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Editors' Picks Interviews National

An Interview with Congressman Keith Ellison, Progressive Voice in the Democratic Party

Congressman Keith Ellison has represented Minnesota’s 5th congressional district since 2007 and has served as Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee since his run for Chairship in 2017. A former Co-Chair, current Vice Chair, and current Chief Deputy Whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Ellison serves as a voice within the left of the Democratic Party, calling for its return to “a party that listens to its members.”

The Politic: In what ways do you believe that the Democratic Party will approach the 2018 midterm elections? For example, what might it maintain, what might it change—both across the United States and within your home state of Minnesota?

Keith Ellison: Well, the Democratic National Committee is going to be working in partnership with state parties—we’re very, very proud of work that Nick Balletto is leading, the Connecticut state party chair, and we’re going to be focusing on grassroots engagement, training, and we’re going to try to really, really rebuild and strengthen the ties on the local level.

So, we’re hoping that young people who go to Yale are organizing among students. We do have a very strong focus on our millennials. But that’s what we’re hoping to do—re-engage the grassroots as a permanent, new strategy. This is where the Democratic Party was made great, and whenever we go away from the grassroots, we always suffer. So that’s what we’re going to do in 2018, 2020, 2022, 2024, into the future.

Since January 20, 2017, organizations outside of the Democratic Party, notably Indivisible and Democratic Socialists of America, have expanded in numbers and mobilizing power. What role will growing organizations such as these play in the trajectory of the “Resistance,” as it might be called, and what implications would you say that this bears for the Democratic Party’s leadership? In short, what changes might we see to the Democratic platform by 2020?

Well, I mean, I think the most important change is that there are more people and more organizations out there on the ground organizing Americans around the most pressing issues that people are facing. I mean, when groups get out there and work on college affordability and work on clean environment and climate change, you know, when they work on healthcare, when they stand up for criminal justice reform, that’s all to the good. And how does it affect the Democratic Party? Well, it enhances us, because it means that more people are engaged, more people are involved.

Here’s the reality that we live in today. If you open up a ballot, in an election, no matter where you may be, whether it’s here in Connecticut or whether you’re in California or in Minnesota, you will see Democrat or Republican on that ballot. You might see Green, you might see other parties, but you will see the two historic main parties. Most people’s way to express their commitment to opportunity for all and social inclusion is going to be with the Democrat.

So, no matter who’s organizing who, as long as the folks are organizing for an agenda of a fair economy and an inclusive society, it’s going to benefit the Democratic Party. And yes, they’re going to impact the Democratic Party, it’s going—I foresee people pushing for recognizing that we shouldn’t incarcerate people for marijuana possession, you know, pushing for making the Affordable Care Act even better, pushing for peace and diplomacy as Trump seems to start fights with people all over the globe, pushing for college affordability. Trump’s program for college affordability is Trump University, which is a massive rip-off thing he did.

So, I think that we want folks out there organizing. The Democratic Party is here to organize them. If they want to do it with another group, that’s fine. There’s plenty of folks out there. What we need folks to do is to be organized, be involved, and of course the Democratic Party is a party that listens to its members, and if its members want something in the platform, well then, the rest of us are here to listen. Of course, there’ll be folks who want to debate, but that’s part of the process. I think, though, that we will see a number of changes, and I mentioned a few of them.

It has recently been announced that U.S. Senator of Utah Orrin Hatch will not seek reelection in 2018, with Mitt Romney seeming, according to media, a likely candidate to fill the position. Considering the role of Orrin Hatch in co-sponsoring the DREAM Act as well as the position of Mitt Romney within his own party, what kind of role might be played by opponents of President Trump within the Republican Party? Or in other words, might more moderate Republicans prove feasible allies to progressives?

You know, I guess if the past is an indicator of future behavior, I’m not going to stay up at night hoping and praying that Mitt Romney does anything. I mean, I’m relying on organizing Democrats, progressives, labor households. Look, if Mitt Romney grows a spine, good for him. But I’m not wasting any time worrying about it. I’m working on organizing people who want to put forth the best ideals of this country. And Mitt Romney has had plenty of time to try to do the right thing for America in the Trump era. Instead, he went and groveled to try to get a job as Secretary of State, which Trump didn’t even give him.

So, I guess my attitude is this—I’m all for bipartisanship if it is beneficial to working people in America. But I’m not for bipartisanship for the sake of it. So, I don’t spend much time worrying about Mitt Romney’s next move. Here’s my question: is there a progressive or a Democrat in Utah who’s willing to really put Utahns’ best interests forward, and willing to organize on the grassroots to advance that agenda? I think there probably is. I want to get behind them. Let Mitt Romney take care of himself.

