Nov. 8, Democrats' strategy was one of overwhelming cautiousness and focus group-tested moderation. This approach has made it difficult to see the party as a vehicle for change, both for progressives and anyone interested in plain-speaking and clear ideas.

Ellison is a different kind of Democrat. On his campaign website, he writes, "Our party is right. Our values are just. Our future depends on grassroots organizing. When Democrats champion the challenges of working families, voters will have a reason to show up at the polls in 2017, 2018 and beyond."

The clarity of Ellison's plans, his strong roots in trade unionism and grassroots organizing, and his necessary obsession with voter turnout, are a refreshing change after years of Democratic doublespeak, an inability to maintain collective bargaining rights, and the steady decline in participation.

After years of losses, Pennsylvania Democrats don't have much to look back on. With Ellison as DNC chair, they'd have much to look forward to.

Nikil Saval is a member of Reclaim Philadelphia (reclaimphiladelphia.org). reclaimphila@gmail.com

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