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Who Is Rep. Keith Ellison, the Top Choice for DNC Chair?

Rep. Keith Ellison (Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) (Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

There is a contest for the leadership of the Democratic National Committee and the man who may very well become its new chair would represent an audacious move for a party that has experienced a devastating election loss.

On Monday, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota announced his candidacy for DNC Chairman, The Washington Post reported. As the first Muslim elected to Congress–and the first Black Congressman from his state–the African-American lawmaker would also become the first Muslim and the third Black politician to hold the position. As a Black man from the Midwest who practices Islam, Ellison provides a stark contrast to president-elect Donald Trump, a New Yorker whose rise to power was facilitated in part by appeals to Islamophobia.

As co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and founder of the Congressional Consumer Justice Caucus, Rep. Ellison has proven himself a supporter of labor over corporations, as The Huffington Post reported. He has emerged as the favorite, according to NBC News, The Hill and The Washington Post, albeit a bold and even controversial one, and has received the endorsement of key Democratic leadership, including the new Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). A Sanders supporter in the Democratic primaries, Ellison was a member of the Democratic Party’s Platform Drafting Committee, clashing with Clinton appointees over his support of a $15 minimum wage amendment. “One of the problems in our economy, and the reason we’ve had slow growth, is because the average working American doesn’t have any money,” Ellison said, as reported in Salon. “You can’t spend money that you don’t have.”

He has represented Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District since 2007, when he took his oath of office using a Quran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson, and has been an ardent defender of Muslim civil rights during his tenure. Ellison also serves as Chief Deputy Whip and sits on the House Financial Services Committee and the House Democratic Steering Committee.

While the position of DNC Chair is known as a fundraising-heavy post, it is expected that Ellison would have a heavier hand in politics and strategy. “You’ve got to have a vision to strengthen the grassroots,” Ellison said on ABC’s “This Week” this past Sunday. “Make the voters first, not the donors first. I love the donors and we thank them, but it has to be that the guys in the barbershop, the lady at the diner, the folks who are worried that their plant is going to close ― they’ve got to be our focus.”

Ellison was born and raised in Detroit, and before his election to Congress, he was a community activist and a civil rights, employment and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis, according to his official biography. “His family’s involvement in the civil rights struggle between the 1950s through 1970s influenced Keith’s commitment to the cause of justice and creating an inclusive and fair society” the bio reads. The lawmaker converted to Islam while he was a student at Wayne State University, and he received his law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1990. Ellison served two terms in the Minnesota State House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the frontrunner to occupy the top DNC job is the target of a smear campaign, according to ThinkProgress. Fox News pundit Pete Hegseth called Ellison a “radical congressman,” and the conservative site TruthRevolt labeled him a “Muslim Brotherhood Shill” and a “radical.” His critics cite his involvement in organizing a delegation to the Million Man March in 1995, and a column he wrote during law school in which he defended Minister Louis Farrakhan against charges of anti-Semitism and advocated for the creation of a state for Black residents, according to The Washington Post. (Since being in Congress, however, the lawmaker has spoken out against anti-Semitism.) In addition, in 2001, Ellison represented Sara Jane Olson, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a domestic terrorist group. Right after 9/11, Olson, who had been a fugitive for 23 years, pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of LAPD officers two decades earlier in 1975 but steadfastly maintained her innocence. And in 2007, Ellison faced criticism for comparing then-President Bush to Hitler.

The expected ascension of Ellison to the leadership of the DNC comes following the dramatic loss of Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump and a rebuke of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party led by Clinton. The Democratic Party has faced stinging criticism for its disrespect toward progressives and favoritism toward Clinton over Sanders in the primaries, as well as the Clinton campaign’s failure to visit key states in the Midwest or to sufficiently reach out to Black voters and other key demographics in the election season.

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