DNC Candidate Keith Ellison: “I think I bring a skill set that can help us win”

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) called into the Keepin’ It 1600 podcast to discuss his candidacy for DNC chair. Here are some Ellison quotes from the episode:

  • “I don’t think we can make outreach to exist to fight Trump. Outreach has to exist to fight for the American working people: the overwhelming majority of folks who go to work every single day, hope to make enough money to be able to retire one day, hope to make enough money to put food on the table and do something good for their kids, you know? So that’s where it’s at, that seems to guide everything that we do. My take on it is we need to speak to that issue, speak to trade, outsourcing. We need to speak to minimum wage, collective bargaining. It’s about the money. A lot has been made about the white working class. I think we’d better take a look at the working class, of all colors. I’m telling you, everybody is hurting. I think the average wage in America, and I might be wrong on this, is about $16.75. We have a federal minimum wage of $7.25 and a tip wage of $2.13. It’s true that states have been doing a lot. In this last election, four states actually increased their minimum wage. The one thing that unites us all is money and economic opportunity. The money is more than the money. The money is prosperity, it’s a sense of achievement, having enough resource in the richest country in the world has something to do with your chances, your idea of who you are, what your possibilities in life are.  But the economy is not working for a lot of people.”
  • I’m going to tell you: Obama, bless his heart, all those numbers of private sector job growth, unemployment level brought way down, those things are really good. But we were digging out of such a deep, deep hole, that we are now just seeing some moderate job growth and now all of the sudden we are staring Trump straight in the face.  At the same time, corporate profitability is way up. Wall Street trading massive volumes. And then of course, the money bleeds into the politics. Because if you’ve got a lot of money, after you buy a bunch of consumer items, you can invest in the political system and make that go your way, too and people feel like the system is not working for them.”

