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Rep. Ellison touts ideas, experience to lead Dem party

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

As the Democratic Party seeks to refocus after losing a bruising presidential election, the key to reshaping the party involves a “return to crystal-clear clarity” defining the group’s goals, said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who wants to become the next leader of the Democrats’ governing body.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison outlines his experience and ideas to lead the Democratic National Committee in a Thursday visit to Detroit.


“We have to activate, mobilize, energize the grassroots because that is how we win,” the Minnesota-based congressman and former Detroiter told hundreds gathered at Church of the New Covenant Baptist on Detroit’s west side Thursday.

Other priorities: Boosting ground-level organizing and working to increase voter turnout nationwide, he said.

The “meet and greet” ahead of a February election of new party leaders was designed to profile Ellison’s platform and credentials to his hometown. He has been garnering strong support from Michigan’s congressional delegation and others after he declared his candidacy for the chair of the DNC.

Ellison, the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He’s hoping to replace interim chairwoman Donna Brazile, who replaced U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida when she resigned in July. Others considering the position include former Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

The dignitaries and public officials who introduced him lauded Ellison as the best choice to engage voters.

“Voter involvement should start tomorrow,” Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said. “That can’t happen without a leader like Keith Ellison who’s going to define what the progressive issues are.”

U.S. Rep. Brenda L. Lawrence of Southfield said that “in choosing our next chair of the Democratic Party, it must be a 50-state strategy. … You are anywhere in America, we want your vote because we stand for the values that you need, the values that you expect in these United States of America. We can’t lose our voice. … This is a time for us to come together, build and .... be the party and the conscience of this great country.”

The Wayne State University graduate told the audience that supporters should “return to crystal-clear clarity” that the party fights for workers. That also means to reaching out to all groups, not just certain demographics.

“This idea that somehow we’ve got to go to talk to the white working class or talk to the people of color is a ridiculous notion that must be rejected,” Ellison said to applause.

Another key: prioritizing voter turnout by making engagement “a 365-day endeavor,” he said. “We have to engage in relationship-based politics, not transactional politics. That involves knocking on doors and engaging people.”

The crowd at the west-side church, which included lawmakers and public servants from across the region, frequently applauded his remarks.

“This is his hometown,” said Al Williams, a longtime supporter who helped organize the event. “People want to support him.”

Marge Sears, a program coordinator at the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, sat up front to make sure she heard his positions. “I think he’s poised to be the future,” she said. “We really need to have a progressive voice be heard. It will lead us to where we need to be.”

Ellison’s candidacy is not without issues. He has faced criticism from prominent Democrats, Jewish groups and some union leaders who have questioned his comments about Israel, his defense of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his commitment to his own party.

During a question-and-answer session, Ellison said he does not support discrimination against Jews. He also rejected what he called smears against his campaign for the DNC chairman post. And in highlighting his plans to advance the party, he cited a focus on grassroots organizing, lifting up business owners and backing greater presence on college campuses. 

“If this is a job about getting people elected, I’m the right one for this job,” he said.

Born and raised in Detroit, Ellison graduated from the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy in 1981 and WSU in 1986. His parents, brothers and nieces and nephews still live in Michigan.

Ellison has lived in Minnesota since graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1990, according to his online biography.

The congressman also sits on the House Financial Services Committee and the House Democratic Steering Committee, which determines the party’s platform and committee assignments, his website states.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.