Alright, and thank you. We have a bit more time than I thought, so I guess I’ll—

That’s because I answered the question directly.

So, with specific regard to Minnesota’s upcoming gubernatorial election, in which incumbent Governor Mark Dayton of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party will not seek reelection, certain polls, such as the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, have predicted that the general election might be a toss-up despite the state’s public perception as a Democratic stronghold. Given both the political climates of the country and of the state, how do you see this race playing out in 2018?

Any Democrat that thinks that any inch of this country is a quote-unquote “stronghold” has not been paying attention. There ain’t no strongholds around here. You get what you fight for, you get what you organize for. We are going to be knocking, and organizing, from the urban, to the suburban, to the rural parts of the state. We’re going to be talking to farmers, we’re going to be talking to folks who are driving cabs, and we’re going to be talking to folks who are just out there taking care of their families.

Minnesota is going to go to the party that works the hardest, and the best, and for people the most. I’m planning on that being the DFL. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which I am a member of. So that’s what I have to say about that. I believe that we are making the investments to win. But please, disabuse yourself of the “safe seat” or “stronghold”—there ain’t no such thing. You’ve got to get out there and hustle every day.

Yes. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party seems to have a rather unique history, in comparison to other state-level Democratic parties—

I’m actually not a Democrat. I’m a DFLer. Democratic-Farmer-Labor. Now, we relate, from a state perspective, with the national Democratic Party. But, whenever I just say “Democrat” in Minnesota, the labor folks, and the farmers, say, “Wait a minute. Don’t forget the ‘FL.’ Farmer-Labor.” It’s a big deal to them. They get touchy about it.

I might go to another question that might expand the range of issues that we’re covering. So, each fiscal year, the Congressional Progressive Caucus creates the People’s Budget, a packet of policy proposals presented as a progressive alternative to that of the administration in power, whether Republican or Democratic.

For fiscal year 2018, the People’s Budget has included such items as two trillion dollars in infrastructure improvements, the Employee Free Choice Act, and the anti-poverty measures of the Half-in-Ten Act, among others. Where might current discourse within the Congressional Progressive Caucus lead the group in terms of policy, and in short, what might we be able to see in the next People’s Budget?

Let me tell you—the Progressive Caucus People’s Budget recognizes that the United States is in the largest gap between rich and everyone else since the Gilded Age. Not since, maybe, the Great Depression or a few years before that have we seen this amount of inequality. This means that people are hoarding money at the top of the income scale, and people at the middle and bottom are just struggling to get by every day. Sixty-three percent of all Americans will say that they don’t know what they would do if they were hit with an unexpected bill for $500. Our economy—we’re seeing rents going up, we see wages flat, and the People’s Budget is going to react to that reality.

So, we probably are going—we’re going to make sure that education is affordable. We believe that if Germany and Norway and Sweden and Switzerland can have free college, why can’t the United States? We’re trying to advance the ball—at least we’re going to do debt-free college. Kids should not be graduating carrying up all this debt. So, we’re fighting for that, we’re going to be—we are going to be having a high-rollers financial transaction tax for trades on stocks, bonds, and derivatives. America bailed out Wall Street, Wall Street should help out America. We’re going to put a price on carbon, you know, and we’re going to tax that carbon—you want to emit carbon, you’ve got to pay for the privilege of it. We’re going to put that money into renewable energy. So, those are just things we’ve got in mind, and, you know, I’m so proud to be a part of the Progressive Caucus and the People’s Budget. I’m no longer the co-chair, that’s Raúl Grijalva and Mark Pocan—they’re amazing guys, and we’re well led by them.

Thank you. We just have a few “rapid fire questions.” So, perhaps for the first question: where do you get your news?

I read stuff like—just, on the internet, on my phone. You mean, what news organizations or—

Which news source, perhaps?

Well, I take news from a wide variety of sources. Everything from National Public Radio to just, you know, network news to Democracy Now!, The Nation magazine—I read it on a regular basis.

What place would you most like to visit?

Yale.

And if you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

I’d be a civil rights organizer.

Which living person do you most admire?

My mom.

What keeps you up at night?

The DACA repeal—the DREAM Act. Young people being potentially thrown out of the country.

And, finally, what is your advice for college students?

Commit to service. Doesn’t matter what you go in to—even if you go into business, even if you go to Wall Street, figure out how what you’re doing can advance the best interests of the public good. We’ve got too many people who are selfishly trying to elbow other people to the ground so they can get a little bit more. It’s okay to do well in life, but figure out how you can serve your community, your country.