  • “Jacob Hacker, who is an awesome sociologist/economist. He did a study, I don’t know if it’s accurate, but he believes that if you’re rich, what you want will probably go with what the Congress does. If you’re middle class, in the middle income, Congress may sometimes do what you want, and if you’re poor, Congress will do the opposite of what you want. So with the political system working that way, we were due for some politics that were going to be highly transformational, and that’s exactly what we got.”
  • “I think she [Hillary Clinton] worked hard. I was proud to campaign for her, even though I was originally a Bernie person. I went to seven different states for her. I was proud of my candidate.”
  • “We got to learn how to always pivot back to the message, so if he [Donald Trump] says something racist, we say ‘He’s just trying to divide people so that he can get away with all these bad deals he’s been doing.’ What it’s really about is solidarity, so that we can have good economic life. If he says something sexist, say ‘Women have been dealing with this kind of sexism, sexual abuse on the job. It’s a working woman’s nightmare being in an office with a guy like Trump. Part of women’s economic viability is making sure I get elected so we don’t have Trump.’ Every single thing he says, get back to the money.”
  • “I think it’s important to understand how our trade models really make people feel, and I’m using the word feel very deliberately. We got to understand that Hillary Clinton was put in a tough situation, because even though she was not the president when NAFTA passed and it wasn’t her fault that it went through, Trump kept banging on NAFTA because it reminded people of Clinton, Bill Clinton, and then they blamed her. Another classic sexism, where people blame women for what their husbands do wrong, but it’s sadly part of the reality of the world we live in. She did really question the TPP, but she was stuck with the fact that President Obama had been a very strong advocate even though only 28 people in Congress supported trade promotion authority and it was really carried on by the Republicans. By the way, Republicans carried the water for NAFTA too, right? And so I think she just had some tough challenges there.”
  • “She won the popular vote. That’s the thing that sticks me in the stomach about it. We want to figure out what went wrong, but hell, she won the popular vote! She was within 100,000 votes of winning Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, so she wasn’t far off. I will say to you that anybody who tells you they know exactly why we didn’t win is wrong. I will say one thing: low turnout has got to be what we focus our attention on going forward. Strengthening party units so that they can produce adequate and excellent turnout must be how we move forward.”
  • “The first thing is setting your intention, right? The second thing, maybe not even the second thing, but sub part of the first thing is understanding that Republicans have set their intention to suppress the vote. They have a legislative strategy. That’s how come ALEC is pushing out model legislation to every state for say, photo ID. But it’s not just photo ID, it’s all kinds of stuff. It’s caging, it’s getting rid of  early vote, it’s all that kind of stuff. They have a legal strategy. That’s what brought us the Shelby County case and taking out Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. They have a public relations strategy. I remember they were posting billboards and posters with  people’s hands in handcuffs saying ‘If you vote illegally, you will go to jail,’ which that’s like a suppression method. They have a whole program on how to push the vote down. They know that a lot of people will never support their program, but what they can do is just make people think the whole thing sucks, so why participate? Of course, that helps their cause too. So we have got to come up with at least a PR strategy, a legislative strategy, and a legal strategy to produce greater turnout. But at the end of the day, nothing is better than just relationship building. 365 days a year in the off-year. That means paying for canvassers that will go out, ask people what they think is important, going back, staying in touch. That means you want to recruit volunteers to knock in the neighborhoods they live in so you can get the benefit of their relationships. You’ve got to create an environment where people, they’re not just seeing the Democratic Party at election time. We’ve got to do stuff like hold a rap concert, hold a summer concert, hold a Labor Day picnic, get people together, drive meetups of small groups so people can get together, particularly now. People are really, really anxious about the Trump presidency. We have a moment of opportunity when we can drive a whole meetup schedule that will allow people to get together in coffee shops about what they might do.”
  • “I also think turnout-wise, we’ve got to have a legal system to protect the vote, we’ve got to have a PR system to promote the vote, we’ve got to have a legislative system to advance the right to vote. I think the felons’ vote is something we should be pushing at the state level. I think we’ve got to get our cities to open up more vote centers. I think we’ve got to promote kids’ vote. I think we’ve got to invest in College Democrats and stuff like that. These are all things that can work, and guess what, there’s a bunch of stuff that I’ve never thought of but somebody smart could think of. That’s why it’s important to set our intention on turnout, because then you unleash the creativity of everybody.”
  • “When I ran for the first time in 2006, I won the DFL – that’s what we call the Democrats of Minnesota, the DFL – I won the Democratic endorsement. After that, we had a primary fight and some very formidable friends entered the race as my opponents. I did a poll, led by a lady named Diane Feldman. She told me, ‘Keith, I’m going to tell you right now: you might have got the DFL endorsement, but you’re probably going to lose this election unless you expand the electorate. What you’ve got to do is get 10,000 brand new people to vote in the primaries, and people who don’t vote in primaries almost never vote in primaries. But you might be able to, because you have this new element,’ because I was the first African American person and I was the first Muslim. So we went out there and we got brand new people in. We talked to artists, we talked to workers, we talked to communities who had long been ignored, and we ended up winning by a very healthy margin. Ever since then, I’ve said, ‘Hey, man. Turnout is awesome.’ Every year after my election, we do a stakeholders’ meeting and we identify a numerical goal which we are aiming for. We’re not just trying to win by a percentage, we’re trying to win by a certain number, we’re trying to generate a certain number of votes. I guarantee you, if you were to go to a lot of elected officials and say ‘How many votes did you get?’ They’ll tell you 35 percent, 85 percent, 25 percent, some number. But you say, ‘No, no, no. I want to know how many actual people voted for you, how many people voted in your district?’ They might not know that. I know that. That’s what we got to do.”
  • “Barack Obama is still a very, very important political force in American life. He has already agreed to take on responsibility with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, he’s going to be a big deal there. He can really help drive this message of participation and turnout and people will listen. Barack Obama, if he shows up at a rally, will be able to draw a crowd of several thousand people, whether he’s in the presidency or not. That’s a big deal. I think the fact that he’s willing to do it is really important.  He understands organizing, he has organizer’s sensibilities, and I think we’re really lucky that he still wants to participate. He’s not going anywhere.”
