Faced with the most anti-Muslim politician in American history, a number of prominent progressives are backing country’s first Muslim-American Congressman to lead the party through their first contentious years with the Trump administration.
Rep. Keith Ellison, who co-chairs the House of Representatives’ progressive caucus, has already lined up some major endorsements ahead of his expected Monday formal announcement that he’ll be running for chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“It would be a tremendous signal. He is the first Muslim elected to Congress in the history of our country, against someone who has talked about banning Muslims from our country, and who has made appeals and pandered to the Islamophobes in our society,” Rep. Andre Carson, the second Muslim-American elected to Congress, told The Daily Beast (Carson has not yet endorsed in this race).
Ellison, a Catholic who converted to Islam, has tried to downplay his faith and the role that it plays in his duties as a lawmaker, but has retained close ties with his religious community.
“He himself always said he’s not the American Muslim congressman, he’s a congressman who happens to be an American Muslim,” said Ibrahim Hooper, the spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations. “If you have the opposition party headed by an American Muslim, facing off against the party headed by the person who has done the most in history to mainstream Islamophobia, then it is the supreme irony,"
American Muslim groups were quick to swing behind the Minnesota congressman, pointing out that his selection would be an antidote to the anti-Muslim environment that has erupted over the Obama years.
“This would be a great opportunity, for the first Muslim Congressman,” said Oussama Jammal, the Secretary General of the US Council of Muslim Organizations. “It sends a message that Muslims in this country are part and parcel of society, and yes, they can lead a major political party in this country, and being a Muslim is nothing less than anyone else who can serve in this capacity.”
If selected by the DNC to lead the party through the first years of the Trump presidency, it will also be a signal from the left that, rather than shifting to the center, the next four years will be a time of an absolute, in-your-face contrast with the Trump presidency. In some ways this move has already begun, with the street demonstrations that have broken out in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s vote.
“The Democratic Party must be tolerant, inclusive, and progressive—not just in words, but in action. Our contrast with the White House must be stark,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist who has worked for Bill de Blasio and Sen. Harry Reid. “Ellison has a lot of credibility in the progressive community from his progressive caucus colleagues, to local elected officials, to the Bernie fans. He could really help Washington Democrats get a clue.”
Prominent members of the left have already stepped forward to endorse the congressman, even before he has formally entered the race: Sen. Harry Reid, the outgoing Senate minority leader; Sen. Chuck Schumer, the incoming Senate minority leader; Sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive standard bearer in 2016; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who many see as the future’s progressive standard bearer. MoveOn.org, an activist group on the left, has also endorsed.
At 53 years old, Ellison is younger than many of the other candidates mentioned for the job, such as Howard Dean (67 years old)—meaning his selection would be a sign for younger Democrats about their role in the party’s future.
Over the past few years, the Democratic Party has seen their bench of young, rising stars fizzle out: Democrats with potential national appeal, such as Jason Kander, Alison Lundergan Grimes and Wendy Davis have all lost prominent statewide races, for example. Ellison’s selection could be a counterpoint to this.
“Many are still reeling from the primary and deeply distrustful of the insiders who ignored them or worse, blatantly put their thumbs on the scale,” Katz said. “As for some of the other candidates, what’s the definition of insanity again?”
As a midwesterner with a diverse background, Ellison is uniquely placed to help recover from the Democrats’ dismal showing on Election Day, Carson said, and is able to understand rust belt problems, the issues of the poor and the concerns of rural Americans.
“Keith is a friend of mine. I’ve found him to be very thoughtful, very smart, a very hard worker. He’s proven himself as a leader of the progressive caucus. He has shown that he is connected to progressive values,” Carson said.
Ellison has also proven to be prophetic, predicting Trump’s rise and election over a year ago.
“Anybody from the Democratic side of the fence who is terrified of the possibility of President Trump better vote, better get active,” Ellison said on ABC’s This Week in July 2015, to laughter from the assembled panel. “This man has got some momentum, and we better be ready. He might be leading the Republican ticket,"
In an interview with that same show on Sunday, the Minnesota Congressman stressed that his candidacy is going to be about the broader outlook for the country—and didn’t mention his religion once.
“The most important criteria for a DNC chair is going to be vision,” Ellison said. “This is not about one person; this is about millions of people all working together to protect and advance the interests of working Americans. That’s what it’s really about: vision and the ability to mobilize and inspire people at the grassroots.”
But if Ellison is selected to lead the Democratic Party, it will be as much for the vision he outlines as the unspoken signal it sends to his fellow Muslims and other minorities, his supporters hope.
“It is a powerful message that will be sent at a time after such a horrific campaign,” Jammal said. “And it will help all of the minorities right now that are scared to death.”