U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison remains the early favorite to become the next leader of the Democratic National Committee, amid resistance to the Minnesota liberal’s bid from key parts of the party’s base.
The contest is evolving into a larger fight over the future of the party.
Backers of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are throwing their support behind Ellison while some Hillary Clinton supporters are searching for an alternative.
Ellison picked up a powerful endorsement recently from the AFL-CIO, which issued a statement calling him a “proven leader.”
But his candidacy remains under siege.
Ellison has faced vocal 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.
Earlier this month, a union leader criticized the AFL-CIO for only including Ellison’s name, along with the choices to abstain or “make no endorsement at this time,” on the ballot sent to union members.
A federation faction “seems to want to push our movement further and further to the left,” Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said in a recent statement. “That is a recipe for disaster as the most recent election results just showed.”
An editorial in an official Nation of Islam publication, “The Final Call,” quoted articles that Ellison wrote in the 1990s praising Farrakhan as a “sincere, tireless and uncompromising advocate.”
The editorial accused Ellison, the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, of being a “hypocrite” for now making a “cowardly and baseless repudiation” of Farrakhan.
Ellison did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
His history with the group has distressed some Jewish organizations. The Anti-Defamation League last week said Ellison’s past remarks about Israel were “disturbing and disqualifying,” and Haim Saban, a party donor deeply involved with Israeli issues, accused Ellison of being an “anti-Semite.”
Hoping to assuage some of the concerns, Ellison said he would resign his seat in Congress if he were picked as chairman by DNC members at the late February elections.
“Whoever wins the DNC chair race faces a lot of work, travel, planning and resource raising,” Ellison said in a statement. “I will be ‘all in’ to meet the challenge.”
The contest has divided Democratic leaders, placing Obama’s team at odds with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and his replacement, New York’s Chuck Schumer, whose early support for Ellison was seen as an effort to shore up the liberal flank in Congress.
Part of the issue is personal. Ellison has, at times, broken ranks to criticize Obama, the head of the party he now hopes to lead.
While White House aides say that Obama is unlikely to publicly comment on the race, behind the scenes his backers have been speaking with Democratic donors and potential candidates to see who else might be persuaded to run, according to several Democrats familiar with the discussions. These Democrats were not authorized to publicly discuss those private discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity.
High on the White House’s list of preferred candidates is Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who’s weighing whether to run for the party job or for Maryland governor, said the Democrats.
A vocal contingent is pushing for a Latino leader at the DNC, arguing that the growing demographic group is crucial to the party’s future and should be represented at the highest levels.
Others have been trying to draft Vice President Joe Biden and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, both of whom have ruled out a bid.
South Carolina’s party chairman, Jaime Harrison, and the party head in New Hampshire, Ray Buckley, have announced bids, though they haven’t gotten much traction.
Missouri’s secretary of state, Jason Kander, who attracted attention for running a surprisingly competitive Senate race this year, says he’s gotten calls exploring his interest in the post.
“I’m going to do all that I can for the cause of progress,” Kander said. “If it turns out that my party wants me to serve as chair I’m open to that.”
Ellison backers argue that the party must take a more populist approach after the 2016 losses, saying Democratic leaders did too little to address the economic pain of working-class voters.
“Keith brings a breath of fresh air to the Democratic party,” said DNC member Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “He believes in strengthening the economics for working families across the country.”
But some are more concerned with campaign mechanics than message, saying the party’s outreach, bench and fundraising languished under Wasserman Schultz.
“Ellison talks about vision when we need a fundraiser and organizer,” said Bob Mulholland, a longtime California Democratic operative and DNC member.