  • “So what do I think we need to do? I think we need to really get down and organize on the grassroots level. We need to go granular. We need to focus on local races: city council races, school board races. We need to set our intention, we need to understand that we’ve got to have new blood in. And I ask people who have been around for quite a while to say, ‘Look, [inaudible] perhaps. Let that person who’s looking for a chance to offer leadership do some things. Let them be the outreach chair, let them be this or that, because we’ve got to do that. The other thing we’ve got to do, and this has to be done from the top, we’ve got to say the Democratic Party is the party of the working people of America. That’s not to say we don’t want our rich friends. We do want them. There’s a lot of really awesome humanitarian, public-spirited people who have a lot of means, and we need them and we want them. At the same time, a lot of these people want to support us because they believe that America should always be the land of opportunity. The fact that they happened to reach that opportunity is one thing, but they still want that ladder of opportunity for everyone. So we’ve got to be the party of the hard-working folks who make it go. If we don’t have that message, then why should anybody give to us, why should anybody run with us? We’ve got to define who we are, and it’s never been easier to do so than the Age of Inequality. We live in the Age of Inequality. We live in the age where America has never been richer. It’s the richest country in history of the world, and it’s at the richest point in its own history. And yet, it is quite possible if you are a minimum wage worker to work 40 hours and still live in poverty. It is quite possible to be a smart student and not be able to afford college unless you take on massive debt. It’s quite possible that you can work a whole lifetime, be 57 years old and have $3,000 in the bank for retirement. It shouldn’t be that way.”
  • “I can assure you that the men and women of organized labor feel that their voice in Democratic Party leadership could be louder. We go to them for money and they give it. We go to them to turn out the vote and they do. But they also, I think, feel that the labor voice could be a lot stronger. Also, I’ve been in conversations where colleagues are saying, ‘It’s not about the minimum wage. Why do we want people just to have the minimum wage?’ I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. When people can’t afford their apartment…’ Raising the minimum wage would increase the pay of a million veterans. It would increase the pay of millions of women, millions of rural people, millions of people of color. I think that there are some policy things that need to take a more prominent role in our work. Institutionally, we need to redesign our institution to make sure that the voice of the working age person is loud and clear, not a secondary consideration, but helping to drive our whole work. I think, and I do think these are institutional changes, I think they’re policy changes. But I think if the institutions are designed to have that voice emerge, then we will get the policy that we need. If you get the good policies, stand up for the right things, then you’re going to get people who are willing to go to the polls. I think there’s a number of institutional changes that definitely need to be made. If you want to improve turnout, you got to empower people closer to the voter. That means that maybe we should ask ourselves, ‘Is our national party, our DNC, too DC-centric? Does it need to be more decentralized in terms of resources, power, money and access?’ So these things are all driving our conversation, and we do need to be for campaign finance reform, and we do need to be fighting to overturn Citizens United. Because we have the many. They have the money. That doesn’t mean we can’t raise money, we do. But it means that our best asset is the people. I think there are some institutional changes that could very well improve our turnout at the polls.”
  • “What made us lose last time? Was it the status of the chair or was it the fact that we had inadequate turnout? Anybody who looks at the numbers has to say we didn’t have enough turnout. I say ‘Let’s fix that.’ Let’s focus on the problem. Let’s fix the problem that we have. How do we drive up turnout? If you tell me that that has something to do with whether the chair has two jobs or one, that’s not the first point of conversation. It might not even be the last. I say to folks, ‘Can we keep the main thing the main thing?’ That’s really what’s going to bring us electoral success, keeping our focus on where it belongs and addressing the problem that led to our defeat. That’s what I tell them. I’m real good at turnout. In my district, long before I ever threw my hat in the ring for DNC chair, I had taken my district from being the lowest turnout district in Minnesota to the highest turnout district, and Minnesota is the highest turnout state in the United States. So I think I bring a skill set that can help us win.”
  • “I’d like people to know that the Fifth Congressional District of Minnesota is 3/4 white. I win with 70 percent of the vote. Most of those people don’t have college degrees. Most of those people go to work in flannel, some of them in work boots and in uniforms. They go to work with workbelts around their waists. They’re smart and they know what’s in their own best interests. They’re aware of what’s in their own best interests and they think that voting for me is, because they’ve done it now six times, and they’ve got other choices because we’ve got a lot of great political talent in Minnesota. I think folks who make that observation don’t understand that people really are in desperate circumstances. You’ve got the Carrier plant looking to close and reopen in Mexico and then sell air conditioners back to the United States.  Nabisco closing down and going to Mexico, laying off 600 people. I can name many many others. When that happens to you, when you get that pink slip, that freaks you out in terms of your retirement, your hopes for your kids. I think when that happens to you, you may not vote at all or you might even vote for a Trump. It’s not so much what that person may have said. Those things may not be as important as your calculation that something big has got to change because the status quo is not going great. That is what he have got to focus on. I think we have got to focus on the fact that there are people who are in dire straits across the country who are desperately in need of our help. The Democratic Party should not exist for Democrats. It exists for Americans. It exists for all of us, and we’ve got to be an agent of change and we’ve got to be on that person’s side. Because the rich folks got a party that stands for them not having to pay taxes, not having to obey government regulations, not having to worry about the common welfare. I think the American people need a party that says ‘Hey – We’re on your side and we’re willing to kick down doors for you.’ That’s what’s needed in this moment. I think that even though I’m black and I’m Muslim, people in my district vote for me because that is nowhere near as important as the fact I actually care about them.”

Author: David de Sola

Editor/Publisher Political Wilderness

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